They do not move

ESTRAGON:Wait! (He moves away from Vladimir.) I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself. (He crosses the stage and sits down on the mound.) We weren’t made for the same road.
(without anger.) It’s not certain.
No, nothing is certain. Vladimir slowly crosses the stage and sits down beside Estragon.

VLADIMIR:We can still part, if you think it would be better.
It’s not worthwhile now. Silence.
No, it’s not worthwhile now. Silence.
Well, shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.

Waiting for Godot, Act 1, by Samuel Beckett

“They do not move” is my twelfth tattoo, all but two of which I have gotten since beginning 10 Cities/10 Years. With each new piece of ink, I try to incorporate a message that speaks both broadly to the project as a whole and specifically to the previous year of my life.

The phrase ‘They do not move’ is the final stage direction in both acts of Beckett’s seminal work of absurdity, Waiting for Godot. The play is repetitive, both in the repeated dialogue and in the way nothing really changes from the first act to the second. This is one of those plays that absolutely invites interpretation and pretty much rewards anyone’s personal take with intentionally ambiguous lines and phrases that go in a hundred different directions.

Probably the most common reading of the play is to assume that “Godot” is a reference to God, and the fact that Godot never arrives and the characters don’t really seem to know who Godot is (though they’re pretty sure they know who he isn’t) gives weight to the idea that this work is Beckett’s criticism of religion and faith. However, Beckett has denied that he intended Godot to represent God, while still admitting that it could have been an unconscious choice. Beckett never gave a definitive interpretation, which means we readers are left to read into the work what we want. It is a literary Rorschach test.

Personally, I think the God-centric reading of the play makes a lot of sense and certainly jives with the frequent references to Jesus and the Bible throughout the play.

Who or whatever ‘Godot’ represents, though, I take the larger message of the play to be a pointed criticism of people who waste away their lives waiting for something, anything, to give them direction, instead of just picking a path and going. The absent instigator could be God, or a career, or a romantic partner or just any sort of passion that never arrives.

I think we all know people who talk about what they’re going to do, someday. They’ve got a lot of dreams, a lot of plans, maybe even genuine ambition, but what they don’t possess is will and self-actualization.  They’ll bitch about their job and tell you what they’re going to be doing in 5 years, but 5 years later they’re still bitching about the same job. They do not move.

Over the last year, I’ve received a lot of support from both friends and strangers who have encouraged me through this project and have offered their support.

But I’ve also received a fair amount of criticism from people who think my life is irresponsible, that because I’m not securing a financial future I’m somehow harming myself and, apparently, them, too. I need health insurance, they’ve admonished. I’m never going to have a career, they’ve warned.  I’m going to end up mooching off the government, they’ve fumed.

What I’ve taken from this critique is that there will always be people whose imagination is only as big as their wallets. They are afraid of the world and taking risks, and they want others to share their fears because that will validate their inertia. How many of these people who would deem to tell me how to live my life are actually satisfied with their own?  In my experience, the people who actually enjoy their lives rarely spend time criticizing others.

I have no patience for people who bitch about their lives but won’t take action to change it. If you’re waiting for the Deus ex machina to come fix your life, be prepared to wait a long, long time.

I move. And I commend the people I meet in my travels that are making moves of their own. That might mean relocating to a new city, but it just as well could mean taking the plunge with a serious relationship or going back to school or finding a new career. A change is a change, and sometimes all life needs is a catalyst.

In Beckett’s hand, an immobile life is an absurdist comedy, but in the real world it’s nothing short of tragedy.

ESTRAGON:Well? Shall we go?
Pull on your trousers.

Pull on your trousers.
You want me to pull off my trousers?
Pull ON your trousers.
(realizing his trousers are down). True. He pulls up his trousers.
Well? Shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.

This Too Shall Pass

“the Road is Life” is my oldest tattoo, the first one I got while I was still living in Lawrence.  In a way, it is the foundational philosophy of my life, and thus a very fitting starting point for the body ink.

But another tattoo, “This too shall pass,” is a phrase that has been swirling in my head even longer.  I remember being a senior in high school, painfully shy, depressed at the (seemingly) limited prospects for my future and living in an apartment with my mother while she struggled through the first years of a divorce.  It was not a good time.  I would look at myself in the mirror, agitated, and that single phrase would echo through my mind:  This too shall pass.

Back then it was a life preserver, a hope that I had to hold onto to get through.

But with time, it’s become as true a maxim of my life as “The road is life.”  The bad periods don’t last forever.  Neither do the good ones.

