I admit it: I like rummaging through those “Top” lists I often find on websites to which I would never venture without being prompted by a link on a site I normally visit. Brief stints of boredom at work prompt me to scan through the Top 25 Guitarists of All Time, the Top 10 Beatles Albums, the Top 10 Brando Movies, the Top 50 Worst Songs of All Time, the Top 25 Horror Movies of the 1990s, and so on. The brevity of the annotations for each enumerated item makes it easy for me to complete a list in five minutes or so. I quickly agree or disagree with a summation and even learn some bar trivia along the way. Really, though, raking through lists like this is what I consider to be a “guilty pleasure.” I surely should be doing something more productive, yet I click onto the next “Top” list.
I was on vacation recently with my family and ready to unveil my “Top 5 Most Overrated Artists of All Time.” I was inspired to grant them, despite their disinterest, this formal announcement because I had been unable to draw such decisive conclusions on a topic for most of my life. I had waded apprehensively in the gray area, fearing that I did not have the mental and emotional fortitude to land assuredly on one side of an issue and speak my mind. I always wished I had the mental courage to express my ideas freely, regardless of their unpopularity. I wanted to allow my instincts and feelings to prevail sometimes rather than apprehension or pretense. But repression comes easily to those of us that enjoyed the comfort of a middle-class upbringing, and it took a couple of years on the couch and some good medication to detox from my roots. Here’s a brief history.
I was the first born in my family in 1972. I had three brothers. We played. We dreamed. We were protected and loved. We were fully supported. We had wonderful parents. My family could easily have represented the American middle class in the 1970s and 1980s. We were quite normal. Perhaps what best describes this haunting sense of normalcy is Kerouac’s description of a conversation Sal Paradise had with a “gorgeous country girl” on a bus to Detroit in On the Road. While Kerouac’s portrayal doesn’t exactly parallel my experiences as a young man, I wrote “This is me” in the margin when I first read this:
“What do you do on a warm summer’s night?” She sat on the porch, she watched the cars in the road. She and her mother made popcorn. “What does your father do on a summer’s night?” He works, he has an all-night shift at the boiler factory, he’s spent his whole life supporting a woman and her outpoppings and no credit or adoration. “What does your brother do on a summer’s night?” He rides around on his bicycle, he hangs out in front of the soda fountain. “What is he aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want?” She didn’t know. She yawned. She was sleepy. It was too much. Nobody could tell. Nobody would ever tell. It was all over. She was eighteen and most lovely, and lost.
And I think she is normal and I was normal. Normal, for me, is middle class and middle class is normal. Middle class consciousness means simply the comfort in being Ok: Not upsetting anyone, not questioning anything, not pushing the boundaries, not having tastes that are not codified in and perpetuated by media. All of this acquiescence happens mechanically, of course. Ultimately, my ambition was to garner the smiling endorsements of middle class representatives– my parents, teachers, coaches, friends, bosses, and colleagues. I aimed to please. I reveled in compliments and hearing good things said about me.
In ways, though, I was unlike most of the people in my home community. I was curious and wanted to know about different things and interesting ideas. I tried in my high school and college years to access another world by adopting a more anti-authoritative personality. I drank a lot of alcohol and smoked some grass. I tuned into psychedelic music, the Beats, and jazz. I dug Miles and the Velvets, Henry Miller and T.S. Eliot, Duchamp and Warhol. I watched David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman movies. I really did enjoy all of it, but I didn’t really get it. I sensed its alternativeness, its strangeness, its otherness, but I couldn’t viscerally tap into it and make it my own. I was trapped between a desire for an intangible substitute and the material reality of grades, wages, and accomplishments.
I studied English literature in college. I read the canon of dead English and American authors and poets, combed through literary theory, and studied philosophy. I learned to analyze texts by ripping them apart (there’s the sacredness of art for you), thinking about the disassembled fragments, and then assembling them back together into a prudent research writing project. I supported my claims with evidence. This was, of course, academic rigor. I was taught to distance myself from the object of analysis and avoid emotional or instinctual reactions. I learned not to feel and react to art but to consider it reasonably. And I did this well. I had good grades, and my professors liked me. I was making my mark in the prescribed narrative.
