Shuttering: My journey in photography

I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

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.

This photo was published in the After Happy Hour Review.

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.

Capricho Cascada

The 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.

 

 

New York City: Final Thoughts on the Big Apple

New York City, split into five boroughs and a thousand neighborhoods, cannot be defined as one thing. When someone dismisses this city with some hoary cliché about hipsters or millionaires, I know they’ve never actually spent any time here. This city has as many personalities and styles as it has corner bodegas.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan, rarely been to Queens, coasted through the Bronx, and touched my toes on Staten Island. I’ve had one experience of the city, and it is hardly representative. But it is still authentic.

As I’ve done for previous cities I’ve lived in and left, I’m taking time to look back on my time here and grade various aspects of the city. Let me stress, though it should be obvious, that these grades are based on my experiences which have been shaped by a lot of factors that are not universal. This isn’t an attempt to give a definitive grade of the city, only to organize my final thoughts on yet another one of my short term homes.

Let’s get going.

Empty Subway

Public Transportation – Hoo boy, this is a loaded topic right now. On the one hand, New York’s subway system is the most extensive in the country, one of the biggest in the world, and connects culturally distinct neighborhoods to create a melting pot like no other place in the world. All that, and it has free wifi.

On the other hand(s), MTA is riddled with systemic problems and hopelessly obsolete equipment, all coming together to create one of the greatest metropolitan clusterfucks of all time. It’d be impressive if it wasn’t so damn infuriating. Hurricane Sandy only exacerbated the issues and an already strained system – which has a ridership far outpacing its capacity – is currently in a transitional period. Repairs and improvements are possible, but the costs will be staggering and will necessitate massive disruptions, all of which might prove worth it in ten or fifteen years, but for current New Yorkers (not especially known as being even-keeled), it is going to be a nightmare. (One of a number of reasons I’m happy to be leaving now.)

There’s a lot of blame to go around, though currently it’s mostly falling on Governor Cuomo. There’s no question that he deserves a chunk of it, but in reality, the underlying problems are the result of a kick-the-can mentality that has existed for decades. This city – and state – needs to act now or matters will only get worse and worse.

And, yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve personally been quite lucky. When I first moved to the city, I was on the C and A lines, which are inconsistent and overcrowded, but by no means the worst in the system and generally within spitting distance of being on time. Better still, since moving to Crown Heights, I’m right off of the 2, 3, 4, and 5 lines, four of the most accessible and reliable routes in the city. That might change when other lines get shut down for repairs, but for my time here, it’s been ideal.

To give a fair overall grade, I have to consider both my personal experience and the general quality of the system. I’d give it top marks if I were only reflecting my experience, and it’d barely get a passing grade if I were solely grading on the big picture. So splitting the difference:

Grade: B-

City Planning – From the very first time I walked through Manhattan, some fifteen years ago, I was awestruck by the sheer grandeur and scope of this modern wonder. When people think of a city, whether they’ve been here or not, they’re thinking of New York. As far as modern metropolises go, it remains the truest form.

There are a lot of ways in which NYC is falling behind other major cities (see: Public Transportation), but it will forever remain one of the most unique and successfully laid out cities in the world. Even more impressive, a lot of its “city planning” was achieved by mere chance, a natural evolution guided less by intentional design than by individual actors pursuing their own interests and somehow forming a cohesive whole.

Yes, many neighbors make strange bedfellows: Chinatown and its pervasive fish smell flows over to some of the most expensive and ostentatious avenues in the city. That’s just part of the charm. There is nothing I enjoy more than taking a walk through urban spaces, and what New York offers more than any other US city is an unending kaleidoscope of facades and personalities. Sure, in a post-Giuliani world, it’s lost much of its aura of danger, and Times Square is a logo-ejaculating neon nightmare, but there’s still plenty of grime to be found if that’s your bag, and if that’s not your bag, something more to your tastes is only a short subway ride away (assuming no delays).

NYC is massive. While there are many neighborhoods that feel downright suburban and there’s no shortage of economically impoverished areas (I’ll leave the debate over gentrification for someone else), this city manages to both be an explorer’s delight and still absolutely accommodating to a homebody. I can’t tell you how many Brooklynites I’ve met who rarely leave their neighborhood, let alone the borough. Truly, something for everyone.

Grade: A

4th Avenue Pub Bulb.jpg

Bars/Nightlife – Um, yeah, New York has nightlife. What really needs to be said? If you like to drink and hang out late with other people who do, you are never going to be out of luck in this city. When I first moved to the city, I happened to move into one of the few bar deserts in all of Brooklyn, a yet-to-be-gentrified portion of Bed-Stuy where you could walk for fifteen minutes in any direction and not find a watering hole. Truly, a rare spot. It didn’t last long, because at the beginning of my second year in that apartment, I stumbled across The Evergreen, newly opened and within walking distance of my apartment.

