It’s been a while since I’ve posted, largely because COVID-19 has made the idea of operating an ostensible “travel blog” a bit of a joke (even one that eschews all of the conventions of travel blogging like this one). Yet, despite the pandemic approaching its two-year anniversary and numerous planned trips being canceled, my partner, Helen, and I have managed a few excursions.
One such trip was to Berlin at the beginning of December. Now, I’ll say upfront, we booked our flights to Germany well before anyone had ever heard of Omicron (besides the Greeks, of course), in a time when we naively believed an end was in sight. We went back and forth on whether or not to still go through with the trip, but since both of us were double vaxxed and both had previously had COVID (different variants), and because the flights cost a pretty penny, we decided to go. I don’t know if that was the best decision or not, but we did it and repeatedly tested negative for COVID after the fact.
Being as this was my first real visit to Berlin (excluding an extended layover a few years back), we did a lot of tourist things, including stopping by Checkpoint Charlie, visiting both the DDR Museum and the Deutsches Spionagemuseum (Spy Museum), walking through the remarkably stark Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and checking out the East Side Gallery, which includes the famous “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” mural (aka the “Fraternal Kiss”).
Of course, our main reason for braving the frigid temperatures of Berlin in December was to see the various Berlin Christmas Markets, or Weihnachtsmarkt. Lots of cities do Christmas Markets, including Madrid, but Berlin’s are considered the high watermark of the genre, and it’s hard to argue with that, if only because it takes your fingers nearly freezing off to appreciate the majesty that is Glühwein (mulled wine) and authentic German bratwurst.
Words won’t do them justice, so, if you’re not burned out from the holidays already, I’ll let some of my photos do the rest of the work for this post.
(Speaking of photos: I’m aiming to post some of my black and white photography on Instagram with more regularity this year, so if you want to keep up with my photography and my travels, please follow me there: 10cities10years.)
Over the span of my illustrious adulthood, I have changed jobs more times than I’ve gone to a barbershop. Due to my decade-long itinerant ways, that was essentially inevitable, but even if I had stuck with one home, I can’t imagine stomaching one career for very long.
I’ve never had the luxury of choosing a job that matched my career ambitions. I worked at Forever 21, for god’s sake. Paying the bills has always taken precedent over holding out for a dream job, though there are definitely careers I would love to try.
I recently applied for a particularly enticing position with the New York Times as a travel writer, a “dream job” if ever there was one. I’m not going to be hired, I know that. (Yes, yes, I hear you chiding me to put positive energy into the world, but I’ve been screaming “Oprah’s going to give me a million dollars” at my mirror for years and it still hasn’t happened.) Even knowing the odds are slim-to-none, I had to apply. It would have haunted me for the rest of my life if I hadn’t.
This particular job would be especially gratifying because it involves the three things I love most in the world: Travel, writing, and photography (not necessarily in that order). For most of my life, writing has been the main focus of my creative output, but there are times where I find greater satisfaction through other outlets.
Currently, while I’m enjoying traveling (next weekend, I’ll finally be making my first visit to Paris), the activity that’s giving me the greatest thrill is photography.
Behind the Lens
I studied photography in high school. “Studied” is perhaps not exactly accurate. After learning the basics in Photo 1, I took three straight semesters of Advanced Photography (because, for some reason, that was allowed) and spent every available moment sniffing the fumes in the darkroom, attempting to Frankenstein cool images with light tricks and merged negatives. Of the hundreds of experiments I tried, maybe a dozen of them resulted in anything remotely compelling.
My days of shooting and developing film ended with high school as the costs grew increasingly prohibitive and I no longer had free access to a darkroom (I considered Matthew McConaughey-ing around, but I just didn’t have the moustache for it). So, while I will always relish the stark look of film (particularly in black and white), I’ve been shooting in digital ever since college and I’ve come to appreciate the versatility it provides.
How I was in the darkroom, stumbling through hours of failures to achieve one shot I loved, is essentially the same way I am as a photographer. For every shot that comes out well, I have four or five (or fifteen) lousy photos that I just delete. With digital, I can afford to fail. If I were still shooting on film, that technique would have bankrupted me years ago.
I miss film, though, no question. I miss spending hours in the darkroom. It’s not quite the same rush staring at Photoshop for three hours (but I do it).
Whatever the tools, I am enamored with photography, both as an art form to appreciate, and a medium with which to express myself. I wouldn’t call myself a particularly skilled photographer, but I am eager to learn and constantly trying to improve. My aim is to understand more about my tools, both my camera and the photo editing software. And, then of course, my own eye.