The shadow of the other continued to hover over me after graduating from school, but my academic training had a foothold. I was never emotionally affected by the avant-garde, the strange, or the progressive. My natural inclination was to evaluate the art I encountered by scrubbing it up against my critical mind. This allowed me to step into the darkness of art with an academic torch. I could leave Blue Velvet and “Black Art” with my body and mind intact, with no scars, with no physiological affect or alteration of mood. I simply added the experience to my catalogue of academic conquests. I could then discuss these works at a coffee shop or over bourbon and be considered cool enough to attract some of society’s dissidents, but I, myself, was unchanged from these experiences. I was still Ok, but it wasn’t really Ok. I always felt dissatisfied, like I was faking an orgasm.
I married in 1999. I had two children. Next thing I knew (“This is not my beautiful house / This is not my beautiful wife”) I was working in various shirt-and-tie gigs, none of which I really liked, to support the next generation of the middle class. Feeling completely stifled and suffocated, my marriage was going down the drain, delivering on Freud’s assertion that “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” I was miserable, temperamental, could not love or be loved, angry, defensive, and lousy to my family and friends. I was self-sabotaging – drinking too much, distancing myself from my wife in ugly ways, treating my family as if they were my captors, disdaining others. Everyone became the enemy because everyone represented what I had become. My friends and family were a mirror, and I hated what I saw.
It all came to a screeching halt after I rhetorically screamed to my wife during another argument (in front of my kids), “Why don’t I just put a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger right now!” I didn’t really mean it, as I was never truly suicidal, yet this rhetorical declaration caused my wife to threaten me with divorce unless I sought treatment. I always believed in the idea of therapy, especially for other people. I knew that therapy was almost as natural as smoking cigarettes for so many 20th-century artists and intellectuals. I was hesitant, though, because I didn’t know what horrible demons might be roused. I wasn’t going to lose my family, though, so I consented. It was the best decision I have ever made.
I started seeing a psychologist, weekly, and met with her for two years. I am still seeing a psychiatrist. I worked through my thirty-eight years of personal history, from my relationship with my father to scorned relationships with people I trusted, to various traumatizing events in my life that progressively gave rise to latent social anxiety.
Anxiety, in general, and social anxiety, specifically, are rather common mental disorders, so one could say that I was once again part of a “normal” population segment. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults, or eighteen percent of the population, suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder (“Facts & Statistics”), and the Social Anxiety Association reports that seven percent of the population will suffer from social anxiety at some point in their lives. While the causes–culture, environment, genetics, and diagnoses rates–will be debated and further researched, it’s clear that many of us need to spend some time with someone dedicated to helping the very, very nervous.
I had actually been having panic attacks throughout my thirties. I feared speaking in public, all of a sudden, and I did everything I could to avoid crowds. Anxiety manifested itself in strange ways with me, too. I couldn’t pour a cup of coffee or carry a plate of food in public without shaking and spilling it. I avoided certain roads with steep hills for fear I’d lose control of the car. My legs would shake, imagining I’d collapse, whenever I walked up or down steps in my office building. I would make excuses and escape from situations like sharing an elevator.
In my therapy sessions, I recreated experiences like these. My therapist walked me through the process of describing my feelings, thoughts, and physiological responses when I encountered circumstances that triggered panic: stomach compressing, legs trembling, disseminated thoughts, distress, fear, self-loathing, paranoia, distrust, guilt. I had practiced for most of my life, since the age of 10, obedience. I aspired to belong, and the only community I knew was one led by my parents, teachers, and other cultural mediators of taste. I trained myself to deny my body and emotions. I downplayed them and rationalized them out of my life. All that had mattered was me becoming the person that some abstract and totalitarian “everyone else” had wanted me to be.
I discovered that I had constructed a defensive armor around myself, designed to conceal “the real me” from the world. I became so utterly cautious and self-aware of my existence in the world. I couldn’t buy a pack of gum without examining all of the steps I took to complete the transaction: Did I choose the right gum? Did I sound Ok to the cashier? Did he think I was cool? Did the other patrons think I was an idiot because of how I rummaged through my wallet? All of my thoughts, actions, conversations, likes and dislikes had to be filtered through what I was taught to be the appropriate way to talk, act, and think. The armor, though, had become brittle, which caused the anxiety and the meltdown with my wife. The body and emotions cannot be severed from experience. The mind, body, and emotions riff off of each other. It was a revelation.
Because I was more trusting in myself, I became less scornful of others. I no longer allowed myself to be defined by others as much as I defined my own personality. Most importantly, I started allowing others to be who they are rather than judging and scorning them and turning myself aggressively against them.