Other establishments were starting to open in the area by the time I moved to Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has no such dry spots. It matters not where you live, though, because a train or a bus or a car will deposit you into some form of nightlife within minutes.

In terms of bars, Manhattan is overrun with the flashy, expensive joints (meh), Irish pubs, and dives that still charge you ten bucks for well whiskey. Brooklyn does hipster and trendy, naturally, but you’ll also find plenty of true dives and neighborhood haunts and whatever else might be to your taste. Of course there are clubs and secret raves and strip clubs and whatever it is that floats your boat. Oh yeah, they have boat parties, too.

The point is, if you come to New York City looking for nightlife, you’d have to be a real twit not to find a scene for you.

Grade: A

Little Dancer of Fourteen Years

Art Scene – When you think of art scenes, New York City is always going to come to mind. Granted, that’s partly due to its history: whether you’re thinking of the writers of the 1920s or Andy Warhol’s Factory, this city has been synonymous with art since the 19th century.

Even now, there’s Broadway, and the Met, and Carnegie Hall, and all the other famous venues, big and small. TV and movie crews are a fairly regular sight, especially in Brooklyn, and every major musical act in the world passes through here for at least one night. If you’re looking for big name performers, they’ll be here.

The real test of a city, though, is how well it fosters the smaller art scenes; do artists still come here to pursue their dream at the cost of everything else? Of course. Does anything come of it? Of course, for some. A lot’s been made of the city’s astronomical rent prices pushing out struggling artists and hampering similar art scenes from growing up here, and there’s unquestionably some truth to that, but frankly, we’re living in a pretty terrible time to be an artist no matter where you’re living. I would know. At least in NYC, you’re likely to find a sympathetic audience. Well, not antagonistic, at least.

In my three years here, I’ve attended massive arena concerts, shows in the park, and intimate venue gigs; I’ve been to an independent movie premiere, an off-off-Broadway play, and burlesque, drag, and fashion shows; I’ve read my terrible poetry to a too-kind audience and watched a woman perform a folk opera; I have been to museums and galleries, passed buskers on the streets and subways, and checked out street dance crews. Oh, and I’ve seen a few dozen movies. If I wasn’t such a lazy bastard, I could have seen a whole lot more, too.

The point is, New York City might not be the most hospitable place for artists, but art lovers really have nothing to complain about.

Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A

Poles

Living – By certain metrics, New York City is the most expensive city in the country (in terms of affordable housing options, San Francisco and Boston are actually less viable), so that is going to affect one’s way of life here. Sure, if you come here to work on Wall Street (or to indulge your fetish for grown men in superhero get-ups), you’re going to be living large. For most of us, though, the astronomical cost of living puts a damper on life.

And yet, for every $34 cocktail, there’s a half dozen free concerts or movie nights. There are always free days at museums and the botanic gardens, and if all you’re looking for is to get drunk, there are cheap options. No, you’re probably not going to find New Orleans’ rock bottom prices (and no Nickel Shot Nights), but a night of drinking doesn’t have to cause you to break your lease (unless you have one of those friends that insists on drinking in the Lower East Side). The point is, moving to the city does not require one become a monk, just savvy.

Then there’s the issue of housing. The stereotype is real: Some NYC apartments really are hamster cages without the views. If you’re deadset on living in the trendiest neighborhoods (did you immediately think Williamsburg? Congratulations, you’re already passé), then sure, expect to squeeze a twin bed into a closet. Otherwise, there are plenty of very good areas in this city that have reasonably affordable, human-sized digs still in walking distance of public transportation (see above for that mixed bag). Who knows how much longer that will be true?

Affordable is, of course, a subjective term. When I’ve told family members back in Kansas what I pay for rent, they balk, and my rent is one of the cheapest in the city. Some people come to this city with lucrative job offers, while many others don’t enjoy that privilege. Like most American cities, New York is basically intentionally pricing out the poor. On the other hand, NYC has embraced the $15 minimum wage (it’s being gradually phased in over a number of years), so that’s small relief.

The bottom line is, this city is expensive – depressingly so – but if your dream is to live here, to make it here, that dream is still within reach. You’ll just have to hustle.

Grade: B-

The Eclipse

People – Man, what can you say about New Yorkers that hasn’t already been said by every single movie and TV show you’ve ever seen? Well, a lot, actually, because media representations are always incomplete at best, or bullshit at worst.

Are the characters from Girls real? You betcha. Sex and the City? Probably, but I couldn’t afford to hang out with them. Friends? If you mean white people, then yes. Looking for something less Caucasian? Well, Spike Lee’s joints truthfully capture an aspect of the New York (Brooklyn) way of life, but those are more historical documents these days. For every popular depiction of New York City out there, there are still plenty of stones unturned. Some people will never see themselves represented on TV.