King Solomon and the Magic Ring

While researching the phrase for potential tattooing in Charlotte (along with “Silent Silence,” “This Too Shall Pass” was my first tat while in the midst of the 10 Cities Project), I discovered that it actually has a root in various ancient myths, including old Jewish folklore that tells of King Solomon (the wise king) asking one of his trusted ministers to bring him a “magic ring” that, when looked upon, would make a happy man sad, and a sad man happy.  The idea was to humble the minister since Solomon knew no such ring existed.

Long story short, the minister has a ring forged with the phrase “This Too Shall Pass” engraved on it.  When Solomon sees it, his smile fades to a frown (happy to sad) because he realizes all of his wealth and wisdom will pass.

Now, this story isn’t in the Bible, it’s just one of the many apocryphal stories that is ascribed to Biblical figures but can just as easily be told using figures from any other religious or historical background.

The point isn’t the veracity of the story, but the message.  We have a limited time on earth.  Even if you are one to believe in an afterlife (I am not), you have to acknowledge that life spent on earth is a self-contained, moderate period of existence.  It’s not short, it’s not long, it’s just all you have.  It depresses me when I hear of people “living for heaven,” with this notion that they just have to bear life on earth so they can get to their reward afterwards.  Bullocks.  Life is not a cross to be borne upon your back.  It’s all we’ve got. 

Even if you do believe in heaven, why waste your life on earth worrying about or hoping for it?

Life is Short?

I’ve always felt that “Life is short” epiphanies were largely meaningless.  In my experience, wisdom gained from an epiphany is short-lived and shallow.  If you aren’t already living with the obvious knowledge that this life is all you’ve got, a near-death experience or terrible tragedy isn’t going to make any long-term difference in your perception.  You might make a few changes in your day-to-day routine, maybe take a few extra risks, but ultimately you’ll settle back down to your natural plateau.

Working towards a life goal, living with a purpose; these aren’t decisions you resolve to on New Years Day.

So, this too shall pass.  This life.  This struggle.  This honeymoon period.  This job or this school or this lover or this loneliness.  Not all endings are sad, not all endings are happy.  The message of “This Too Shall Pass” is not, “Make it count,” but rather, “Be flexible.”  Because the corollary of “This Too Shall Pass” is, actually, “The Road is Life.”  We are all on a path, and if the scenery isn’t changing, you aren’t living.

The Question of Art

This isn’t a question of wasting your life.  You can do with it what you want, it’s really all you’ve got, the only thing you have a right to.  You’re the only one who can determine what is ‘wasted’ time.  I have days where I accomplish nothing, days where I watch movies and television, listen to music and read books, and by the time I sleep, I haven’t produced anything in terms of financial or literary worth.  But, to appreciate art, to enjoy the work of artists, well, that is one of the great pleasures of life.  Let no one say that a solitary day of art consumption is wasted.

It’s not about “Living every day as if it were your last.”  I want to live my life so that when I pass, something will be left behind.  Sometimes that means foregoing immediate pleasures or “Once In A Lifetime” opportunities in order to accomplish my larger goal (1o Cities/10 Years).

The wealth of kings has passed.  The territories of empires have been lost.  The power of nations have dwindled.  America is slipping from its perch atop the world.  These things all pass.

But art lasts.  We still read Shakespeare.  We still read Beowulf.  We still read the Iliad and the Odyssey.  If anything can be considered eternal, it is art.

This Too Is Passing

Everything else, though, will pass.

I’m moving in two weeks.  Yet another ending, yet another beginning.  Nashville is passing, Seattle is arriving, and in time it will pass as well.

Life is passing, death is arriving, and in time I will return to star stuff, infinite yet ultimately finite.

You too, friend.

The Roots of 10 Cities: the Road is Life

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” ~ Jack Kerouac

After my junior year of college, I rewarded myself with my first tattoo:

Up until that year, I had been getting a facial piercing for every semester I finished (yes, that’s right, I had piercings), but when a job working in a kitchen required that I take them out, I rejiggered my system.  Hence, ‘the Road is Life’ printed in old-fashioned typewriter font across my left tit.

One of my brothers (Steve or Fonz) had bought me Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road as a birthday/high school graduation gift, and like so many teenagers before me, I devoured it like a holy text.  Even in high school, I knew I wanted to get out, get free.  In those days, my entire focus was on escaping to New York City, the mecca that would redeem my inert existence up until that point.  When those plans fell through, my vision for my future began evolving.

Kerouac’s words festered in my head throughout college.  I read more of his works* and longed for the road while sequestered on a tiny bunk bed in a 10×10 dorm bedroom, harshly lit and impossibly crowded.  The desire to travel broke out of me in sudden bursts of angsts, and on particularly lonely nights I would jump into my little 2-door Ford Escort and drive.  For miles. 

One night, hours after midnight, filled with self-pity (as I so often was in those days), I climbed into my car and drove off, aimlessly.  45 minutes after I started, I was in Kansas City.  I kept going.  I didn’t have a destination, but by the time the sun came up, I was in St. Louis.  I hate St. Louis.**  I circled around the Arch, flitted in and out of the weekend traffic and then turned around and drove back through Missouri towards Lawrence.

I had a far more eventful road trip later on during Spring Break.  But I’ll save that full story for another post.

These excursions mostly took place in my sophomore year of college.  That year was important because it was the year I stopped hanging out with my church friends and wholeheartedly invested in my college life, specifically my hallmates and associated friends.  It was also the year my slide into atheism firmly took hold (the story of my deconversion).  I was changing and I yearned for my world to change with me.  Stubbornly, it did not.

The next year, I entered into a relationship, which grounded me for a time, as they so often do.  My homeless wishes and vagabond dreams were buried beneath visions of a traditional romantic life.

Yeah, that was doomed.

The girl and I lived in Washington D.C. the summer after my junior year (not coincidentally the same summer I got the tattoo), the first time I had ever lived outside of Lawrence.

The wanderlust roared back up.  Though we stayed together another year and moved to Charlotte together, our dissolution was inevitable.  Charlotte is, of course, where 10 Cities /10 Years began (in practice, if not in spirit).

Change Is Life

While ‘the road is life’ has resonance with me in Kerouac’s original, poetic intent, it also has a more prosaic meaning for me.

Life does not exist in stasis.  In fact, life without change is a contradiction in terms.  There would be no biological life on earth if were not for evolution, the ability to adapt and fit into nature’s uncaring molds.

Similarily, I feel like a life well-lived is a life that embraces the chaotic nature of existence and, instead of battening down, unfurls the sails.

Change is hard for me.  Just like it has been for 100% of the human beings that has ever existed.  People tell me all the time, “I could never do what you do.”  Yeah they could.  Yeah you could.  A million individual events and biological predispositions had to fall into place to set me on my path, but make no mistake, the only character trait that suits me for this life is a willingness to embrace change even as every fiber of my being screams against it.

I love what I do.  I’m happier now than I have been at any point in my life (as a statistical average, at least).

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me, or that packing up what I own, leaving good friends and moving to a strange city with no job and little money is fun.

Sure, it’s rewarding, but it’s also hard as hell.  Life would certainly be easier for me if I stuck it out in one city and settled into a routine.  There are days when the thought tempts me.

But no matter, change is life.

*Interestingly (at least, to me), I’ve never reread On The Road, unlike, say, The Great Gatsby, which I’ve read more than 10 times.  I don’t plan to reread the book until I’ve finished the 10 Cities Project.  I’m interested in how I perceive it on the other end of my own beatific travels.

** Sorry Saint Louians.  No disrespect towards what I’m sure is a lovely city, but other than a Radiohead concert, I never enjoyed my visits to the city in my youth.  Maybe I’d like it better now.  Guess we’ll never know.

Let It Ride

My Nashville Tattoo:


This makes my 11th tattoo since I began getting them in college, and represents my tattoo for my 6th city (I’ve gotten at least 1 in every city I’ve lived in since I started this project).

The whole collection can be seen here (sans the new one, of course).

All of my tattoos derive their meaning and influence from various areas, as does this one.  But, I’ll admit that Ryan Adams had a say in the new one:

The Worst Date

Some stories are funny when they happen.  Some stories require distance before the underlying humor can be obvious.  And then there are stories that are too dark to ever really be funny.

I’m not sure if this next story falls into the second or the third category, but I’m going to tell it here and hope it’s the second.

[Disclaimer:  I’m not trying to make light of suicide.  This is a true story as I remember it.]

The Worst Date… Ever

Back when I was living in Costa Mesa, California (in Orange County), I worked as a music section manager at one of the major bookstore chains.  It took me a couple months and an awkward appearance at a co-manager’s birthday party (which I was sort of, kinda, indirectly invited to, but not really), but I eventually found my footing among my coworkers.

Feeling a bit more comfortable at my job, I decided to pursue a girl who also worked at the store.  A mistake, I know.

After I left Charlotte for Philadelphia, I had committed myself to not getting involved in a relationship again.  I had left a great girl in Charlotte (also a coworker) and I knew with my 10 Cities plan that it was just too painful and unfair to go through that again.  It was a wise decision.  Just not an easy one to stick to.

By the time I had moved from Philly to Costa Mesa, I was ready to abandon my self-imposed isolation.

This girl, let’s call her Susan, was a new hire, younger than me (they almost always are) and vaguely punk, in that way teenagers and early twentysomethings always come off when they try to be ‘counterculture’.  Maybe it was being surrounded by Orange County plastic chicks or just vestigial attraction to punk rock grrls from my teenage days, but I found her a tantalizing focus for my advances.  Susan wasn’t exactly my type (physically or in personality), but she was cute and I was tired of going it alone.

We flirted regularly and I gave her my number at one point, but she was a lazy worker and eventually she quit (or was fired, not really sure).  That likely would have been the end of it and I figured I’d never see her again, except that her mother worked in a nearby office building and Susan took a job as her mother’s assistant.  When her mother came across the way to get coffee in the bookstore, Susan came along, too, and we would chat.  I had the distinct feeling that her mother liked me, or at least approved of me.  (I do tend to do better with mothers than fathers.)

So after a few months of seeing her maybe once a week, I asked Susan out to a concert.  She said yes.

Now, for some guys, this would have been as natural as sweating, but this was monumental for me.  After more than a year of avoiding anything romantic, I was jumping back into a game that I had never been all that good at in the first place (I always feel like I stumble into relationships more than intentionally pursue them).  And the fact that the concert was Ryan Adams, my favorite singer/songwriter, heightened the magnitude of the whole affair.

As far as dates go, it wasn’t all that inventive.  We had to drive into L.A. (my roommate was letting me borrow her car) and that would take considerable time with the famously horrendous traffic, so there was no dinner, no pre- or post-concert plans, just the show.  Susan had never even heard Ryan Adams before, but she knew her brother was a big fan so she was excited.  I made her a mix of his best songs, which, naturally, I took hours to sequence and she probably never listened to.  Ryan is alt-Country and she liked ‘punk’ bands, so it wasn’t a perfect fit, but she seemed genuinely enthused for the show, so I didn’t figure it to be an issue.

The night before the concert, my phone rang and the caller ID warned: Susan.  Here it came.  She was going to back out, I knew it.  “Sorry, I can’t make it, I forgot I agreed to babysit,” or some other excuse.  Bite the bullet.

“Hi, it’s Susan,” her voice came to me, quivering.  Something was wrong.

“Hey, what’s up?”  I was prepared for any level of cop-out, but not for what she said next.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how to…  My brother is dead.  He killed himself.”

Ladies, if you want to get out of a date, a brother’s suicide definitely trumps anything.

Having dealt with suicide in my life, I attempted to console her and told her to not worry about the concert, I understood that she wouldn’t want to go.

“No,” she countered, “I still want to go.”

Uh?  “Are you sure?”

“My brother loved Ryan Adams.  I want to see him.”

This date had just turned into a tribute to her suddenly-deceased brother.  I couldn’t very well say no.  What choice did I have?  I agreed to pick her up the next day, as planned.

I was supposed to pick her up at her house, but about an hour before we were set to meet up, she called to tell me she was at a tattoo parlor.

“I’m going to get something for my brother.”  She was sitting at the parlor with her friends, not sure if she was going to get a tattoo or a piercing.  But she added, “I really feel like drinking tonight.”  An understandable reaction, though she wasn’t 21 yet.  For the record, I had no qualms helping an underaged girl get fucked up in memory of her dead brother.  Sometimes, drinking is the answer.

I arrived at the parlor with a fifth of tequila in the backseat.  No shot glasses, no limes, no salt.  Just tequila, like our Forefathers drank it.  She was still waiting to get her piercing when I arrived.  Her friends were sitting with her when I walked in, and that’s when it occurred to me that Susan was getting passed off to me.  Her friends had been hanging out with her, keeping their eyes on her, and now I was going to be taking her off their hands and she would be my responsibility.

Freshly pierced, Susan parted ways with her friends and left with me, but not for the concert.  First, we had to stop by her house.  This meant meeting her father.

