Sunday, April 6, 2014

Raging Against the Cages of Our Own Unhappiness

I decided I need to start writing these things again, because it seems like I've only been writing when someone dies. And that's a piss poor reason to write something down.  It's all regrets.

As one ages, it seems like life is full of them.  Small ones. Big ones. Some regrets are like a piece of corn stuck between your teeth... annoying, and recognizable, but something you can live with. Other regrets haunt you like a demon-ghost from a Joe Hill novel. It's the curse of aging -- though I suppose there are some people who aren't introspective enough to have regrets of the sort I'm talking about.  Either way... whether it be from a long life, or from introspection, regrets are a queer sort of badge of honor. If you don't have them, you either haven't had much of a life, are a thoughtless idiot, or are dead.

But what got me putting fingers to keyboard today was an afterword to a novel. Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box is a novel filled with Rock-N-Roll. And in the afterword of the deluxe limited edition published by Subteranian press, he talks a little bit about his rock-filled youth.  And he says something that resonated with me; "...for a whole subculture of lonely, angry, imaginative kids, loud music is the hammer they use to bash at the cage of their own unhappiness"

I remember listening to a LOT of loud music... much of the music described in this afterword of Heart Shaped box is music I listened to as a teen. I had a very loud stereo system that I had lovingly cobled together from purchases made with saved birthday and Christmas monies. I had a few hundred slabs of vinyl to go along with several more hundred CDs, because I'm that damn old, and because middleschoolers should not be allowed to join the Columbia House Record of the Month Club (I think I'm still paying off that bill). I remmeber most of the album covers. And while I don't remember the songs consciously, if one comes on randomly in the background, I will find myself singing along to the words, which have been hidden away in my brain for over 30 years, randomly escaping when a song comes begins playing.

Memory is a weird thing. I don't remember what I was angry or unhappy about. I mean, there are the general things like "nobody likes me" or "I'll never get laid"... But I had a small group of friends that I got along with. And weirdly enough, I sort of kind of managed to get laid in the summer between my junior and senior year of highschool after meeting someone at a George Thorogood concert, while spending the summer in Minnesota with my natural father. So clearly my life wasn't Terrible.

But man. I was angry, frustrated and alienated pretty much all the time. hormones and whatnot... the usual cliches can be pointed at.   I remember thinking a lot about suicide in the 6th grade... Mainly I remember because something I wrote in a school journal got back to my mother, and she had a pretty serious and heavy intervention in her young sons life. So it never really got much beyond the idle "scribblings in a notebook" phase of suicidal thoughts.

I remember describing myself as Melancholy... eventually I found a great self-involved first-love tragedy in college to get really weepy about, so that helped. I think maybe my personality and/or view of the universe demanded that my first love be a tragic one.  It was pretty clear in retrospect that we weren't very compatible. But I manged to drag that train-wreck of a relationship out for almost 3 years, and flunk out of college in the process.  Sorry about that, A.  I'm sure you weren't a terrible person. I Hope your life went well. Etc etc.

I remember a line in a Nick Cave monolog, where he described his early life in the punk band The Birthday Party. He said something to the effect that it was a lot of work, being angry all the time.  This is very true. And the anger, frustration, and (in my case rage) of adolsence is an all-consuming rage that is simmering in the back of your consciousness all the time, infecting everything.

Maybe the trick of growing up is to somehow forget about it. To ignore it, at least for a ittle while. The slights, the dissapointments. The frustrations. The self loathing, and the loathing of others... if you can just, for small periods of time, forget that stuff - maybe thats what it means to be an adult?

I had an extended period of re-adolesence. Post 911 america reawaked my inner rage-demon, and I found myself crying and screaming and getting angry pretty much all the time. I probably came closs to having a stroke, as at one point my blood pressure was 140 over 220.  They took my blood pressure in my other arm, because they thought maybe a clot was causing the blood pressure in one arm to be abnormally high.  That kind of blood pressure is a symptom of some serious rage.

Speaking of Rage... that novel by Richard Bachman (AKA Stephen King, AKA Joe Hills father) was one that I read in middle school. It's an interesting perspective, being young, and looking up at characters who are older than you*. I remember being fascinated/terrifed by the novels depiction of highschool life, and at the same time I was weirdly comforted by the confirmation of my basic expectations of life, and school -- that highschool would be just as shitty and awfull as middle school and grade school had been for me,

The protagonist being institutionalized at the end always had a strange kind of appeal... If you just flip out and do something horrible, then you no longer have to worry about anything/everything. I do clearly remember thinking, even before reading Rage, that maybe, just maybe, being hospitalized or imprisoned wouldn't be all that bad because all the social pressures that seemed to be rearing up and intimidating me would be removed. A simpler life. Rage (the novel) was an articulation of that particular preadolescent fantasy... Of course I clearly didn't understand that institutional life is just more of the same kinds of social pressures, just in a pressure cooker, and deformed to something even uglier than your average middle school/highschool terror dome.

The movie Fightclub seemed to have been a movie created just for me. If you don't get why the movie worked, or what its appeal was, than you never experienced the rage and helplessness that many, many people have. It was the cinematic equivalent of Loud Rock Music. Of course, Fight Club was like Milton's Paradise lost... It reveled in the exploits of the devil, and got the reader all fired up by identifying closely and clearly with the anti-hero protagonist, but the narrative was wrapped up in a neat little bow that said "But that's crazy, of course, and you shouldn't do that." It's the narrative technique that wraps up all socially acceptable anti-hero pornography.

A person's reactions to Fight Club, and to the Columbine shootings are a perfect Rorschach test. I totally understood the impulses behind the murderous actions of those lost, angry teenagers. I and a lot of my post-college friends kind of shrugged and said "yeah... I'm surprised shit like that doesn't happen more often."  And then, tragically, it did start happening more often.  I was always surprised to find there were people who just didn't understand what compels angry young teenagers to do what they do. Clearly those people did not grow up listening to Suicidal Tendencies "Institutionalized."

From 2001 until 2011, I was pretty clear about what was making me angry all the time; The atrocities being commmited in my name by my country's millitary. Or at least I thought thats what it was. Tellingly, I spent most of that time not speaking to my natural father. His alcoholism pushed buttons in a way that finally compelled me to just cut him out of my life, so i had a host of unresolved shit, swirling around, and an excuse to act out in anger. I mean fuck... if you weren't angry during the Bush regime, you weren't paying attention.

That's a paraphrase of something I heard in a documentary about The Weather Underground; Do I understand why people strap on suicide vests, or blow up buildings. Yeah. Moral indignation and outrage are excellent things to wrap one's rage and unhappiness in. I used to joke that if it wasn't for internet flame wars and the release that my heated online rhetoric gave me, I would be up in a tower with a sniper rifle, because HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THE WORLD AROUND YOU, WHY AREN'T YOU FURIOUS??!!! And while true to a certain extent, when I said shit like that.... I was totally channeling my inner 13 year old.  I was channeling that young me, who didn't know how to ignore the constant white noise of pain, and anger and rage and unhappiness that is a part of our human condition.

I don't know if one state is inherently better than the other... being able to shut off the noise?  It certainly seems necessary if you are trying to raise two small children. I don't want them to be filled with rage. I want them to be happy. I don't want them to be ignorant of the world around them, and I hope they grow up and try and make the world a better place. But if all they are is happy, I won't complain. Because being a slave to your rage isn't any way to live.  I struggle with the small stuff every day.

I get irrationality and disproportionately angry all the time. And when I do so I make the people around me unhappy and uncomfortable. I count backwards a lot. sometimes from 10. Sometimes from 100. Sometimes my mind races along and is wrapped up and turning in circles. I replay conversation, and hash out imaginary conversations with people, trying to justify my rage or anger or overwheling sadness and helpnessness... trying to convince myself that these racing hormones and flowing endorphins are real and justified and I'm NOT FUCKING CRAZY, JUST ANGRY LIKE ANY RATIONAL PERSON WOULD BE. And when I'm in that state, I count backwards a lot to try and shut down my mind, and try to get it out of the groove that it is stuck in.

I think that loud angry music of my youth was the counting backwards of my middleagedness. I'm reminded of a quote that resonated with me in my angry youth. "It's better to Reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven." You know, that classic quote from mythologies greatest rebel, Lucifer The Morning Star. In writing this, I feel a little bit like that character from pulp fiction,  who has been quoting that Ezekiel verse his whole life, but when he tries to make a significant lifestyle change, he find himself reevaluating the meaning of the quote.

If Heaven is happiness and a perfect world, perhaps the price of achieving that perfect happiness is too great.  Maybe I can let go of my anger and rage, and just be content ruling over hell -- an imperfect place with problems and ugliness and frustrations -- but a place where I am not a slave to my rage. In order to achieve heavenly perfection, I have to be a slave to my emotions, and never be satisfied with what I actually have.  I'm reminded of another quote that has also resonated with me. "'Perfect' is the Mortal enemy of good enough."

Perhaps this seems a bit like settling for less, or for justifying failure, but snarky critiques like that seem very adolescent. Is almost-heaven good enough? Every individual has to decide for themselves.

Yours in introspective rage,

*For example. Did you ever watch the Movie Bull Duhram?  The Costner character seemed SO COOL when I saw the movie as a teenager... world weary, yet wise, and wry and funny. When I watched the movie for the first time in 30 years, my reaction to the character was very different: He seemed to be an angry, jealous frustrated jerk who spouted platitudes while pretending to be the Buddha. Maybe that's the genius of that movie, and other narratives like it. The character can be both things to the same reader/viewer, at different times of ones life.