Let’s just say it: New Yorkers are loud, impatient, and rude. They wouldn’t argue the point. But I’ve only lived here a few years and I was already two out of three before I got here, so I don’t think you can blame that on the city. Get past the stereotypes and the fear, and the people here are really just a microcosm of all of society. Sure, that’s a cliché of all cities, but more than any other city in the country, NYC truly defies easy generalizations. People from all over the country and the world have traveled to live here. How could only one personality type exist here?

Also, nice people are the worst.

My experience of the people in this city, both locals and my fellow transplants, is that they’re generally friendly, at times confrontational, but usually happy to let live. They get heated about politics and sports, and they can sit in a bar and talk to a stranger for three hours about their favorite bands. They’ll screw you over from time to time, but they’ll also watch your back; their faces will light up when you walk in after a month’s absence. They’re people. This is New York. This is everywhere.

And if you’re wondering, “Do they think they’re better than me?” Yeah, probably. But if you’re worried about that, then aren’t they?

Grade: A


New York City: Photogenic

I’ve used this blog to tell my fair share of stories about living in New York City, but sometimes you just have to step back and let the city tell its own stories.

When my first year in New York came to a close, I posted some of my favorite photographs from my time so far. Here, then, are more of my favorites, these from the last two years of life in (and around) the city.

Next week, I’ll be dusting off an old feature as I give NYC it’s final grades. Until then, enjoy the photos.

 

Cheers

How music can save a life

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.

Songs Molina

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.

Sigur Ros Untitled

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?

2017: How Will It Be A Better Year?

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.

I’m a big believer in personal change, I just don’t put any stock in arbitrary time markers. The division of years, while useful for a myriad of practical and societal reasons, is given too much prominence in our personal lives. You’re going to be the same person at 2016-12-31 23:59:59 as you will be at 2017-01-01 00:00:01. We don’t change because the calendar turns; we change because we make a choice to do so.

It’s already a cliché that 2016 was a shitty year, but you know what they say: They’re clichés for a reason.

It’s quite possible your favorite artist died (with David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Gene Wilder, and Harper Lee topping the list of the deceased, odds are good at least one creator you enjoyed or even adored passed); or maybe the man who was elected President of the United States deeply concerns (terrifies, sickens, etc.) you; or perhaps your personal life has fallen apart all around you. All reasons to hate the year that was.

Also, let us never forget, millions of people around the world were displaced from their homes and are still facing uncertain futures and unrelenting terror. It’s hard to look back on the headlines of this past year and not feel despondent. This Saturday, people across the world will gather to enthusiastically celebrate 2016’s end, myself included.

But then what?

It’s time to ask yourself the question, how are the next twelve months going to be better than the last twelve months?

I’m not talking about weight loss plans, or resolving to read a book a week. Those are all fine goals to set for yourself, but they’re skin deep endeavors. Even if you accomplish your goal, you will exit 2017 essentially the same as you entered it.

Look, if you’re content with yourself and your place in the world, I’ve got no advice for you. Just keep on keepin’ on, stay golden, Ponyboy, and so on.

For the rest of us, though, it’s time to think about how we’re going to make actual change in our lives and our world.

ART

Firstly, if you’re depressed because a bunch of celebrities died this year, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, buckle up, it’s only going to keep getting worse. If, however, you’re saddened by the loss of artistry as represented by those who departed in 2016, maybe it’s time to do your part to make sure new art keeps being produced in the world. Lord knows we need it.

That could mean finishing your album or novel. Maybe you take a big risk – quitting your job, performing live – and actually put faith in your art. It might not even be about your own art: You could start a company or group to support other artists. Or maybe you’re a parent and you encourage your child to pursue music, or theater, or dance, or any form of expression. The David Bowie’s of this world all started somewhere.

POLITICS

If you’re looking around the planet and don’t like what you see, you are not alone. The global political landscape is looking pretty grim right now, and there’s no one singular cause. There’s also no one solution.

If you’re politically inclined, now is as good a time as any the absolute best time to get involved. I can’t speak for politics in other countries, but in the United States there is a dearth of thoughtful, engaged people throwing their hat in the ring. It’s not enough to go to protests or to sign petitions (and it’s certainly not enough to share articles on social media). There are open positions in your local government that aren’t glamorous or sexy, but still matter. Stop bemoaning the lack of viable candidates, and become one.

You can blame a rigged system for why Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or some other (better) candidate didn’t get their shot at the presidency, but politics is a game of chess, and there are more pieces on the board than just the King and Queen. The great thing about a pawn is, if it makes enough moves, it can eventually become a knight, rook, bishop, or, yes, queen.