During 10 Cities/10 Years, I was usually alone when I explored. People don’t tend to get too enthusiastic about wandering their own city, so I spent many afternoons walking aimlessly, just me and my camera. My photography from those years, as a result, generally reflects a solitary eye looking for the sublime or unusual in the ignored or seemingly mundane.
I will always enjoy that sort of photography, but as with everything else in life, I’m compelled to keep trying new things, pushing against the boundaries of my style.
For the last year, I’ve been attempting to photograph more human subjects, mostly candid. Major cities are a fruitful place for this, because the citizens there have all essentially grown to accept that they’re being photographed or filmed all the time. Don’t get me wrong, some people definitely aren’t happy about being on camera.
Most of the time, though, people just look through me when I point a camera in their direction. Those are the results I enjoy most.
Now that I’m in Europe, I find an essentially never-ending supply of remarkable vistas to inspire me to reach for my camera. There’s so much unexplored territory (by me) that I never grow bored of shooting. Even better, I’m surrounded by fellow displaced travelers.
My co-travelers here in Madrid afford me a bevy of opportunities for collective candid shots and unplanned moments (like when they’re trying to pose).
Additionally, I’ve even gotten in a few “model” shots, which is a whole other world of photography that I’ve never even considered trying my hand at.
In the past, I was always hesitant to shoot people (er, photograph people); there’s something so intimate about photography, it can feel strangely intrusive. But, of course, that’s also why it’s so compelling as a medium. I envy the boldness of photographers who manage to capture truly evocative candid images, the kind that feel like you’ve been granted a private window into someone else’s life. That’s what I aspire to.
I’m growing and I’m learning. I’ll keep pushing myself, because I enjoy it.
It’s not that I believe I’ll ever cultivate a career in photography. That’s extremely unlikely, and honestly, probably not even something I’d want (trying to monetize art always makes me queasy). I simply find immense satisfaction in nurturing the hobbies and pastimes that give me a reprieve from whatever job I find myself stuck in at any given moment.
I’ll always have to find some gig, more or less temporary, to pay the bills. As long as I have my creative outlets, though, I’m able to bear any job for at least a little while. Even Forever 21.
Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road has been spat at me dozens of times. The book that, for a time in American history, defined “hip” is now a very uncool thing to like. To be fan of the book, as I am, is to come to terms with troublesome characters and cultural representation that hasn’t aged well. Perhaps, though, the book’s greatest sin is that it aims for profundity – and achieves it.
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Kerouac’s most famous literary work.
The story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that any discussion of it almost feels like parody; but I’ll do it anyway. The thinly-veiled memoir-turned-novel tells of the aimless escapades of Kerouac and his friends from 1947 to 1950. The novel, which Kerouac famously typed on a single “scroll” of paper over three weeks while his then-wife fed him drugs, was published in 1957. The real story of the book’s creation, like the story itself, is lengthier and less sexy than the legend, but what difference does it make?
On the Road is one of the defining American myths, like Johnny Appleseed or George Washington’s cherry tree or Trickle Down Economics. Its veracity is less important than what it says about the culture that created it. As the United States is currently embroiled in startling regressive fights over nativism and isolationism, let’s remember that On the Road, more than almost any other book by an American author (certainly more than Capote) spoke to our nation’s historical roots as a nation of immigrants and wanderers.
There’s no escaping it: Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, and almost all of the other (male) characters in On the Road are loathsome people. They’re selfish and loutish, at times cruel, abusive towards the women in their lives, and ultimately wanton addicts that can barely stand themselves, let alone one another. In a word, On the Road is problematic.
So is history. So is art. So is life. I do not meant to wipe away the offenses of the characters or the real life people on whom they’re based, but rather to argue that there’s still a baby in that dirty bath water.
All art, especially historical works – and at 60-years-old, On the Road qualifies as an artifact – requires acknowledging flaws along with merits. Kerouac had questionable racial politics, no doubt, but for his time, the book’s sympathetic portrayal of the Hispanic immigrant populace was incredibly progressive. Frankly, it’s fairly progressive for our time. Despite all that Kerouac gets wrong in terms of cultural misappropriation and othering, he was at least willing to surmount walls to engage with different cultures.
Kerouac writes with considerable sympathy, especially for the cavalcade of degenerates that made up his beatnik circle. Dean Moriarty, in particular, was the quintessential anti-hero decades before such figures were the center of every TV show. There’s clearly a touch of Dean in Don Draper. The most common criticism I see lobbed at On the Road is that it glorifies these unlikeable characters as heroes. On the contrary, though, the desperate finale in Mexico is a denouement in the vein of Breaking Bad. We’re meant to live vicariously through these characters, but that doesn’t mean we’re meant to absolve them of all sins.