One of the great consequences of my therapy is that art affected me in a more profound way. I started to mimic my daughter’s youthful and naïve playfulness with art: how her body moved to the rhythm of nursery rhymes or how she physically interacted with installation art exhibits–walking gingerly in and out of them, touching them, contorting her body to navigate them. Instead of denouncing initial reactions against or for something that didn’t fit into academia’s prescriptions for living an intellectually healthy life, I confidently allowed my own opinions, feelings, and sometimes primal reactions to matter. I gave into an inspiration one late night and spray painted my interpretation of Apollinaire’s “The Little Car” on my basement wall. It was ridiculous, but I didn’t care. It was my instantly motivated output, created in consortium by my body, mind, and emotions. I entered the darkness without a light, and it has made all the difference.
It was dusk and my children were playing with my nieces and nephews. Beer and wine edged the shabby plastic porch table and some classic rock played from my laptop. My parents, my brothers, my wife, and I were sitting around a porch table. With two days remaining in the family vacation, possibly the last full-blown family vacation, I decided the time was right to make my announcement. I looked at the only person who might care what I had to say, my second-youngest brother, though with my amplified speaking voice, I wanted everyone on the porch to be my audience. I revealed casually, “You know, if I had to say which musicians or bands are the most overrated of all time, I’d probably say: Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, and Phish.” My brother, paying attention to me probably because I was the only one talking at the time, replied, “I can see that. Springsteen is a liberal living in a big mansion, but I liked Ten.” My mom, swinging tranquilly her left leg as it crossed her right, had no real interest in what I said, and my father was just fine zoning out and didn’t offer any thoughts or acknowledgement of what I said. My youngest brother jumped on a skateboard with my son, and my other brother was overseeing the kids playing. My wife, though, retorted with a resounding, “I don’t know how you could say that about Stevie Wonder. He’s one of the best,” and she became distracted by my son on the skateboard and warned, “Be careful on that thing.” The topic came to an uneventful close.
I was in a safe environment. These types of issues aren’t and shouldn’t be of much consequence to my family. Also, none of the counter-opinions I might have received would have altered my list. My family, however, didn’t know what I was doing. They didn’t know that I had actually dedicated time arriving at this list and thought seriously about when and how I would make it known. To me, this event was a culmination of two years of therapy and anxiety drugs. It was a simple sign that I did indeed have opinions and ideas of my own that were worthy of articulation despite the backlash or indifference they might be get. I was proud that I had such a list and that it was one that might not gain much favor among hip music people. My list, my opinion, was out there. It was public, and though it disintegrated quickly into the humid ocean air, it was a formative stepping stone for me.
This was practice. I was in training. I will constantly be in training, as I will never be someone who will just react and offer my opinions without first considering others’ reactions. This was Ok, though. I learned that this is who I am. I will, however, be someone who will say what I think about something. I will remember my “Top 5” list, the careful attention I gave it, and the feelings of self-worth I had announcing it. When I’m challenged by one of the really smart people at work, I will think through my response and then deliver it. What happens if it is immediately discarded or shot down? It won’t matter; it will only matter that I had ideas, felt that they were important enough to say, and said them. When everyone cheers after a poet reads her poem at a public reading, I’ll be happy to say that I didn’t care for it because I thought it, frankly, was dull as hell. When a hipster at a bar remarks that Billy Joel might represent everything wrong with popular music since the Beatles, I’ll be Ok responding with something like, “I actually think the guy knows how to make a song and has both the lyric and music chops that can stand up to mostly anyone from the ‘70s.” And if they laugh? It’s cool. I still believe what I said and no one can take that from me.
One of the incidents that caused my self-muzzling happened during a graduate school drinking session at Hemingway’s bar at the University of Pittsburgh. I was in a Metaphysical poetry course, and the class met at the bar. After the class ended, many of us stuck around for some beers and discussion. Punk music in the early 2000s was still in a revival, and so that was the subject. I didn’t know much about punk music (I listened to the very uncool prog rock), but I knew enough to remark that there wouldn’t have been the Sex Pistols without The Kinks. The reaction I got was awful–a smattering of “What?” and “You’re nuts” and hand waving in my direction–like “Get him outta here!” Now I remember that episode fondly and know that not only was I correct in my assertion but that I should have participated in a spirited debate and could have even won it had I had the confidence I do now in speaking my mind.
Photo: Be@rbrick Sex Pistols Version 1 by Wind.com.my
Photo: Banksy in Boston: Detail of the NO LOITRIN piece on Essex St in Central Square, Cambridge by Chris Devers