Tuesday, March 13, 2012

my changing relationship to music ii

When I bought my first car (it was really the second one I drove, but since the first one was really my dad's, and I wrecked it after a month, it doesn't really count), it came with its original radio. This was a problem, because the car was a 1973 Plymouth Valiant, and the original radio was a tube-powered AM radio. It had to warm up before I could enjoy the glorious selection of the Jacksonville AM radio market. As I was a big music fan, I found this arrangement to be less than satisfactory.

So I saved up some of my Little Caesars money, made the trip to Circuit City, and bought a Mitsubishi cassette player and Coustic (I think) speakers...which, as my automobile was a piece of crap, effectively gave me a more expensive car radio than car. The radio sounded pretty good, but more importantly, it was loud. When I would have to go to work meetings, I'd pick up a co-worker (who later stole my job), throw in ...And Justice For All, and turn up the volume until the windows started to shake...which worked better than coffee.

It was a good stereo. The problem with it, though (apart from being in a crappy car), was that it was a cassette player...not that there were many alternatives. Having a cassette player made it a necessity to learn basic cassette reconstruction techniques. If the tape flipped out of the shell and got caught on the player heads, I had to be able to fish out the ribbon while inflicting minimum damage. I became adept at re-spooling tapes when the case would crack. Every so often, a cassette would start emitting a high-pitched whine when playing. I quickly learned this could be fixed by throwing the cassette as hard as I could on the floor.

The tapes themselves required a certain care to minimize the playing malfunctions. Leave a tape in a car in Florida in the summer, and it would instantly stretch and warp to the point of sounding unlistenable (I would've used the "experimental label, but I didn't know it back then). In the best case, cassettes had a limited lifespan and would simply wear out. I could directly quantify how much I liked an album by how many copies I went through; Appetite for Destruction, Operation: Mindcrime, ...And Justice for All, and For Those About to Rock all warranted at least three re-purchases.

I was far from alone in having to buy these cassettes over and over. For one thing, cassettes sucked for everyone, not just me. But more importantly, many of the people I knew similarly blew through multiple copies of each of these specific albums. Is there anyone in existence who only owned one copy of Appetite? Nah, not only did everyone buy the Guns n' Roses debut, they inevitably had to replace it more than once. Similarly, every metalhead I knew had Operation: Mindcrime multiple times, and ...And Justice for All similarly seemed to be in every single person's car more than once...a working copy in the tape deck and a crushed copy on the floorboards.

While I'm sure each of these albums can thank the crappy nature of cassettes for a certain portion of their high sales figures, there is another factor at work: each of these albums was especially popular. Sure, Mindcrime had a limited base of appeal, but pretty much anyone who might like it did in fact own it. Metallica crossed over to mainstream with ...And Justice (before, it should be noted, they went commercial), and it was impossible to throw a rock in a local mall without hitting at least one burgeoning teenage GnR fan...visible by the patch on the back of their jean jacket. Hell, Appetite for Destruction reached a certain level of omnipresence among people I know. I hesitate to think of it as a touchstone of my generation, but it probably is more accurate of a characterization of that album than I would like to admit.

It's not really a mystery why it worked this way. Of course we all listened to pretty much the same stuff. How would we ever find out about different stuff? MTV was still playing videos, but it wasn't like they had great access for anyone other than the few bands major labels pushed. We could listen to the radio, but the local stations pretty much only played arena rock from the seventies. We could look at the music magazines, but they stuck on the same several bands which actually managed to hit MTV airplay. If we talked to our friends, they might recommend something they heard of...either on MTV, radio, or in a crappy music mag.

I've been thinking about this for some time. Back in November, I was looking up some band on Amazon, and I just kept following the "people who bought this also bought..." link until I found something I liked...so I was able to discover, purchase, and download an album (the debut from Yuck) from a band I would've never heard of if not for the internet. And if you like one indy band, it's increasingly easy--via mailing lists, bandcamp, and the like--to discover twenty or thirty similar bands; for me, Son Volt led to Uncle Tupelo, which led to Wilco, which led to Drive-By Truckers, which led to Slobberbone, which led to Two Cow Garage, which led to Glossary, which led to Lucero, and so on. It's truly a wonder.

Every so often, I'll read someone complaining about how our ever-increasing media access has led us, as a culture, to increasingly divergent tastes. The critic will continue on, lamenting the days where people used to share more cultural experiences; nowadays, the writer will continue (with a tear on their choice of font), we're growing increasingly apart from too many entertainment choices. Will we ever be able to be a single people, they end, without a shared monoculture?