As far as Capote’s charges of “typing,” well, there’s really no accounting for taste. More than a few respected writers, both living and dead, have hailed Kerouac as an innovator and an influence, for what that’s worth. Kerouac’s breathless writing technique could certainly lead to paragraphs that feel aimless or empty, but there are also passages of pulsating beauty, exhilarating in their jazz-infused momentum and startling in their revelatory power.
For those who hate the book, for whom the characters are irredeemably repugnant and the writing is slapdash puffery, I make no effort to convince you otherwise. No, I’m writing for a different audience, for Kerouac’s audience, a crowd that has shrunk over the decades but that I suspect still exists in greater numbers than one might expect. It’s okay, you can come out of hiding.
Reading On the Road as a teenager should be transformative, the eye-opening experience when you realize that the world extends beyond your own yard and everyone’s life doesn’t have to follow a single path. For most readers, that philosophy resonates for a few years until they get a job or finish college with a stack of debt. Then, On the Road suddenly morphs into something far less profound, something childish.
Maybe you backpacked Europe or tried to make it as a musician for a few years. There might have been some poetry readings or even a Buddhist phase. Admit it: you were once idealistic. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.
Grotesquely, the Beat Generation was long ago co-opted by corporate interests and sold as action figures and t-shirts, as is the fate for all forms of art and rebellion. There is no counterculture movement that can’t be neutered and decimated with a logo or a catchphrase. When a thousand drop-outs followed in Kerouac’s footsteps and hitchhiked across America, they were merely substituting one form of conformity for another.
The lesson of Kerouac’s travels is not that travel makes you free or that America is a nation of squares. What On the Road conveys is that we are all on a journey, that the perfect metaphor for life is the road, and ultimately, we alone are responsible for choosing – and reaching – our destination. Do with that what you will.
For me, that meant 10 Cities/10 Years: I took a decade out of my life to move across the country, meeting people from every corner of America and experiencing its wealth of stories. Diversity is a pleasure.
A year after finishing my project, I re-read On the Road for the first time since I was in college. I wondered – worried, really – that the book would have greatly diminished in the interim years, that adulthood would have dulled its potency.
Instead, I found that the book had evolved just as I had through my own journeys. No longer a guide to the unfettered thrill of escaping, the novel was a ledger for the costs and rewards of pursuing a dream. That was a life of travel for me, but it could be anything to anyone, the pursuit of any passion.
As you read this, I am currently embarking on a new travel journey, this time abroad. Though I’m eschewing a schedule like I had with 10 Cities/10 Years, the spirit that embodied that project remains. I will follow opportunities where they lead me. I will make my way as I always have, by working hard, saving money, and taking risks.
Before I departed, I’ll sold or gave away most of the few possessions I still owned. Things are a burden. I held onto a few essentials, though: Clothes, a laptop, old journals, and, of course, a dog-eared copy of On the Road.
I’ve been known to indulge in my share of excavating. As I prepare for my next big move, I’ve been looking back, not only on the decade-long 10 Cities/10 Years, but also on my youth and even more recent history. Writing these chapters from my life has been rewarding, allowing me to scrutinize my memories and re-examine pivotal moments in my history, recontextualizing my history as it relates to my present. But there are other ways to explore the past.
One of my favorite tools for documenting my life in real time is Last.fm, a website I’ve mentioned not infrequently in these pages. It’s the simplest of ideas: the website tracks the music you listen to on your various devices and compiles that information into charts and data points. It’s extremely nerdy and entirely unnecessary, and I love it.
I started using Last.fm just a few months before I set out on my decade of travel, so I have a document of all the music I listened to throughout the entire journey from day one: my ups and downs, my relationships come and gone, my periods of depression and moments of hysteria, all of it soundtracked. It’s the kind of thing that I can nerd out over for hours, and often do.
I decided it would be informative to look at my Top Songs charts for the various years of my 10 city project to get a sense of the tenor of each year through my musical obsessions. I’ve taken a snapshot of my Top 5 tracks, so now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take another look back at my project, this time through song.
How predictable. In my first year of traveling, I was still mostly listening to the artists who had gotten me through college, so Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright had been getting heavy rotation for a few years by this point (and still do). “Fake Plastic Trees” was my go-to favorite song for years, though its stature has diminished some over the years.
In terms of evolving musical tastes, The Decemberists were one of the many new artists a friend introduced to me while I was living in Charlotte. Especially in those early days, the Pacific Northwest band was known for their whimsical and eccentric mix of British folk and sea shanties. I was besotted with “The Engine Driver” which has this one verse:
I am a writer, writer of fictions I am the heart that you call home And I’ve written pages upon pages Trying to rid you from my bones
It’s the kind of melodramatic sentiment that I absolutely adored back then. (Eh, still do.)
Not much had changed in terms of favorite artists, though I was definitely listening to a more varied selection. “Come Pick Me Up” is my all-time most listened song and has never lost its “Favorite Song” status, but by this point I was starting to seek out more obscure artists. Mirah was another new discovery from my year in Charlotte, and she rapidly ascended into the realm of favorites. Though I’ve only followed her career intermittently recently, I was fortunate enough to see her play live just a few months ago at an intimate benefit show for LGBT youth. She was lovely.
Ghosty, for those that don’t know, is (was?) a band from my hometown in Kansas. They played a set at the famous World Café in Philadelphia and I saw them perform. Staying after to talk with the guys, I was surprised when the lead singer said that he actually knew me because he had seen me read poetry back in Lawrence. That was wholly unexpected and kind of cool.
For a time, Beirut was the musical artist I felt most spoke to my increasingly disparate tastes in music. I used to say that if I had any musical talent (I do not), I would make music exactly like Beirut. It’s interesting how, as especially so-called “indie” music has expanded in form and genre, the once unique Baltic sounds of Beirut have become just another common trope. I still enjoy Beirut, but my fervor has lessened considerably.
Starting to see some more female artists gain prominence in this list, though none of these three particular artists would be in my favorites. Still, Beth Orton’s Central Reservation did receive considerable play for a few years. “Concrete Sky,” which is off of a different album, features one-time Orton beau, Ryan Adams, so that probably helps explain its high chart position here. It’s also just a beautiful song.
“No Children” is, for me, the perfect song about a doomed relationship, that kind of love where the two people are terrible for each other but still work in a twisted sort of way. John Darnielle is a storyteller, and the entire Tallahassee album is arguably the best novel he’s ever written (though his two actual novels are worth a read).
My fifth year was, at times, arduous, as you might recall, so it’s not really surprising that the songs that got the most airplay in that year were in large part downcast affairs. I adore Neko Case’s entire oeuvre, and I consider her song, “Star Witness,” to be one of the defining songs of 10 Cities/10 Years (I’m frankly shocked at its absence on these lists). Although “Don’t Forget Me” is a Harry Nilsson cover, she definitively makes it her own.
Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” stands out from the other songs on the chart with its propulsive and infectious rhythms. It appeared on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation (along with Iron & Wine’s “Die”) and was basically the standout track from two discs of excellent but mostly similar sounding indie rock and folk music. Worth tracking down.
In the wake of a bad break up in Chicago, Nashville’s list consists of a lot of old favorites; comfort food, I suppose. Ironic that the one Adele song that I was really into that year was actually one of her more upbeat tracks. Also, “Dear Chicago”? How on the nose could I be? (Granted, it’s a fantastic song.)
Ryan reclaims the top track, but this time with a song that was never officially released. Both “Karina” and “Angelina” appear on the famously unreleased 48 Hours (bootlegs are available, obviously), which was scrapped in favor of Demolition, a solid but ultimately less cohesive album. I’ve said this elsewhere but, after Heartbreaker, 48 Hours is Ryan’s greatest album, and the fact that it has never officially been released is a tragedy (a few songs appear on Demolition). “Karina” is his most sympathetic and piercing character piece and deserves to be loved by millions.
Otherwise, this list clearly reflects the counter-intuitively sunnier times I was having in Seattle. Also, funny to note just how much Childish Gambino has evolved as a writer and performer since those early days. “Freaks and Geeks” is still a banger.
This was another hard personal year, but still a year with a lot of partying, which is nicely exemplified in the dichotomy of Justin Timberlake and a pair of The National’s bleakest songs. The Divine Fits’ “Shivers” splits the difference, an old school proto-punk cover with the lyrics:
I’ve been contemplating suicide But it really doesn’t suit my style So I guess I’ll just act bored instead And contain the blood I would’a shed
Considering my state of mind that year, the song was clearly speaking to me. (The song also includes one of my all-time favorite lines of shade: “My baby’s so vain / She’s almost a mirror”.)
I’d been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie since college, and yet, somehow, I had never bothered to acquire their most critically acclaimed album, Transatlanticism. I rectified that in Boston and soon after became enthralled with the eight minute centerpiece. I was also still obsessing over Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk/mixed genre band from New Orleans that you should also be obsessed with. Get on that.
(Also, yes, Justin Timberlake made the list two years in a row; no shame.)
And then came Brooklyn. Kanye West is an asshole. Kanye West is too full of himself. Kanye West lacks impulse control. All true. Also true: Kanye West can produce some amazing music. When Boston roommate, Emily, helped drive me to my tenth and final city, “Power” literally started playing the moment we passed the city limit sign. There couldn’t have been a more thematically appropriate song for that moment.
I had a brief fling with a French girl when I first moved to Brooklyn; my infatuation with The Stills’ french-language “Retour a Vega” lasted much longer. At the same time, I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with HAIM’s debut. Their latest release is very good, but I still play the hell out of Days Are Gone.
Goddamn right JT threepeated.
Notably, while many of my favorite artists are represented in these lists, there are plenty of others that don’t appear (no Sufjan Stevens, no Elliott Smith, no Spoon, no Rilo Kiley), while a number of artists who I barely listen to anymore (Night Terrors of 1927, really?) showed up.
I could have done this kind of list with my Top Artists or my Top Albums and gotten some very different results. For instance, these were my top albums from my year in Charlotte:
All five albums came out between 2005 and 2006, yet only one, Picaresque, is represented on the most played songs. I suspect that I was still getting to know these albums and thus listening to them straight through instead of just cherry picking my favorite tracks.
I chose to look at my top songs instead of albums or artists because I think they reflect my moods in those years more accurately. The album lists lean heavily towards recent releases, and my top artists stay pretty static from year to year (Radiohead and Ryan Adams are almost always in the top spots). By contrast, my ever-changing top song lists across my ten year journey illustrate not only an evolving musical taste, but they also provide insight into my mental state in those particular years.
Perhaps this sort of thing is only interesting to me (if so, you probably aren’t still reading, so who cares), but if you have a Last.fm account, I recommend taking a gander into your own past. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.
For the completists in the continually dwindling crowd, I’m including my second and third year lists from my time in Brooklyn. As I’ve written about previously, the music of Songs: Ohia carried me through a very difficult post-project year, hence The Lioness charting so many tracks. And then, this current year’s list is a result of my concerted effort to seek out more diverse artists and voices, in particular more women.
Brooklyn (Year 2)
Brooklyn (Year 3)
Ideally, the list will continue to evolve every year because I will continue to evolve. In that way, these charts serve both as a document of the past and a challenge for the future. Who knows what my playlist will look like after a year in Spain? I look forward to making fresh comparisons next August.
I was falling apart. Just weeks after having reached the anticlimactic denouement of 10 Cities/10 Years, I’d sunk into a depression as toxic as the poisoned well from my year in New Orleans.
I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A decade of my life had been dedicated to this one purpose, and now I had nothing. Nothing to show for my efforts, nothing to look forward to, no sense of myself. I was just another broken branch thrown into the bonfire of Brooklyn, turning to ash.
There were acerbating factors, as well. Suddenly broke, I started two new office jobs on top of my bartending gig, working six to seven soul-crushing days a week. Wanting nothing but to curl up in my darkened bedroom, I’d come home to an apartment bustling with an unrelenting rotation of new roommates and temporary guests that stripped me of any sense of solitude. Making matters worse, one of those guests was a girl I had briefly dated; relations had soured between us and her presence was a constant source of anxiety.
Even once I did pass through the gauntlet of the living room, I’d step into my bedroom and onto a drenched throw rug: my room repeatedly flooded from rain water that poured in through the shoddily spackled walls. Peace of mind was always on tomorrow’s to do list.
One Saturday night, having bartended until two in the morning, I returned home but couldn’t bear being inside my apartment where the paper thin walls ensured I was never truly alone. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and ascended to the roof.
Usually, I would have the black space to myself, but that night, three of my neighbors were upstairs sitting around candlelight and listening to music off of one of their phones. Providing the bare minimum of social interaction to be part of the group, I sat and listened.
While the guys chatted about topics I couldn’t pretend to care about, a song began that immediately grabbed my attention, the first mournful strum of a minor chord ricocheting through me like a scream in a cavern.
“Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia is heavy, a love song haunted by death, or maybe more accurately, a funeral dirge pierced through with aching love. “Every kiss is a goodbye,” the singer confesses, then repeats more insistently. It’s a mournful ballad, a heartbroken and brittle cry, and in that moment, it pierced through me like a religious revelation.
I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The chorus repeated inside me – “Your hair is coxcomb red, your eyes are viper black” – like it was some sort of incantation, a summoning to a lost spirit.
In a trance, I bid goodnight to the neighbors and immediately went online to track down the song and its album, The Lioness. I spent a few days hoping to find a CD in local record shops – for some reason, I felt compelled to own a physical copy of the album – but when the search didn’t pay off, I downloaded the album and spent the next month listening to it almost exclusively.
Laid low by depression, the music of the late Jason Molina wrapped around me and kept me warm, kept me sane; kept me alive.
I’m recounting this now because over the weekend I had the good fortune to see Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. at the Littlefield here in Brooklyn. If that name is a bit cumbersome, it’s because it pays tribute to a complex and troubled artist. The concert, in honor of Jason Molina, was performed by a group of his former bandmates, tourmates, and friends.