I don’t recall her reason for going home, but I think it was mainly for the purpose of checking in with her parents who were reasonably concerned about her and about her going out with some random guy.  Standing in the kitchen with Susan’s father while he watched TV, I tried my best to exude an aura of, “I am not trying to take advantage of your daughter in your time of grief.”  I don’t care how cool you are, that is not an easy vibe to give off.

We finally left for the concert and managed to have a not-entirely uncomfortable conversation on the drive up, mostly about what she wanted to do with her life and what female comedians she liked.  Don’t ask me, those are just the topics that took shape.

Before going into the concert, we each did five shots straight from the bottle of tequila.  As a mind eraser, I’ve always found Mexican Lemonade to be quite effective, and so we made our way into the venue sufficiently buzzing.

How was the concert, you might be wondering.  That’s sort of crass of you, but okay, I’ll tell you.  Ryan Adams and the Cardinals gave a great performance that night.  I got to hear them play “Come Pick Me Up” which Ryan hadn’t played the first time I saw him live, plus nearly 30 other songs.  Ignoring the circumstances, it might have been one of the best concerts of my life.

But the circumstances could not be ignored.  Throughout the show, Susan was receiving text messages from friends and family all sending their condolences as the news of her brother’s suicide was spreading.  The guy to my right grew pissy and kept whispering curtly for her to shut her phone because the light was bothering him.  I tried to apologize and explain it was important, but I didn’t very well want to say, “Cool it man, her brother just died.”  It just didn’t seem like the best thing to blurt out.

Halfway through the show, there was an intermission and Susan and I went back to the car for another round of shots.  By the time we sauntered back in for the second half of the show, well more than half the bottle had been extinguished.  We both beelined for the restrooms and then met back in our seats.  After sitting through maybe two songs of the second half of the concert, Susan told me she was going back to the bathroom.

After five songs of absence, I texted her to see if she was okay.  She said she was fine.  I texted her again after another few songs.  She still said she was fine, just in the bathroom.  The concert ended and Susan had never returned.

As the crowd was clearing out of the concert hall, I bolted to the bathrooms.  I spotted Susan being accompanied out of the bathroom by a girl who told me she had been bawling in the bathroom.  A small crowd had gathered and one guy, giving me the stink eye, asked Susan what I had done to her.  I quickly interjected to explain that Susan wasn’t crying because of me, her brother had just died (I left out the details) and thankfully Susan was coherent enough to affirm it.

From there, I helped her to the car and drove her home.  I don’t recall if we spoke much on the drive home, but I would guess a heavy silence filled the majority of our conversation.

I dropped her off, no goodnight kiss (and no attempt for one), and watched her ascend up into the shelter of her home.

After that night, I saw her sporadically over my last seven months spent in Costa Mesa, mostly with her mother.  There was no second date and while I didn’t exactly avoid Susan, I didn’t attempt to call her either.  Whether that was the right thing to do or not, I don’t know, but she needed to surround herself with people who knew and loved her, not some random guy who thought she was kinda cute.

I eventually started dating someone else (another coworker; I know, it’s a sickness) and moved to San Francisco for my 4th city.  I had no reason to think I’d ever see Susan again, so you can imagine how surprised I was to run into her on my third night in SF at a small coffee shop where my drunk, Australian roommate was miserably performing stand-up comedy (a story for another post).

I ended up spending the night hanging out with Susan and a couple of her roommates.  She had also recently moved to the city.  Talking with her and her friends, it was obvious how little we had in common, but it was good to see her enjoying herself.  Susan told her friends about me and they immediately took to me, telling me how ‘cool’ I was.  They talked about us hanging out and Susan once again took my number so that she could call me up on another night.

When I left her that night, Susan gave me a long, firm hug, as did her friends.

I never did hear from her again.

Body Poetry

For every city I live in, I like to get at least one new tattoo, something that sums up my thoughts of the previous year or a general philosophy that encompasses my experiences (both physical and mental).

Today, I got my newest one.

The year in San Francisco and my time here in Chicago really has been a lot about surviving hard times.  The economic turmoil that’s hit this country seriously threatened to derail my whole dream, and there have been numerous times in the past 18 months that I thought I might not be able to pay my rent, forget actually making it to my next city.  But I have survived, and I remain steadfast in my ambitions.

Here are the rest of my tats, in order of inking:

the Road is Life Presence THIS TOO SHALL PASS Silent Silence beat on stranger ZERO SIX MYth Survival of the Fittest context Total So Far

By the end, I hope to have my whole chest covered in words, all telling my story…