Admittedly, I'm not usually one for nostalgia, but the nostalgia for a monoculture makes even less sense than normal. After all, if I would've had choices, if I would've known of my options, would I have really invested so much of my youth into Motley Crue? Probably not...and I would've been a better person for it.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

floating, not sinking

I've been thinking lately of out of body experiences...and what makes me think of them is not psychic Soviet spies (which would, it should be stated, be very cool indeed). Instead, I think of sickness and stress.

When I was a grad student, I had use of the student health center. While everyone I ever saw there was relatively nice, they also were proponents of the "open the patient's mouth and throw a handful of pills at them" school of medicine. I went in there my first year of grad school because I had a bad cold, and the coughing was keeping me up at night. The doctor, without doing anything other than a cursory examination, gave me a codeine prescription.

I am, for the record, never going to become a drug fiend. I have to admit, though, that codeine was rather fun. I could feel my body going numb and my mind getting a little loopy...but I could do so with complete detachment. It was almost like I was floating above this guy whose behavior was slowly deteriorating...albeit in a fairly hilarious way.

As anyone who's been through its ranks may tell you, grad school was, by and large, not all goofy drug-induced laughs, By the end of my time in grad school, I was facing a dissertation which started sprawling out of my reach while the job market, which I was soon to enter, was not so much contracting as imploding. I found myself indulging in very un-Mike-like behavior. I didn't want to do any work...hell, I didn't want to do much of anything other than lay on the couch in silence and eat too much, maybe while gently rocking back and forth for variety. When I did interact with people, I either became silent or snapped at those around me. I could see myself turning into someone I did not like, and while I wasn't exactly a disembodied Mike floating above the scene as per bad sci-fi, I did experience it as someone else--someone very dark--taking over who I thought of as "me."

One night while my (future) mother in law was over, my (future) wife asked me something about my day, and I bit into her, spewing gloom and hopelessness. I saw her face drop, and, all of a sudden, the two of them realized they needed to run to the store...or do something, anything to get out of my sight. Again, it wasn't me...and there was really nothing I could do to stop the outburst. Hell, I was as disturbed by it as anyone, because it was the type of behavior I didn't think I would do.

The next day, I made an appointment to the over-prescribing student health center. I told the doctor about my blackness and my outbursts. She asked me rather matter-of-factly if I was suicidal while writing me a prescription for Zoloft. After a month or so, I started to feel more like myself. My (then) girlfriend was shocked when I started to discuss my depression treatment with friends. What was more shocking was how many of them either were on or had been on anti-depressants themselves. One friend commented, "It's more surprising if someone has been through grad school and hasn't been on anti-depressants." It seemed like we were all floating above our own heads, pushed away from who we really were...but I was the first one to start talking about it.

Years passed. The closest I got to out of body experiences during was the severe boredom of student conferences. After somehow landing a teaching position in a field far from my own and marrying my sweetie, my life stabilized. My performance on the job market never actually improved...in spite of re-branding myself as an academic and publishing eight articles (and being told by a boss I was publishing more than many tenure track faculty). Eventually, I felt I had settled into life. I became okay with my out-of-my-field job. I accepted I would never hit the tenure track. I joined a band. All was good.

It's funny, though...while I knew I would never be thought of as perky or happy-go-lucky, I honestly believed I was relatively doubt-free...at least in big-picture terms. All those worries and anxieties, however, have a way of coming back at the least expected time.

My wife and I decided to have a child. When she officially got pregnant, we hugged...and I was honestly joyed. However, this is when a lot of old doubts started flying to the surface. Even though I had given up on the job market ages before, I started to actively think of myself as a failure in terms of my career. This made me re-question whether I believed success was even possible...which made me in turn re-question things like justice, honor, hope, what it meant to be a success anyway, was it worth it to even try to work hard? to be honest? to be a good person?...all of which made me start to ask the really big question: what would I tell my child? When my kid was old enough, would I say "you can be anything you want to be" even after I no longer believed it to be true? Would I be a depressingly honest father or a lie-filled hopeful dad?

This was compounded when my beautiful girl, somewhere around the second month, starting to scream for hours on end. I tried to soothe her the best I could, and there were times where I was pretty good at it...mostly when singing to her. But I quickly learned I was, for some reason, absolutely horrible at calming her at night. There was one night where I got up to give my wife a rest...but my girl would not quit crying. I tried singing. I tried rocking her. I tried shushing her. My girl, however, just ramped up the screaming into Exorcist-esque squeals. It drove me to tears, and my wife had to relieve me. Moreover, she had to assure me it was just one of those things, as I had immediately assumed and was sure my daughter simply hated me.