Molina was the driving force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., among other musical acts. He was a prolific songwriter and an omnivorous consumer of genres, shaping them around his singular voice and lyricism. By the time I discovered “Coxcomb Red” on that September night in 2015, Molina had been dead for over two years, the result of alcohol abuse and addiction. He had been 39.
I wasn’t entirely unaware of Molina’s work before his death. I had a passing familiarity with Magnolia Electric Co., mostly as a name I read in headlines on Pitchfork or saw listed on compilations. There are so many artists, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when it seems like it’s just another white guy indie band. Perhaps for many, that’s all the collective output of Molina will ever be, but once I discovered it, it became a salve.
Molina put out a prodigious amount of music under his various names, whether as a solo artist or with a band. I’ve spent the nearly two years since I first encountered Songs: Ohia listening to as much of Molina’s music as possible, and yet, at the memorial concert, there were still a handful of songs I had never heard, and talk of recordings I’ve never tracked down.
Standing in that audience with people who had loved Molina’s music and hearing stories about the man from people who had known him in life, I was moved near to tears. I, like I imagine many people, had found his music in an incredibly bleak time in my life, so I came prepared for a somber affair, and while at times there were moments of solemnity, the show was more often a celebration, a recognition of both the man and the friendships that he had helped bring together.
That is the power of music, the magic of a song. On this blog which is ostensibly about traveling, there are nearly as many posts tagged “music” as there are “travel.” In my lowest times, I’ve always turned to musicians. They lift me up, console me, give me perspective, and often articulate my own emotions better than I can.
On at least one occasion, music has literally saved my life.
I’ve previously recounted my ill-fated college road trip to Seattle on this blog, so I won’t rehash the full story here. The relevant portion took place on the second night of the trip when, after having crossed into Wyoming, I was waylaid by a late season blizzard that sent my poor two-door Ford Escort flying off the road and into a snowy ditch. I spent two hours in a gulch before a tow truck pulled me out and I was able to cautiously drive my hatchback through the night until I found a rest stop.
Hoping the storm would keep the authorities otherwise occupied, I broke the rules of the rest stop and settled into my back seat to sleep through the night. I hadn’t packed for a blizzard (it was early spring and back home was already experiencing summer temperatures), so as I shivered in my back seat, I slid on any layer of clothing I could find and wrapped myself in a blanket that I always kept in the back. It wasn’t enough.
For two days, all I had consumed was half a box of granola bars and a few cans of warm Sprite. My body was sore and exhausted, I didn’t own a cellphone, and my emergency funds were already depleted after paying for the tow service. I was also acutely aware that no one knew where I was.
While my stomach growled, I was too tired to think straight, but too frazzled by my predicament to sleep. I closed my eyes and hoped unconsciousness would arrive, but my mind was racing, my heart beating unsteadily as I couldn’t shake the fear that I might have hopelessly driven myself into a whited-out no man’s land.
To calm my nerves, I slid on my headphones and used the last of my weathered, portable CD player’s battery life to listen to Sigur Rós’s untitled album (the cover stylized as an empty parenthetical). The eight-song suite of tranquil, atmospheric instrumentals paradoxically evoked images of a snow-covered tundra and the enveloping warmth of a sun-bleached day.
The album soothed me, like aural Prozac, my panicked mind now focused solely on the lilting and crescendoing themes. If I was to be buried in a mound of snow, at least I wouldn’t be alone. By Track 5, I had drifted into sleep.
To say that Sigur Rós saved my life is not to suggest I would have died without music. But, if I had not been able to sleep, if I had continued to try to forge through the intensifying blizzard while sleep-deprived and dangerously low on blood sugar, the next day’s bad decisions would have likely been even worse. I was lucky to get through that ordeal; I very easily could have been unlucky.
I turn to music for strength, whether I’m trying to get through a long work day or in the midst of an existential crisis. All art forms – literature, film, television, photography – offer some form of comfort against the ceaseless horrors of human existence, which is why art exists. Music just happens to be the most immediate form, a mainlined narcotic.
I do not abide people who call certain types of music “depressing.” That’s not how depression works. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or thinking about something unpleasant; it’s the deeply penetrating iteration of destructive, self-hating thoughts that cannot be reasoned or wished away. Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.
For those who have come to love the frequently subdued music of Jason Molina – though his oeuvre can span the spectrum from exultant to funereal – what resonates so deeply is the stark honesty and humanity he projected. He was an artist who could convey raw emotions more nakedly than almost anyone, which, admittedly, doesn’t always make for the easiest listening experience. It’s not supposed to.
I was lucky to find Songs: Ohia when I did. If one wonders how someone in the midst of a depressive episode could find appeasement in the bleakness of an album like The Lioness, it’s quite simple: when Molina was singing in my room, I didn’t feel alone. Isn’t that why we listen?
[Reminder: Names are sometimes real, sometimes changed, sometimes made up because of whiskey.]
Three months changed my entire life.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In the years immediately following 9/11, a confluence of political conservatism and social frivolity made California’s Orange County the darling of pop culture. With its green money, yellow beaches, and rainbow of white epidermis, the OC-
…the OC was everywhere. Regardless if media was glorifying or satirizing the place, all of it helped mythologize that immaculate corner of America.
Orange County’s cultural bubble had burst by the time I arrived in 2007. I don’t mean to say that the county wasn’t still wealthy – it was – but it no longer captured the ADD-ravaged attentions of the collective television audience. It had lost its aura of cool (or ironic cool), so it was the ideal place for me to move.
In fact, I moved there because of Amber. Like myself, Amber was inflicted with a compulsion to write. We had met the previous December in Los Angeles at what could loosely be described as a writers conference. Our mutual appreciation for, shall we say, spiritual matters had led to a fast friendship, and whether in LA or at meet-ups in NYC, we made swift work of a bottle.
In the waning months of my year in Philadelphia, I still hadn’t determined where I would move for Year 3. I was leaning towards Chicago, but that felt too easy since I had spent a considerable amount of time in the Windy City during my college years. Then, one evening, Amber mentioned that she needed a roommate to fill an extra room in her Costa Mesa apartment. That was that.
At 24, I was single, young (not that I knew it), and living in the land of milk and silicone.
Oh, and I had hair.
Our days were filled with beach lounging, eating sushi, and drinking; our nights spent clubbing, seeing comedy shows, and drinking. My alcohol intake soared, and with it came confidence. Not with women, to be clear; just with my self-estimation of artistic relevance. Now in my third year, 10 Cities/10 Years had taken shape. I envisioned the future, the path ahead: a decade documenting hard partying in America’s coolest cities.
If my alcohol consumption was at an all-time high, my art consumption was almost non-existent. Orange County was woefully lacking in anything resembling culture. Sprinkled near the beaches were an assortment of art galleries that I’d sometimes peak in, but they were invariably unimpressive showcases for some hobbyist painter’s gaudy beach porn. Live music, usually lifeblood for me, was hard to find; I attended one concert the entire time I lived in Costa Mesa, and that turned into a bit of a mess.
Amber and I took it upon ourselves to address this deficiency by holding poetry readings in our living room. Mostly, they were gatherings of writer friends, like Ivy, our resident mystic and one of the driving forces behind the initial writers conference. The get-togethers occasionally involved the reading of poetry, an unsightly event we are all better to forget, but sometimes we did more seemly things, like the evening I manically insisted every new arrival watch “2 Girls, 1 Cup.” I like to think I did my part for culture in the OC.
Oh, we had jobs, too. I worked as the music manager at a nearby Barnes & Noble (now shuttered), while Amber tended bar at a local gentleman’s club (also closed now). I learned quickly that, like almost every city in the southern half of the United States, Orange County’s public transportation was abysmal. With my apologies to Leo, good public transportation is all alike; every bad public transportation system is bad in its own way. For Costa Mesa, that meant meticulously clean buses that only arrived once every hour. Not that it mattered. Only the help took the bus.
(Costa Mesa has been nicknamed Costa Mexico because, being slightly inland and more affordable, it houses much of the immigrant population that sustains the lifestyles of the rich and famous.)
I bought a bike.
It was stolen.
I bought another bike.
One day, as I rode to work and barreled down the sidewalk (Orange County bike lanes being a joke), I spotted a pretty young girl walking towards me. Not wanting to run her over, I deftly turned my tire to swerve around her. In my head, I saw myself soaring just past her, my hair waving behind me like Fabio. In reality, my front tire hit the lip of a jutting sidewalk slab and my momentum thrust me over the handlebars and hands-first onto the pavement. As I quivered in pain on the ground, scrapped and bleeding, the girl passed by me without a word. It was the most OC experience imaginable.
After six months of living together, Amber and I were still enjoying each others’ company, which, in my vast roommate experience, is a rare thing. In fact, we were almost inseparable, so we started talking about living together for a second year in a different city. Amber was a young, (generally) single woman with nothing holding her in place, so why not?
I had already set my eyes on San Francisco for Year 4, and as we discussed the possibility of moving together, we fed off one another’s excitement. In mid-December, we drove up for a Wednesday night in the City by the Bay. Our belief that San Fran would be bumping every night of the week, it turned out, was mistaken.
Of course, we could’ve planned our visit better. Renting a room central-ish to the city, we unloaded our stuff and started walking. As dusk fell, we strolled through our future home together and anticipated the wild, drunken stories that awaited. While we walked, a homeless man stopped us and asked for change. Amber replied…
I’m going to be honest here: She made a comment that, although not meant in jest, cracked me up in the moment. After joking about it for months afterwards, though, and with many years to embellish the memory, I can’t recall what she actually said. So, here are some options, pick your favorite:
“Can you break a hundred?”
“Could you take a debit card?”
“No, but do you have a cigarette?”
We wandered on through the dwindling light until we came across a streetcar to nowhere. We hopped on, hoping it would take us to the night life, but as the city light receded behind us, we realized we were heading in the wrong direction. Debarking in the dark, we sought a taxi.
“Where to?” The cabbie asked.
“We’re looking for a dance club,” I told him
“Got it.” After fifteen minutes, we arrived at our destination: a strip club.
“Not that kind of dancing.” Amber and I discussed it amongst ourselves and surmised that if we wanted mid-week dancing in San Francisco, there was only one group we could count on: The Gays.
“Take us to a gay club,” we instructed.
“Got it.” He drove us across town and deposited us in front of a garishly painted building with a large black sign that read in bold, stenciled letters, “STUD.” Oh yes, this would do nicely. Not knowing what type of bacchanal to expect, we giddily threw open the door and entered into…
An empty bar. In the void stood Nick, a solitary bartender occupying himself with the polishing of glassware. One man sat at the bar, but it was readily apparent that he was less a patron than a down-on-his-luck chap being tolerated because no one else was around. Nick’s face immediately lit up when he saw us approaching.
Apologizing for the lack of festivities, gay or otherwise, Nick offered us a drink. After two hours of fruitless searching, we saddled up. With no one else in need of Nick’s services, the three of us chatted for hours. We told him of our plan to move to the city next year and Nick assured us that, despite the evidence of this evening, we would adore San Francisco. Upon request, he happily played music so Amber and I could dance on the vacant floor by ourselves.
For every drink Nick poured Amber, he tossed me one on the house. In Costa Mesa, Amber received free drinks all the time from bros in the bar. Frequently, I milked a couple gratis cocktails from the guys trying to usher me out of the way. In the Stud, the roles were reversed. I’ve set off my share of gaydars in my time, so I knew to turn into the slide. By the time we called it quits, I’d paid for one drink and we had a new friend waiting for us to move up. Nick hugged me warmly at the door.
(I never saw him again.)
The next day, Amber and I toured the city that would be our future home. In the light of day, there was no doubt that San Francisco was one of the most beautiful metropolises I’d ever visited. I was already picturing the possibilities.
There was just one hiccup in our plans: Though I’d been preparing for this move since I deplaned in June, Amber hadn’t been anticipating a relocation. 2008 was dawning, with five short months until my intended departure. So she asked: Was willing to delay my move through the summer to give her extra time to save funds?
Sure, I said. What difference could three months make?
In the interim months between our trip to San Francisco and the time I had originally intended to move, things between Amber and I changed. Mostly, I suppose, it was simply the passage of time. I made friends at work and had developed my own sort of life, while Amber dated and went out with friends from different circles. Our drifting apart was, at least partially, due to the inevitable entropy of existence.
With the summer approaching and the move less than three months away, I was keenly aware that Amber’s financial position seemed no different than it had been in December.
I can’t speak for her. There are dozens of reasons why a person may decide to stay instead of moving, most perfectly understandable. I suspect for Amber there were a number of reasons, including the simple fact that she had built a life in Southern California. She may have also concluded that while I had a specific (albeit esoteric) rationale for moving, she was just going on a whim.
In those final months together, Amber and I didn’t talk much. Our lives were on different tracks. I had fallen head first into a romance with a coworker and my plans for San Francisco were quickly – and dramatically – changing. Rooming with her had been the best living situation I could have hoped for, but that phase of my life – like so many before it, so many after – had to end.
I ruminate often on how much my life changed because of that one choice to stay an extra three months in Costa Mesa. If I had arrived in San Francisco in June instead of September – before the Great Recession had kicked into full gear – I quite possibly could have found work right away instead of being unemployed for five months. I would have lived with different roommates instead of an emotionally damaged woman and her abusive boyfriend. I wouldn’t have had to move halfway through the year because of mold eating away at every surface of the apartment.
Something might have kept me in San Francisco. Maybe I would’ve done the next six cities in a different order, or picked different cities altogether. A thousand divergent paths came into existence the moment I made that seemingly minor deviation.
I will never know the ways my life changed because of those three months.
What I do know is, I would’ve never fallen in love with Selene.