A long meditation on a very difficult period in my life, which ain’t over yet. It will be divided into 7 parts. 1) Bad Luck 2) Bad Actors and Unimaginative Drones 3) The Bitter Pill 4) My Original Sin 5) When I Decided I Needed to Make Art 6) How to Survive 7) A Glimmer of Hope.
This is one of my rare, but increasingly frequent personal posts. One of the reasons I don’t do them much is out of respect for other people’s privacy. Inevitably when describing ones own circumstances we involve others and I don’t want to throw them under the bus with me. Therefore I will refer to others as minimally as I can and if I use names, it will not be their real ones.
Part 1: Bad Luck
I’ve had really a lot of bad luck recently, and it’s forced me to think about what it means, which one does with a bit more commitment when one is feeling it in the very present.
Don’t worry readers, I got the rational, no-nonsense, I-ain’t-believing-squat-until-it’s-empirically-proven chip. I got that a looooong time ago. There’s no god, no karma, nor rhyme nor reason why things happen. The reason things happen is no reason. I think I stopped believing in Santa before kindergarten. I recognized the neighbor and resented anyone trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I’ve always wanted to know the truth whether I liked it or not, mostly out of curiosity, and also out of some ill-founded notion that once I did know the ugly truth I could shelve it. I never thought I couldn’t handle it.
However, things aren’t so simple as pseudo-scientific rationalism supposes. And I say “pseudo-scientific” because, as someone once pointed out, most of us take our science on faith. That would include me in the sense that while I can understand explanations of scientific findings and conclusions I can’t do the math myself. I assume that if airplanes fly and smart phones work that indeed all the math must be spot on, but you could tinker with the equations until they were utterly hopeless, present them to me, and I’d believe they were airtight.
And then there are some conundrums, such as that science can’t locate consciousness at all, and without consciousness our experience of anything and everything wouldn’t exist. As Rene Descartes concluded, the one irreducible, incontrovertible subjective fact is that we know we exist because we think. That self-awareness is consciousness, without which we would experience nothing, and yet we can’t find it. A fact we can take away from this is that we have absolute proof in our mere existence that there exists that which cannot be proven to exist by science. And that opens the door for all manner of things that may exist which science has not yet discovered, or can not. In such a case incidents that seem so persuasively connected or miraculously timed may not be entirely random occurrences.
About a decade ago I realized a different concept or experience of “truth”. One may tend to think of “truth” as factual knowledge, such as the temperature water boils at (which is 212 °F ). What if we thought of “truth” as experiential rather than as conclusions? In that case a merely human truth would include the experience of every person past and present simultaneously. If that were the measure of “truth” it’s safe to say nobody could handle it. If you think you could hold your own against it keep in mind that it would include every instance of being stabbed, for just one example, all at once. It would include every birth. Once we are humbled by realizing that experiential truth is so overpowering that we only really have a tiny window open on it, we may than question whether our faith in science really represents much of a grasp of reality at all.
Here are some of the intersecting cases of bad luck I’ve had recently. It started off with what seemed like good luck. An old friend of mine, call him Thomas, arranged, without my knowledge, to have my early, physical art transported to his home for safe storage. This was great news for me, because my brother was storing it for me before then, and he was no longer willing or able to continue to do so. He’d stored it for a couple decades in a corner of his garage, where it presented no problem, but when relocating to a new house he apparently had no room for it, and it had to go into storage (with a bunch of his stuff), and this costed $$.
There was some chance, and a threat or two or three, that my work would end up in the garbage. Any threat from my brother that he would personally dispose of my art pissed me off, and that in turn provoked him to make more explicit and heated threats, which further pissed me off. The only thing I could do from overseas was send money for storage, which I didn’t have.
I was hugely relieved that Thomas rescued my art and I thanked him profusely. I was even luckier still. He had acquired a house and would allow me to stay there rent-free and work on my art. As my art is always my #1 priority, my girlfriend, call her Lila (her idea), and I arranged to fly back to America and try to reintegrate back into our own country after living overseas for about a decade each. We planned to teach online (as some of our friends do already) or work other jobs.
It turned out that it was the same price to stop off in Hawaii, where my girlfriend’s mom lives, and then take another flight to the mainland, as it was to fly directly. So I decided I’d stay in Hawaii for about a week before pushing on.
Somewhere in American airspace nearing Hawaii our luck took a nose dive. If I believed in curses I’d have all the evidence I needed to support my belief. As we started to descend I got a pain between my upper teeth on the right side like something was stuck between my molars. I tried using a tooth pick but there was nothing there. The pain increased and I became convinced my stay in Hawaii might require an emergency visit to the dentist. But then the pain spread to my lower teeth, and then up into my skull, and I became nauseous. I’d never experienced a sensation like this before, and I tried to banish the thought that I might need to go to the hospital.
In order to cope with the pain and sickness I froze in place with my hands on my knees, closed my eyes, and just breathed. This is a simple trick I think everyone knows who’s tried to meditate. When things start becoming unbearable, just focus on your breathing as much to the exclusion of everything else as possible. I played this breathing statue role for about 20 minutes until landing.
I was still shaky when we landed but had recovered by the time we collected our suitcases from baggage claim. This strange affliction has never returned.
And here I will say that I find some things which I would consider preposterous if taken literally have some kernel of truth in them when taken metaphorically, though metaphorically for WHAT is uncertain or beyond ones grasp. This is an idea I’ll return to later, if not in this post.
After arriving in Hawaii I received an email from Thomas’s son, call him Jack, notifying me that his dad was in the hospital and wouldn’t be coming home for at least several days. When we eventually spoke on the phone – as it happened while my girlfriend and I were eating dinner at an overpriced and sub-par restaurant overlooking Waikiki beach – Jack informed me in a rather vivid description that his dad had suffered a serious stroke and couldn’t string together more than two or three words at a go. As he gave me more information it became abundantly clear that I no longer had a place to stay in America. Jack would take his dad home with him to another state and sell the house.
That was a knock-down blow of bad luck, and something I couldn’t have planned for. It was a complete reversal of fate, so to speak. Now I was marooned in Hawaii, sleeping on my girlfriend’s mom’s couch in her one-bedroom apartment. I’d gone in an instant from being able to focus on art for up to a year to having to scramble for survival while shelving art for the foreseeable future.
There’s a strange thing that can happen when you are reduced to sleeping on someone’s couch. If the person whose couch you are calling your home isn’t particularly compassionate or imaginative than you can be perceived as having never amounted to anything more than a sponge who hasn’t managed to even acquire his own couch to sleep on.
I soon felt that my very physical presence was resented, and it’s a pretty shitty feeling. I don’t want to dump on my girlfriend’s mom, call her “Pam”, nor violate other people’s privacy any more than sharing a bit of my own story requires. I would keep in mind that Pam was born in rural Thailand and doesn’t have a birth certificate because her birth was recorded on a banana leaf. She has a fifth grade education, and a very different value system than my own. That said, her reaction to the new development was to make Lila and I as miserable as she could within reason, constantly judging, criticizing, and lecturing us. She even blamed us for my Thomas’s stroke, imploring, “Never do THAT again!”
I felt trapped in her home and quite miserable. And now I will go a bit Jungian on you all. I had a very unusual dream in which I was attacked by a ghost. The ghost had wrapped its arms around me and was trying to strangle me. I was making the sort of feeble bleats one issues when screaming out loud in a nightmare. In fact I don’t recall ever screaming as much during sleep.
I instinctively fought the ghost and I grabbed one of its wrists with my left hand and squoze it as hard as I could while still screaming. It’s very difficult to squeeze your fist while asleep, I discovered. I gritted my teeth and pulled the ghost’s arm off of me. Just as it released and faded away Pam inserted her key into the front door, coming home from working late at the bar where she cooks. I was somewhat worried that she’d heard my pathetic screams – it IS rather terrifying to be strangled by a ghost – but was also impressed by the precision timing. This would be the sort of coincidence that a rational person merely notes, but doesn’t know what to make of.
Pam sought to punish Lila by not giving her an Xmas present and not driving us on a few errands that would have saved us many hours of riding buses. One day, for example, we went to apply for our FBI criminal background checks, which are now commonly required for teaching English overseas. It took us about 2.5 hours to get there by bus, and the same to get home. It would have been about a half hour round trip by car.
The toilet started leaking at the seal and a repairman needed to come. The dryer broke. More bad luck.
And then there was the new computer viruses: the Meltdown Virus and Spectre Virus. Both were considered “catastrophic” in magnitude, and if you couldn’t update your copy of Windows than your computer was wide open for full-on hacking. Well, we’d bought our laptops in Thailand, and as is standard in the region they come with a cracked version of Windows that can never be updated. Not only could I not work on art because I didn’t have my monitor anymore, now I couldn’t even blog because I dare not use my computer, especially while being in the eye of a shit-storm. I was reduced to using my smart phone.
There are times in my life where if I could just push a button and disappear I’d be very tempted to do it. My only solace was getting out of the apartment and going on long walks. And when I was about at the end of my rope I thought of what I could do on my own to escape and save myself. The only sure thing I could come up with that I could manage in terms of costs, visas, and finding a job was flying back to Thailand and taking whatever teaching job would give me a visa that would allow me to stay. No matter how miserable the teaching position might be, there are always some good students and good people around. Even if it’s just an accumulation of smiles received, it’s something. I’ve already endured years of devoting myself to teaching, and it’s an existence I can endure. I’d much rather be making art, but, teaching is better than pushing that button. Once I knew I had an out I felt much better.
I returned to my normal self. There’s a kind of unhappiness I rarely experience which is HURT. Technically, I think it’s anxiety. This is the result of extenuating circumstances I can’t figure a way out of. I had a couple days of this sort of hurt before I convinced myself returning to Thailand was OK. In my normal state most things that are awry just piss me off. I don’t get especially sad or disappointed. I get pissed off at all the stupidity and incompetence and injustice that abounds… Being pissed off is a sort of indignant rejection of circumstances like rigged primaries, or someone leaving a nasty comment on my blog. It’s not as bad as internalizing things. It doesn’t hurt.
As I was on one of my long walks thinking about what “privilege” really means, and about entitlement, class, complacency, and other such things, a man pulled his car over and yelled at me out the window. My first reaction was I thought I’d done something that aggravated him and he was giving me hell, but I couldn’t imagine what the hell I could have done. Did my pushing the button for the walk signal mean he was going to miss his light because of me? Would that be enough to cause him to yell at me?
I walked over to see what he wanted, and he urgently informed me that we were under attack and a ballistic missile was on its way. “Take cover!” And I’d thought that after the computer virus nothing could get worse. This was worse.
I wasn’t alarmed because, well, I didn’t really have time to have worked myself up about it, and it just didn’t seem real. He saw I was insufficiently impressed by the magnitude of the situation, and he pointed to an older couple across the street, “Ask them. Everyone knows! It’s all over the place!” Indeed the couple were hunched over their mobile phones, dumbstruck.
I suppose it’s testament to how low I’d sunk that I wasn’t particularly shook up by the prospect of nuclear annihilation. It seemed rather fitting at the moment. Was this where the trail ended? It’s not every day one gets to witness a nuclear holocaust first hand. That’s a horror of biblical proportions. Hell on Earth. It’s enough to make one a believer.
I was skeptical about the imminent missile explosion, but some of the cars were speeding, no doubt to some sort of shelter. If there was going to be a nuclear explosion I thought it would be better to NOT take shelter, as surviving and suffering radiation poisoning on top of everything else was a fate worse than death. I knew from reading John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” that people’s eyes melted out of their sockets in the blast, and so this was going to be a terrible way to go out. Finally, nothing could be worse.
And then I convinced myself that the guy had pranked me and it was just a coincidence about the couple and the speeding cars. When I got home I didn’t even bother to check the news, and I felt kinda’ flattered that I was the target of a YouTube prank. Unbeknownst to me there really had been an official dire warning of imminent attack, which was not retracted for a full 38 minutes.
And here we have an example of a situation where if you are not the one in it than you don’t understand how powerful it is. You can just wave it off, “Oh, it was a mistake.” Never mind for the moment that if there had been a missile the announcement would have been identical and the people would have reacted precisely the same. I would have reacted identically to the way I had, which is more to the point.
It was quite an existential moment for a lot of people who could appreciate the magnitude of pending death, and I was among that group. But it passed and we were OK. The sky was a little bluer that day.
And I thought that I’d witnessed the grand finale of my bad luck. It was symbolic, and perhaps there was some divine lesson in it (speaking metaphorically, of course), in which case the tides would have turned and things would start improving.
Well, no. Pam wasn’t altered at all by the prospect of death. No re-evaluation of what matters in life. And when Lila told her we both intended to go back to Thailand, she was informed that she was essentially written out of the will, not to call, not to tell her how she’s doing, not to ask for help from Thai people, and so on. Pam volunteered that she would NOT give us a ride to the airport, in which case we’d need to pay up to $80 for a cab (we’d already looked it up). It’s safe to say that as far as Pam was concerned, the relationship between her and Lila was over. This is not what we stopped over in Hawaii to achieve.
The only reason we didn’t relocate to a hotel until our departing flights is that we were waiting for my new bank card to arrive. It was going to expire soon and they’d sent me an email notifying me the new one would be sent to my address on file. But the address is my brother’s address in CA, and, well, he and I haven’t been on speaking terms since the great war over my early art. I thought it would be smart to have the bank send my new card to Hawaii, which they guaranteed would arrive in 5-7 calendar days.
The card didn’t show up within 10 days, but we thought perhaps they weren’t really including weekends, and then there was MLK day. It is also possible that it arrived and Pam disposed of it, but we don’t like to think about that. I called the bank to see what could be done.
While on the phone the representative designated the card as “missing” and canceled it. I said, “Make sure you don’t cancel the original one”. Too late. They both had the same number and were both canceled simultaneously. I’d already appraised her of the situation and that I was going to be on a plane to Thailand at 4:00 p.m. the next day. I suppose it didn’t occur to her I might want to have access to my bank and wouldn’t want to arrive in another country without funds.
Once she’d pushed the button, so to speak, there was no turning back. My bank card was now useless. No matter what I said, she’d come back with, “I’m sorry but that’s our policy”. I tried talking to a supervisor and got cut off. In all I called the bank at least 5 more times, talking to different reps and supervisors. It would always come to them asking me security questions to prove who I was, and the questions never applied to me.
After one banker asked me about the mortgage on my home (I don’t own one), whether I’d lived in Inyo or Lake county (neither), and whether the name of the pet I’d insured in the last 2 years was something like Fifi, Princess, Muffin, or Colleen, I laughed and told him this was Kafkaesque. Silence. “Y’know, Franz Kafka? The writer? The Trial? Metamorphosis?” No.
And this is another point I may come back to, which is that people seem to lack what I would consider a critical foundation of historical literature. We’ve lost the great lessons of our best writers.
And so I got on the plane with a dead bank card. If I weren’t with Lila, who had enough cash to see us through, I’d have been waist deep in shit. Even together we’re presently wading in a shallow pool of merde (do people learn French anymore?). And for some reason I could not impress this upon the bankers and reps. One particularly annoying guy would say, “I appreciate that you are upset” but he didn’t appreciate WHY I was upset. For him another’s life was unfathomable. Why would anyone be upset about the prospect of being homeless in another country? That’s no biggie. I said, “You’d be upset, too.” “Not that up…” I cut him off and barked, “Get me someone else!”
I could suddenly relate to victims of medical mishaps. “You cut off the WRONG leg!” “I’m sorry but we still need to charge for the operation.” “But we are talking about my LEG!” “I understand that you are upset, but it’s our policy.”
At least I’d finally hit rock bottom. My bank didn’t believe I was me. I was a man with no access to my money who failed every attempt to answer security questions to prove I am me. I would show up in Thailand with no money. If I got in a fight with Lila, well, I’d be spending the night on the street, and who knows what glories would follow.
But wait. What about my art that my old friend had shipped out to himself for safe storage? His son was going to take him to another state and sell the house. Yes, he’d already brought up the prospect of what to do with my art. I already knew what was going to happen, though I didn’t want to think about it. I didn’t have the money for storage or to ship it anywhere, and Jack would issue the same threat as my brother, which is to dispose of it. All the work I created before the age of 30 would be incinerated. The first half of my life in art would be expunged while I tried to rescue the second half with limited time and funds in a foreign country.
Below are pics of some of the pieces, including several details, that are destined to cease to exist in physical form. Most are from over 25 years ago, and from when I was 25 years old or younger. They are also mostly from before I went to UCLA as an undergraduate, where this kind of work wasn’t considered in fashion. One is from high school, and a few from when I was 18. I didn’t keep most art that was just assignments to me and nothing from my firebrand political/conceptual grad school.
Yeah, they are rather expressionistic, and if you know my new work you may see some overlap. It’s this link that I’m sad to see severed.
Admittedly the pieces are not exactly gallery appropriate, excepting some of the later work (including two pieces that were in a gallery show), as this is my EARLY work, as in going back to my earliest drawings. However, I value it because in it you can see the genesis of my current work: the sci-fi influence; attraction to dark or tragic themes; the influence of Francis Bacon and the Surrealists; the painterliness; and even a psychedelic touch.
After all the more fashionable, conceptual, and conventionally contemporary work I did in college, and after being disqualified as an artist because my biology was redundant in grad school, I eventually returned to these roots.
Here’s a slide-show of some of my new work and you can see the continuity:
Part 2: Bad Actors and Unimaginative Drones
When we were packing our bags to leave for Thailand, we were trying to think of anything that could go wrong and how to protect ourselves against it. You could say I was being pessimistic in starting to feel like the whole time we were in America we were cursed, but I was actually being optimistic in hoping things would return to normal when we got out of American airspace. I forget which possible negative eventuality that could still befall us that I mentioned, but my girlfriend said, “Don’t jinx us.”
I snapped. “I’M NOT JINXING US!” I went on, quite irate and unreasonable to insist she not say anything about “jinxing” again. Obviously she hadn’t meant anything by it, but the idea provoked me, and I had to step back and think about why. Part of it was just that the times I snap are when I am under extreme duress. Being unemployed is considered a very serious stressor. Add running out of money, not having a place to live, moving to a new country, anticipating visa issues, being cut off from my bank account, Pam not speaking to us, my art being in peril, and that’s a whole gang of stressors.
But still, why did this particular innocuous comment set me off? The reason was that it suggested I was in some metaphysical way responsible for all the crap that kept happening to us. I was not. I was not a lightning rod for some evil frequency, even if it did feel a bit like that. None of the things that happened were personally directed at me, or not at the real me. Most all of them could be traced to other people being bad actors.
I’m putting bad actor in italics initially because it’s a term I’ve only recently started using, and I think I may have got it from Trump, who it applies to as precisely as George W. Bush’s equally catchy “major league asshole” did to him. I probably never used this term because I don’t tend to think there are bad people, as in born bad, but “actor” adds some ambivalence so that someone may merely be “acting” badly.
I’m very well aware that certain people would convince themselves that I am the bad actor. I’m quite sure of it because I know of a couple who do. That doesn’t include any of my hundreds of prior students or even any of my ex-girlfriends. It’s actually people who are justifying their hard-line actions towards me. It’s safe to say that everyone who considers me the bad actor is someone who has done me personal harm and can’t truthfully say likewise.
The only thing that was freak chance was my old friend’s untimely stroke. The missile scare was due to a combination of incompetence in the apparent design and implementation of the warning system, and some good old fashioned evil in the escalating nuclear bluster between Trump and Kim Jong-un, in which millions of people’s lives could be sacrificed for one or another over-inflated ego.
The bank card not arriving was due to incompetence on the part of the postal service (if not outright maliciousness on the part of Pam, if she destroyed it, which we don’t like to think about). The bank could have done better than send a bank card via snail mail in an envelope that says “Extremely important! Open at once!” and has the bank’s logo on it. Admittedly it’s a little better than sending cash in a zip-lock bag with a stamp on it.
The bankers I spoke with, or at least half of them, were unimaginative drones who despite working in a bank all day couldn’t comprehend that someone wouldn’t be OK with being cut of from his bank account when traveling overseas. Or they just deal with this sort of thing a lot and it’s no different than pulling a lever all day in a factory. Though if they ARE dealing with this sort of predicament regularly it’s a sure sign the bank has some egregious flaws.
Something was wrong with the security questions the bank was asking me, which is just more evidence of alarming incompetence on their part.
The computer viruses are the creation of malicious hackers, and selling new computers with cracked versions of Windows is a scammy thing they do in Asia to save money, passing off all the risk to the consumer while charging them the full price they’d pay for a computer with legit Windows.
Pam’s nearly inexplicable behavior was mean, and calculated to cause us as much inconvenience and discomfort as possible. It’s still hard to blame her exactly, as for her a workaday job is a dream, she wouldn’t understand that I’m an artist (I never mentioned it, and neither did Lila), let alone my art (I’m sure that would work against me).
And then there’s Jack who declared himself “power of attorney” in relation to his dad after he had the stroke, and in his new capacity gave me the ultimatum that I find someplace else for my art, or pay for storage within a few months, or it will be disposed of. Never mind Thomas had specifically shipped my art out there knowing I couldn’t pay for storage or do anything about it from overseas. Since his stroke he can no longer protect it, and Jack has a very different vision. And here is an instance where I am seen as the bad actor for not having the funds or wherewithal to alleviate Jack of the burden of the existence of my art. Or, more likely, I’m the bad actor for getting upset about the situation.
In his defense, he’s dealing with his dad having a stroke and taking care of him, which is enormous. I can fully appreciate that, or rather appreciate that I can’t fully grasp it because there are going to be all sorts of details, struggles, and pain that one doesn’t really “get” unless one goes through it oneself. So, it would be more accurate to say I understand he must be going through hell than to say that I know what the hell is that he’s going through. Under different circumstances we’d probably both have a lot more generosity and tolerance.
What makes this stuff seem like bad luck is that it all happened at once. And part of that is just about money, pure and ugly. The less money you have the more vulnerable you are to all manner of crap happening to you. It’s actually like a vacuum or black hole.
When I was younger and struggling at certain times I had to use a check cash service which took a cut of my money, and then if I couldn’t pay a bill on time I had to pay a fine, and so on. Thus the less you have the more expensive every little thing is. The system is built to drive you down into poverty and debt if you ever fall off of the workaday treadmill.
Part 3: The Bitter Pill
It’s not going down easy that virtually all of my physical art is scheduled for disposal. The rather unfortunate circumstance is that my art has landed in the lap of someone who never had any interest nor intention of caring for it. His practical, if supremely reductionist and steely stance is that if I don’t find a way to take charge of it, he will dispose of it. Anything I tried to throw into the picture about value or intellectual property he rejected as “irrelevant”, and he’s also under the impression that I have not taken responsibility for my physical art because I’ve been off playing and going on adventures. There’s his hard-line ultimatum, and then there’s his attitude towards me. The second I can brush off, but the first has dire and irreversible consequences.
I understand Jack and my brother’s shared position, and could with a lobotomy, electroshock therapy, and a spear through the head. It’s the smug and condescending attitude towards me, coupled with the projection of irresponsibly playing and going on vacations (when I was actually undergoing rather arduous circumstances that a more privileged person would never have to endure) that adds insult to injury. Instead of saying something like, “It’s not going to come to me heaving your art in the garbage, I would never do that, but we’ve gotta’ work out a solution”, it’s a clinical argument that the burden is mine and only I am responsible for the outcome.
This does shade from merely pissing me off into actual hurt. There are several pieces there that I deeply cherish and would pay thousands of dollars to get back in my possession if I had the dough. If I think of any of those images going up in metaphoric flames it’s going to be painful. There’s not much worse thing someone could do to me than destroy my art.
I know this because people who have “borrowed” my art in the past have lost or damaged it, and I am still bothered by the 3 pieces a relative lost.
And yet it’s mere circumstance and the world will blame me as the bad actor here. And there’s really no defense. Nobody wants to pay for storing my art, and why the hell would they? I don’t blame them. And yet blithely throwing it out infuriates me.
When it comes to the value of my art, I can’t really establish in any concrete way that it’s not absolutely worthless sentimental garbage, and thus that is what it is. I should have been hunkering down all these years, socking away money for retirement, accepting the yoke of subservience and corporate servility, in which case not only could I pay for storing my art, there wouldn’t be any to pay for.
My hubris was to opt for attempting to move back to America and dedicate myself to art for a year, in which case I had to leave behind my monitor, printer, desk, and so on. I had to pay for international flights. Those were worthwhile sacrifices, but as it turned out, I merely had to reverse the process and come back to Asia to teach. And at this particular window, something as simple as being able to tuck my art in the corner of a garage is impossible (and there are tens of millions of garages all over America where it could easily fit, in fact in any roughly 4’x4′ space). If I still lived in CA I could have just drove over with my truck, if I still had it, loaded it up, and drove back to my place, wherever that would have been, and stored it myself.
Such a tiny requirement has evolved into paying exorbitant storage fees that cost more than my rent to live out here, where, incidentally, a teacher’s salary is about on par with minimum wage in America, and that doesn’t include the lesson planing, marking, and so on. Thus, while just about anyone with a bit of storage (even a garden shed, which I suggested long ago) could house my art, and keep it permanently, for free, because of extenuating circumstances I must lose it forever.
I wanted to try to give it away for free online to whoever could take it (and that’s potentially quite a nice investment), but without name recognition, I kinda’ doubted I’d get a taker. Nevertheless I still wanted to try because I’d much rather give it away for free than for it to be destroyed. I proposed this but neither by brother or Jack responded to it with encouragement, or at all. No, “Hey, that’s a great idea. Somebody will probably take it.” Just more justification for the inevitable immolation.
And there’s a psychological component, which is that individuals and others tend to blame people for any misfortune that befalls them. In Thailand, for example, if a child is run down by a car in the street many people will maintain that the child must have done something wrong in a former life and is paying the price in this one. Further, we need not help that child necessarily as then he or she will still owe the debt to karma.
That should probably strike you as ridiculous and be an affront to your sense of justice. And yet, we do the same thing in America, though less explicitly or extensively. The reason is simply that the opposite viewpoint, that terrible things happen to good people and that there’s random incidents in the world, is too harrowing to shoulder. It means that something catastrophic could happen to you at any point, and that’s not a pretty existential reality to savor for extended periods.
Thus we will internalize, to some extent, when something bad happens to us, and try to think of what we’d done to deserve it. In my case, if virtually all of my physical art is annihilated, it’s hard to resist perceiving that as some sort of metaphysical repudiation of my being. It’s one thing for something to happen to an artist and for his or her work to survive for ostensible posterity, it’s another to survive to witness the elimination of your work. The first, though tragic, is not a disavowal of your art meted out by the universe, where the latter is.
If you are an artist, and your work is destroyed, it is because the grand scheme of things has deemed it worthless. And that destruction will make it harder for you to be able to continue to work. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but horses are force-fed, and so are humans, both literally and figuratively.
Part 4: My Original Sin
Despite Jack and my brother’s belief that I can’t pay to store my art because I’ve been off playing and going on adventures – which is about 180 degrees from the truth – the real reason is much simpler. I’ve made sacrifices in order to make art. You can’t be a working class/poor kid and be an artist without having the prospect of poverty and hardship perpetually galloping at your heels. Here I’m talking about an artist that is committed to his or her individual vision, not a commercial artist.
Unless you get a lucky break, which we all hope for, you generally have two choices. 1) Give up on art and work a hum-drum full-time job until you are around 70. 2) Don’t give up on art, and work more sporadically, part time, or take periods off working after working full-time for years on end. I chose curtain #2.
My original sin is to be an artist. I’d say that it was to not have given up, but I don’t know that I could if I wanted to. While we generally like to think that everyone is creative, that anyone can be whoever or whatever they want (I like to believe this myself), there are deep-seated personality types, and different people have different aptitudes. I am not good at math and my sense of direction is an embarrassment. I also don’t seem to have the ability to hear a note and know what that note is, to be able to play a song on an instrument merely from having heard it (though, during the course of my life, I learned to read music, play the clarinet, the piano, and the guitar on a basic level). As much as I love music, I just don’t have the kind of skill I see other people demonstrate.
Very creative individuals are a rarity. There have been studies and most people have never done a creative thing in their entire lives. I like to think each type of individual is a bit specialized and an integral and indispensable part of the whole of civilization.
Well, there’s no doubt I’m on the far end of the creativity spectrum. And, not surprisingly, very creative people aren’t exactly able to just bottle it up for perpetuity and sit in their cubicles doing Power Point presentations in the same way as someone who isn’t at all creative. It’s the same with very physically active people, in that they will have a harder time sitting behind a desk for generations without something dying inside.
When I’ve had my workaday jobs – the ones where I lasted – my creativity would spill out into amusing drawings on sticky notes, voice impressions, and a lot of humor. I would make up ridiculous commercials and info ads that I’d recite out of the blue, and invent silly songs and sing them on the job to amuse myself and others (and annoy some others). This is something like how “Hawkeye” Pierce survived being a surgeon during the Korean war in the hit comedy M*A*S*H. I would come home and make audio music on my computer by splicing and overlapping sounds [listen below, with one of my aliens for the thumbnail. Best with headphones].
I never gave up on art, but always held onto the thread, even through an 8-year slog working as a long-term temp (without benefits) for a bank in Manhattan.
My original sin, the reason many people will see me as a bad actor, is simply my nature – that I am a very creative person and an artist. Short of aforementioned lobotomy, electroshock therapy, just being pummeled by circumstances into being a subservient wretch, or becoming an alcoholic or drug addict, there’s probably not much I can do about that.
Part 5: When I Decided I Needed to Make Art.
I decided that in childhood (which is why there’s a soon to be deleted collection of my art going back to age 9), but here I’m talking about when I decided as an adult to take it up as my main objective after already having choicelessly accepted the yoke of working humdrum jobs for many years.
It was on the hard floor of monks’ quarters in a temple in Bangkok towards the end of a 10-day meditation undertaking. Notice I didn’t say “retreat” or something similar. “Ordeal” would have been more accurate. This was no frills, no cushions, no soothing music, no coddling, no comfort. In fact it was a lot like an unpaid temp job of a more grueling variety.
Most people who came to learn to meditate didn’t last hours, definitely not days, and surely not 10 days. I had no choice because I’d had my girlfriend drop me off and instructed her to not come back for 10 days to pick me up.
My daily routine was to get up at 6:00 a.m., at which time we’d have breakfast, and then I’d participate in chanting in Pali while sitting uncomfortably on my heels (I got quite good at this by the end). Then I’d meditate in a long, barren room, usually by myself, until lunch. I could either sit and meditate, or do walking meditation. Lunch was at or before noon (I forget), and then after that you didn’t eat again until the next day. In my case I went back to meditation. I don’t remember the hours exactly but it was about 6 hours of meditation a day.
I also had tasks to perform which the nuns instructed me in. I would help serve the monks, and then help clean the dishes, clean up the tables and counters, and sweep the floor, all done as much as possible without speaking. At the end of the day a monk would talk to me briefly about my meditation practice.
The meditation itself didn’t do much for me, but the endurance test did. And when I wasn’t meditating I was thinking. Two things surfaced very strongly. One was how much I missed music, and the song I most wanted to hear was “Fortunate Son” by CCR, though in my vast music collection it’s not a song I possessed. The other and more important thing was that I became disappointed in myself for not having done more art in the prior decade. Yes, I regretted working the 8-hour-a-day job and sacrificing art to have a stable life, full independence, and money in the bank.
I realized that over time the only thing I had to show for myself was the art I’d created, and working a regular job was mostly something one did in order to earn the privilege of working a regular job. If you were to stop you most likely had enough money to last a month or two before you were royally F’d.
I didn’t have much to show for myself after a decade of working corporate jobs. The only thing I had was my sporadic art pieces. [It is not an inordinately comforting notion that had I expired roundabout then my art would have most likely been carted off to the county dump, where it will soon take residence.] I decided that in the future my art would be what would give my life meaning and purpose, and to dedicate myself to it as much as possible.
I also realized that to not do so was a kind of copping out or worse. While the general population will generally maintain that my choice to make art is selfish (people should be nodding their heads here either in agreement with them or me), I realized the truth was the opposite.
To squander my creativity and my talent in order to work a regular job and have an easy life was the cop-out, and the selfish thing to do. It was to contribute nothing to society when I was capable of making novel imagery. It was cowardly, selfish, and stupid. If there were a God (even a metaphoric one), than NOT making art was my real original sin!
[And here’s a little anecdote about how strange coincidences may not just be random when they are so strange. After leaving the temple – note that the rather strict head nun who supervised me told my Thai girlfriend that she was well impressed with my stamina, respect, and dedication – we went to get me a haircut. This was in Bpaaknaam, which is a suburb of Bangkok, and off the beaten path of tourism. We went into a Thai barbershop and I sat on the chair. The barber disappeared momentarily to put on some atmospheric music.
Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the chief”
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord
It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me; I ain’t no fortunate one, no
Turned out CCR was his favorite band. What are the chances the first song I heard after leaving the temple was the same song that was stuck in my head the whole time? Pure coincidence?]
Part 6: How to Survive
At times such as, well, NOW, I don’t necessarily get to make art because I have to scramble to survive first. In this situation railing against circumstances only makes matters worse. This could easily be a situation where I get depressed. I don’t have a depressive personality, and I can be rather chipper under merely adequate circumstances, but extenuating circumstances that involve heavy risk and little hope can and do take down most people. On top of it, my old art being disposed of is like a crippling wound. Best to patch it up, avoid infection, and hobble on.
I’ve been in this precise sort of trap before and I know how I got through it for a year and more. After I decided I needed to dedicate myself to art, I tried to go back to America. My sister told me I could stay on their ranch and work 2-3 hours in the morning doing gardening and assorted chores with my Uncle Bob, and then eventually take over for him because he wanted to retire. And thus I flew home. They would pay me $300 a month and give me a cabin to live in. I could set up my computer, I’d have a bed, and, uh, a bucket of sawdust to shit in and a landing to walk out on and piss off of.
It sounded like a pretty good deal to me because I would have most the day to make art. But it was a red-herring, and my brother in law treated me a bit like an indentured servant. He kept me busy doing all manner of chores and projects he’d cook up for closer to 8 hours a day, on the same $300 a month. After a couple weeks I did the calculations and I was making $1 an hour. That was unacceptable and I had to leave.
I eventually ended up back in NY staying at a friend’s house with him, his wife, and their 4 cats. I desperately tried to find work, and hit up at least 5 temp agencies, going in person and taking their barrage of tests, trying to get back into the type of job I’d left a mere year before. I updated my skills with Microsoft Office, and taught myself HTML. This was at the tail end of the great recession and in nearly two months I was only awarded one half-day of work, and that because I accepted a same-day assignment.
When I could no longer impose on my friends I accepted a job teaching English in the middle of China. I arrived in the small, concrete, polluted city with about $300 in my bank account, and was ushered to the most abysmal apartment I’d ever seen. Everything in the apartment was old, broken, cheap, and there was a stench of cigarette smoke and sewer gas. It was a slum, and I was later to learn by far the worst of the apartments assigned to English teachers working for the chain school. [I’ve shared these pics recently, but if you haven’t seen them, welcome to my assigned Chinese apartment (and excuse my typos).]
This, incidentally, is what my critics call “going off on adventures”.
I would start teaching children the next day for 7-8 hours. There was no heat in the apartment and I lay shivering under the blankets. My apartment was surely a hell hole and a slap in the face; the city was flat, concrete, polluted, and drab. There was culture shock. The guy who showed me to my apartment was an asshole, and would be my co-teacher for most my classes. I had no internet and was cut off completely from my former life. And of course I was apprehensive about my first day of teaching, children no less.
I surely didn’t want to be there and I didn’t have enough money to escape. I had to go through with it. And there was one thought that got me through that night – I could put the students before myself.
Don’t worry about myself, my future, my housing: just try to be a good teacher for the students. This was much better than walking to the river, walking midway across the bridge, and leaping into the freezing water. I could still at least do good in the world, even if it were not for myself.
So I got out some paper and wrote 5 lesson plans while shivering under the covers. I concentrated on my breathing.
The next morning found me dressed up, drawing animals on a chalk-board and impersonating monkeys and elephants while the students roared and the parents were peeking in through the windows to see what all the excitement was about. Funny how one can turn despair into enthusiasm.
Even though I hardly made any art for the year of my contract, it turned out to be possibly my most valuable year in terms of life experience. In fact it was years before I was able to start making art again with any real energy, and that was when I worked at a Chinese university and had a paid vacation which I decided to spend in my apartment on campus and dedicate to myself.
A little something interesting about art resurfacing again at that point is that I was completely disengaged from whatever was going on in the art world, and as completely had rejected my graduate school art education. I would only make whatever the F I wanted, according to my inner sensibility. Art theory, movements, politics, and all that be damned. And it is worth noting that my favorite artists are those who do just that: express their own idiosyncratic vision somewhat independent of whatever trends are going on around them (unless they happen to be the trend-setter) or whatever overarching theoretical constructs are enveloping everything.
The key message here is that when you are knocked off your feet, and people are kicking you when you are down and blaming you for it, tell them to “fuck off” and remember that other people could really use your help even if you can’t help yourself as much as you’d like or deserve. Be a good person, persist through the long winter, and spring will come again. If you make it, spring will be worth it.
Part 7: A Glimmer of Hope
Right now I’m sinking fast, as in my funds are running out, my visa situation is precarious, my internet connection isn’t good enough to teach online, and so I am still in the quicksand. But after arriving in Bangkok, ironically, my bank finally asked me security questions that pertained to me, they shipped out my new card, and it seemingly miraculously (even if it’s just the way it’s supposed to work) arrived yesterday.
To overcome the lack of an updatable Windows I ended up buying a cheap laptop that was only about $50 more than a copy of Windows, which was $130. Now at least I can do blog posts, and I have a back-up computer. When I can set up my old one it will stay offline, which should mean it will last a lot longer. I’ve always wanted a computer that didn’t go online.
There may be some teaching options I can do part-time and still stay afloat, including eventually doing some hours where I worked before in a city I like. There is a balance of teaching and making art that is probably ideal, and then there’s a margin around that which is good enough, and good enough is great compared to, say, being overwhelmed. Should I choose to stay out here mostly, than it’s a prime retirement spot. I could be heading for a lucky stretch. Life has surprised me many times with opportunities (such as going to UCLA, moving to NY, or traveling in China) that I never imagined I’d have.
And then, I think, I might try to knock out a few core images to round out my recent work, and cap it off, even if I can only chip away at it, in case anything else happens to me (hopefully not a nuclear-tipped missile).
Because my new work is (large scale) digital art, I don’t have to worry about anyone throwing it out. If I should reach the end of my rope, I can make all of the imagery available for free, online, full-scale. Some people may think I’m a bad actor, or be indifferent or hostile to my art (my brother lectured me about it being “too dark” and “sensationalist”), but my digital art can’t be destroyed. My art, though in small jpeg format, is already all over the internet and has already been seen by hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people (this blog alone has more than a half million views).
While writing this Lila got her old job back from a few years ago teaching in my favorite city in Thailand.
Like I started off saying, I’m about as rational and analytical as they come, but my pseudo-faith in science extends to the claim of scientists that not only is the universe/reality stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine. And so maybe in some strange way we were cursed the moment we entered American airspace, and the curse was only lifted when we left.
Of course I don’t believe that, but neither can I completely discount it. And I’m also well aware that I’m just trying to be optimistic because there are still a few more obstacles I need to overcome before I’m out of the sand trap.
Funding. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per month to help keep me going (y’know, so I don’t have to put art back on the back-burner while I slog away at a full-time job). Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.
Or go directly to my account.
Or you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).
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