Our girl also had some sort of digestive issue early on...either acid reflux or some food intolerance via mom-juice. This caused the poor girl to get into screamy fits rather often if unpredictably. Usually, she would balance out screamy and cute. There were days, however, where she turned very screamy for most of her awake portions. I remember one particular Wednesday where she was fine in the morning but unpleasant through the afternoon. The next day, she was just relentlessly unhappy the entire day. I did not deal with this well. At one point, black thoughts entered my head as I held my screaming baby, things I still don't want to admit to myself or anyone else...and I had to set her down in her crib, go into my bedroom, lay down in the fetal position, and cry. I'm normally not prone to such displays, but this time, it was unavoidable. When my kid was yelling at me, I would think "why did we even bother to have her?"...and the fact I realized I had thought this would make me feel worse than I thought possible. When my wife got home, I had to pass off our girl, go back to the bedroom, and resume my whimpering.

Not all days were this bad. Enough of them were, though. I found the early days (before she started smiling or laughing) to be particularly hard, and I assumed that, when she developed a bit more, it would get better. However, after she showed flashes of the happy, joyous baby she could be, it actually made the screamy fits--even if less common--to be that much worse in emotional impact. Fit this together with my job depression recurrence and my social isolation, and there were enough times where I could see me tumbling away from myself, becoming the black soul which I feared.

So I went to my doctor and told him about my depressions...both past and present. Instead of just throwing pills at me, though, he actually talked to me. He thought I was probably not fully into depression and might benefit more from talking to a professional. He gave me a name. I called. They told me it would take a month or more before they could fit me in. This depressed me further. I'm on the edge of depression, and you want me to wait a month?

I knew I should probably look for other people, but I didn't want to trust my mental health to someone I picked out of the phone book...yellow pages ads should not determine one's mental status. I asked a friend who works at my doctor's office, and she gave me a list of other therapists in the area. I called about seven of them, but none of them would even return my calls. So now I was still without an appointment and still depressed in general...but now I was also depressed about the state of the medical industry. So I called my original therapist to get an appointment, and this time, I had to wait six weeks. But I could hold it together for that long...right?

I finally got to the doctor. He seemed a nice guy...very interested in me and a good listener. So I spelled out my situation. I described my previous depression. I told him about my scholarship failures. I went through my repeated failures on the job market. I told him about my failed attempt to re-brand myself as a scholar. I then walked him through my difficulties adjusting to being a new father. I mentioned my feelings of isolation. I described in great detail the days where I broke down and cried. I built everything up to my ultimate philosophical crisis: how do you cope when you discover everything you believed, everything which used to drive you, how all of that was a lie?

As I said, he seemed like a really nice guy. Near the end of our hour together, though, I realized that he'd only been listening and not really constructively contributing. There was not even a hint of "this is what you can do about it" or "so this is a way to cope." And when I finished, instead of discussing how we'd work together, what we wanted to do, what course my therapy might take, he simply told me it was nice to meet me. I walked out, shaking my head. I went to the receptionist to pay my co-pay, and I noticed she had a radio playing the song "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"...which seemed a particularly ominous number for a psychiatrist's office.

I tried to hold it together on my own, but then I had a bad week. I had to negotiate some language on my job evaluation letter, because the verbage made me look like an idiot and a bad teacher. Then my band was set to finish recording an album, but instead of getting together, there was a big blowup on Facebook which ended a few days later with us losing our rhythm section. These things hit me harder than they should and make me a worse person than I was. I got a doctor's appointment, and he gave me a prescription for brain pills. And while there will still be bad days (last Thursday, for instance, my daughter forgot it was my birthday and just stayed in a bad mood which, by the time my wife came home, had reduced me to tears several times over), they hopefully will become less. I have a few things going for me: my wife is utterly wonderful, my daughter has the best laugh in the world, and soon, the anti-depressants will kick in and I will start to level out.

However, "leveling out," although a common and unavoidable phrase when describing depression, is the wrong metaphor. It's not that it's inaccurate. In many ways, the person who I become when depressed is me...just a lower version of me. He is meek, hopeless, lethargic, gloomy, stagnant, and a sucking vortex of joylessness. But if I think of my depression as being part of me, it will be easier for me to slide back into being him. If, however, I think of my depressed self as being someone else, it puts a bit of distance between us, and it makes it easier for me to find ways to increase that distance...until hopefully I can him out of existence entirely.

After all, it's more important to be the kind of person I want to be. If I can disown the negative, I can transcend it, conquer it, rise above.