CHARITY

Politics matters, but there are some causes that will never be fixed by laws or deal making. There are many lives that cannot hold on long enough for a treaty to be signed. Donating to good causes is a straightforward and admirable way to help out others, especially when there’s no clear answer for a problem, but that money doesn’t just go to a magical cloud to rain down on those in need. Wherever there is a need to be met, someone has to physically step up to do the work. Could that be you?

Doctors Without Borders, the Peace Corps, and countless other disaster relief organizations all do great work around the world. If you have a medical background, especially, your services could be put to great use. There is likely even vital work to be done in your own neck of the woods. Volunteering somewhere, anywhere, whatever your skill sets, is massively important. Obviously, not everyone can do it, and that’s why donations are still so important, but for those who can, there is a world of need.

2017

This isn’t meant to be a guilt trip. It’s easy to read these kinds of posts and think, “That sounds great, but I know myself and I won’t/can’t do any of it.” Believe me, I get it. All of those suggestions I made, I don’t intend to do them.

As readers know, I’m moving to Spain next year. In my next post, I will write about my plans and purpose in making that move. It’s true that I’m doing it because I love to travel, but I’m also moving to hopefully have a positive impact. Like I said, I’ll get into the details next week, but for now I just want to say I spent much of this year frustrated and determining how to improve my world and my place in it. 

There’s no wrong way to make a change, but there’s a surefire way to make sure nothing changes, and that’s doing nothing.

I started out this post by saying that I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I never have, I never will. But that doesn’t mean I don’t make resolutions. I’m resolved to be in a new place – geographically, psychically, intellectually – than I am right now. If, for you, tying a resolution to the New Year gives it more weight, then do what you need to do. Just make it a resolution that matters.

With this year coming to a close, those of us who are dissatisfied with the state of our world need to decide what we’re going to do about it, and as individuals, we need to resolve to take action. 2017 will only be better than 2016 if we make it so.

 

What can a white, heterosexual, cisgender male do? Listen.

This past week has been loud.

Our entrance into the Gilded Phage erupted in protests, violence, and hate speech, while Twitter fights, Facebook rants, and, most vital, thoughtful blog posts remain at pre-Election levels. Voices are still reaching the cheap seats as dire warnings of an encroaching wave of racism and bigotry are met with caustic dismissals demanding people “Wait and see” and “Stop whining.” It’s a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector tumescent.

This election proved one thing: there are a lot of white, heterosexual, cisgender males in this country, and despite assertions that they are the new oppressed minority, they remain both the most powerful and vocal force in American politics. As a member of that demographic, I have never felt so dismayed to be so visible.

For the last year, ever since I completed 10 Cities, I’ve been largely silent. Up until last week, this website had gone dark and I had minimized my Facebook presence (I’ve remained somewhat active on Twitter; my apologies). I’ve been practicing a skill that doesn’t come naturally to me: Listening.


Listening to voices that aren’t white, heterosexual, cisgender, and/or male is critical for the continued growth of our society and for our growth as individuals. We only need look at last Tuesday to know what’s at stake when we don’t.

One of the ways I’ve been reminding myself to be a better listener is intentionally seeking out voices that wouldn’t naturally enter my sphere of interests. As a white, heterosexual, cisgender male, I’m striving to engage with the points of view of those who aren’t. I’ve not intentionally avoided or ignored those voices in the past, but by nature of our societal structure, I’ve done it all the same.

So far, this endeavor has had the greatest impact in my consumption of art, particularly music and literature. I’ve read assault narratives and about rape culture (Alice Sebold and Kate Harding), read fiction from people of color (Colson Whitehead and Zadie Smith; Zadie pisses me off because her first novel is just so damn good) as well as non-American authors (Arturo Perez-Reverte). I’ve read many other authors (including plenty of white males) this last year, but I hope to find even more diverse voices next year. 

Additionally, and to a much greater extent, I’ve been listening to a more varied slate of musical artists. My musical taste has always been eclectic, but my go-tos have generally been white, straight dudes. It seems like a trivial thing because it’s an easy thing; I love music and I love finding new artists. And yet, as easy as it is to do, it still had to be a conscious choice. Ultimately, that minimum effort to expand my palate has been deeply enriching.

To that end, I’m concluding this post with a by-no-means-exhaustive list of artists who are not white, or not male, or not straight, or not cisgender. The list could expand indefinitely, but these just happen to be some that I’ve come to really appreciate over the last year and who, importantly, offer a broader perspective.

And, finally, to my fellow white, heterosexual, cisgender males: There’s no prize for listening, no pat on the back; there’s just the pleasant reality that so many voices deserve our attention and we are invariably enriched by the simple experience of hearing a new perspective.

I hope you enjoy the music and that you’ll keep listening.

Gallant – Episode

Against Me! – Black Me Out

Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend

Lydia Loveless – Midwestern Guys

Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair