I Hate Amazing Art

Okay, that’s not true. I mean, it is true, but it isn’t true. Amazing art infuriates me. No, that’s another true but isn’t true situation. Is there a word for that? I feel like there should be a word for that. Hopefully not one of those long German words that I see, think about how perfect it is that the word exists, vow to memorize, then immediately forget.

Amazing art makes me feel bad. No, it makes me feel good. But it makes me feel bad. And that’s a directly proportional relationship: the better it makes me feel, the worse I feel. Probably due in equal parts to The Calling and The Perfectionism.

The Calling is that feeling that you were Meant To Do Something. You might not necessarily know what that Something is, but you can feel it tugging at the edges of your mind. That there is some Greatness lurking deep inside you, if you can only find the proper outlet to bring that Greatness forth into the world. I hear it’s pretty common in ADHD types and even more common in the hallways of mental wards.

The Calling can be very frustrating when it’s unresolved. Imagine if Don Quixote had never seen a windmill. He knows that there are giants out there and he knows he’s meant to defeat them, but he doesn’t know what they look like, where they are, or what he’s supposed to do if he ever runs into one. That may be a little bit of a strained analogy, but I’m fresh off The Newsroom and The Expanse, so I’m feeling a little Quixotic.

Amazing Art speaks to The Calling inside me. It whispers in the back of my mind that yes, maybe this is that thing I’m meant to do. Maybe this is the thing that can give birth to whatever this thing is inside me that oh so desperately wants to see the light. Meanwhile The Perfectionism is screaming that I can’t I can’t I can’t. I don’t know how to do the thing perfectly, and it would take way too long to learn how to do the thing perfectly, therefore that’s not the right thing to express The Calling and I need to think of something other way. This is why I currently have scattered around me in my office

  • Watercolors
  • Acrylic paints
  • Embroidery
  • Wool for felting
  • Sheet music
  • Ukuleles
  • A piano
  • A theremin
  • Various cloth material
  • A kalimba
  • Various homemade musical instruments
  • Laser-cut and laser-engraved wood
  • A rainbow of pens, markers, crayons and colored pencils
  • A box of rubber chickens
  • Comics
  • Art books
  • Instructional manuals
  • Lego
  • Bubbles
  • Magnets
  • Electronics

These are just the things I see by spinning around in my chair a couple of times and not even spinning that slowly. If I went through the house enumerating all of the various forms of art and entertainment I’ve picked up and put down repeatedly over the years trying to figure out The Calling, I’d have the longest post I’ve ever written and the deepest depression I’ve ever felt. And both of those are high bars to clear.

Do I excel at any of those things? No. Have any of those things released me from The Calling? Also no. Have any of these things had one brief moment where I felt like I was close to Something Really Big that could possibly be The Calling? Yes, all of them. Did any of those things have a moment following that brief moment where I felt like an inept fraud who could never reach The Calling in that manner? Yes, all of them.

“You should just find something that makes you happy and just find joy in doing that at whatever level you can. Just enjoy the process and be content in creating something.” I will enjoy the process of punching you in the face.

With all of the different things I have done and dabbled in, many have started as simple enjoyment. My patented five step creative process usually works like this:

  1. I like some songs that have a piano in them.
  2. I buy a piano.
  3. I like the way the piano makes noise when I push on the keys.
  4. You know, I’m pretty good at pushing random keys and making something that sounds vaguely like a tune.
  5. I need to learn everything about music theory and learn to play these six other instruments so that I can compose my ten hour symphonic masterwork that will win all of the awards and be referred to by all following generations as what real music should be.

Step number four is usually the big variable for how long I stick with something or how often I come back to it to try again. Something like music is easily returned to for me, because it’s possible to make noise without a lot of skill. If you have a broad enough definition of the word “music,” then smashing piano keys for awhile can have you approaching something that almost fits the definition. Yes, it takes time, training, skill, and talent to be able to smash the keys in a way everyone else will call music, but you can see a finish line with it somewhere in the far distance.

Painting, on the other hand, I have trouble even seeing the starting line. Sure, I can mess around for a bit to create something I can call “abstract,” but that gets me nowhere along the path of The Calling. A random blob on the page that looks like someone sneezed with a bloody nose isn’t the same as a drawing of a person, no matter how much you squint or call it art.

Oh shit. Holy fuck. Shit. Okay, I can’t remember how I first made this connection, since (obviously) my brain tends to ramble along ahead of me, skipping and singing through the woods as I try to catch up to it with my typing. Anyway, at some point my brain stopped at a pond to look at its reflection (stay with me here) and realized that The Calling was not only a part of it, but it was woven throughout the very fibers of my body and wrapped around my heart.

The Calling is cancer.

No no no, I’m not saying cancer is my calling. I’m saying the only other thing I’ve had wrapped around my heart and draining the joy out of my life was cancer. What is the metaphysical mental equivalent of chemotherapy? Well that’s going to keep me up all night now.

You might not be special

So I was reading an article by Cecily Strong the other day. Word of warning, it’s raw and amazing. If you’re not sitting somewhere where you feel comfortable openly weeping, save it for later. I’d say this is some of the stupid shit that made me cry, but it’s far from stupid. It’s heartfelt and written in a way that totally puts you in her brain.

Anyway, the article got me to thinking. If you haven’t been in a place to read it yet, it’s about her cousin’s diagnosis and death from brain cancer, tied in with the pandemic. I read it during lunch, trying to weep as quietly as possible, then got myself together and went back to work. We shut down all of the production machines a week early because we’re getting ready to switch to new software on 1/3 and need to have everything organized, inventoried, and ready to go. This is a company founded in the 1950s that’s been operating off Windows XP and an Access 97 database since back when those were new technology. Now we’re going to web and iPad-based software. So it’s… a lot.

On this particular day, I’m reprinting labels for containers. Some of the labels are on products made in 1999. Two thousand zero zero party over oops, out of time. I have to find a label that looks like crap or has a bar code in the wrong space, take the label out of the package, take a picture of the label, put the label back in the package and the package away, then go to a computer, fire up the Access 97 database, look up the picture of the label, type in the ID number, make sure the information is correct and the label is set up in the right direction (landscape for metal bins, portrait for plastic bins. Holy shit, I just realized they both start with “p.”), print the new label, affix it to a 3″x5″ index card, go back to wherever the bin is, and swap out the labels.

So, mostly mindless work. The kind of work that lets my brain wander and/or churn along on something I’ve been thinking about. Like cancer, death, and why me.

Now, this isn’t the shirt-rending, fists-to-the-sky-in-the-rain kind of “WHY MEEEEE?” Instead this is the “Why did I make it when so many haven’t?” kind of “Why me?” If you ask anyone else who’s survived something like this, they’ve probably had this exact thought some number of times. Especially if they survived despite a grim prognosis. Like a stage 4 cancer that didn’t want to go away with chemo. Hello there.

You’ll read these stories of people who haven’t made it and they had so much going for them. So much potential wasted by getting this stupid disease. And yet somehow their death still made waves in the world. A relative decided to devote themselves to curing that kind of cancer so no one else would lose a loved one. A friend who was on the verge of making it writes a heartfelt song that shoots them to fame. A roommate pours their pain into their art and becomes huge for showing real emotion in their work.

I have a current working theory: when I was going through cancer, there was no one in my circle of influence who was perched on the verge of their own greatness. Since my death wouldn’t inspire anyone to reach greater heights in their art, profession, or service to mankind, there was no reason for me to die, so I got a free pass. So yes, if you knew me in the mid-to-early 2000, you had already peaked back then. Even me dying wouldn’t have made you a big thing. Fate says so.

Aside from pointing you toward Cecily’s great article and dissing all five of the people in my life, I’m writing this post as a warning. If you get diagnosed with any kind of disease that has death as a possible outcome, look at your friends and family. Any artists? Songwriters? Novelists? Potential med students or creators of international charities? DITCH THEM IF YOU WANT TO LIVE!

Just a note from Simon

I have a little bit of stuff from last week to talk about, but instead I’m going to talk about today since it’s still on the tip of my mind. Also, I’ve been having more problems typing lately so that might rear its ugly head. I don’t have any kind of autocorrect/autofill/spellcheck stuff enabled, because I want to be able to see what’s happening. Granted, I catch a lot of it by the time I get to the end of the sentence, but still. Aside from occasionally doing weird things out here, it can be a real bitch to get passwords entered when the sight doesn’t have the little eyeball to click. Anyway, today.

When Dad’s memory started going, he would always talk about how stupid he was now. If I had a nickel for every time he said “I can’t do that, I’m too stupid” once this thing started digging into his brain, I’d have quite a few nickels. He kept equating memory with intelligence. If I can’t remember anything, then obviously I’m not smart. This was frustrating on a number of levels.

You see, Dad was smart. Really smart. If something needed to be fixed or created, he could come up with the way to do it. He was a machinist, and his favorite part was making the machines do what he wanted. He had his own business building drag cars and came up with designs good enough to be stolen by the top kit manufacturer. And yes, a lot of his intelligence also came from his memory. He was great at remembering all kinds of stuff and applying those things he remembered to the situation at hand.

When I started racing, he was always tinkering with the bike. I spent a lot of practice time testing settings. I’d go out for a lap, then come in so he could change something. Back out for a lap, back in so he could change it in the other direction. He learned a lot about our bikes and as a side effect, he made me a great tester. When I’d come in that third time, I’d have to describe to him what changed in the bike. Not “last time you went up two clicks on the rebound,” but “when I was braking hard into the slow corner, the rear end was really smacking into me and the front end was trying to dive under the rut.” That was why we made a great team: I could tell him how the bike felt, and he knew what to change to fix it.

Like most things from my motocross life, that transferred over into real world skills. When I worked phone support, I could describe what the person was seeing like I was looking over their shoulder. Any time I’ve been injured, I can explain to the doctor exactly where and what kind of pain I’m feeling. Barb has marveled over all of the different medical nuances I’ve been able to describe over the years, especially during the cancer years. My dental hygienist has remarked on several occasions about my ability to describe what’s happening in my mouth.

That made a lot more sense in my brain.

Anyway, Dad was really smart and he felt stupid as his memory started to leave him. I would try to get him to understand that it wasn’t his processor that was failing him, it was his hard drive. He could still do the calculations, he just needed to store the equations in a different place. An external hard drive, like a notebook. Today however, I realized it might not have just been his memory loss that made him feel stupid.

We’ve got this big project at work where we’re trying to upgrade a thirty year old system to something more modern. Seriously, the whole company is currently run off of a Microsoft Access 97 database. All of the tech is a mishmash of versions of things cobbled together to work off this ancient system. They’ve tried to update everything a couple of times in the past, but This Time It’s Serious. We’re going to be going from Windows XP and Access 97 to iPads and web forms.

Fortunately, we have consultants doing the heavy lifting, one of whom is the guy who moved me over to the IT role where I’d always have his support. Until he quit a couple of months later and started working for his friend’s consulting company who our company keeps on retainer. He had started working on all of this conversion before leaving, so he’s spearheading the effort now. There are a lot of moving pieces, so he gives me things to do like setting up equipment or labeling shelves for inventory or what have you. Things that I can figure out a plan for, then turn off my brain and plow through it.

Today, I was unboxing a bunch of barcode scanners, putting IDs and velcro on them, putting velcro on the back of the cases of our fleet of iPads, then sticking them together. I worked out my system for what was going to go where and when and got to work. After two or three rounds, I realized I felt… simple.

If there’s one thing that pisses me off the most about my brain, it’s how I’m losing the words to describe things. “Simple” was the first thing that came to mind as it was happening, and it’s as good a word as any, I suppose. I was taking a scanner, taking the back off a label, sticking the label to the scanner, sticking a piece of velcro right under the sticker, then moving on to the next. I had already unboxed all of the scanners, made all of my labels, cut my pieces of velcro. Now it was just a little production line with nothing to do but follow the steps. Simple tasks being done by a simple man.

That’s what I pictured from the outside, anyway. I had my “I’m not listening to you” headphones on, listening to my music, a distant unfocused smile on my face as I plodded along through my task. Like Lenny in Of Mice and Men before he started killing rabbits.

Picturing myself like this, I thought of Dad and wondered if this was part of what he was talking about. While I was thinking of myself as “simple,” another generation could easily read that as “stupid.” Maybe it was a language barrier thing of his own.

So here I was, Simple Simon, doing all of my little tasks and I felt… content. I think that’s what drew my attention in the first place. Feeling content is something that happens very rarely in my world. That feeling of content was what was behind that simple smile, but what was behind the contentment? As usual when things start going right, I had to start overanalyzing and that’s when it hit me.

My brain was silent.

It wasn’t silent in a whiteout way, where I’m trying to access something and there’s nothing there (still just the two times that’s happened so far). Instead, it was like when the power goes out during a snowstorm. Initially, you’re surprised at how noisy your house had been. Even if you were just sitting on your couch reading, you suddenly notice how much noise the lights had been making. You miss the low hum of the refrigerator. That electrical aura that encapsulates your environment 24/7 is suddenly gone. With the electromagnetic interference out of the way, you realize you can hear the silence outdoors. Those seemingly quiet electrical lines are somehow even more quiet. There’s hardly anyone outside because of the snowstorm, so you don’t even hear traffic moving anywhere. You can almost hear each snowflake when they touch the ground outside.

Is this what the regular people are like? All of those people without ADD and constant inner narratives and thoughts and words and ideas and feelings and everything in a constant mental maelstrom. Do they get to experience this quiet all the time? Of course, I was spoiling it a little while trying to think it out, much like we do in that snowstorm, craning our necks and straining our ears to hear that noise that we know is there somewhere, until we wind up wandering outside and becoming the noise ourselves.

This must be what peace is like. Inner peace, outer peace, whatever. Just being able to sit somewhere, music in your ears, a task at your fingertips, and silence in your brain. I tried to hold on to that feeling, that quietness for as long as possible. Eventually, the power always comes back on and the traffic starts back up again and my brain is no different. When the lights come back on, we miss that feeling of absolute silence, deep down in our soul, even as we rejoice at having light and cold food in the fridge again. I’m happy that my brain spun back up into problem-solving mode, but I long to have that silence again. That contentment. That simplicity.