Addictions

When I was a very small child, I walked around everywhere with a blanket that I used as some kind barrier or a source of comfort. As I recall, it was yellow with some pattern designs on it, much like the oversized button down shirts that many pipe organ enthusiasts wear to recitals. One day we went to visit my aunt and uncle, and while I wasn’t looking, someone—I have my suspicions but still am not entirely sure who—hid the blanket, and everyone told me it was gone, as if it disintegrated into thin air like a fart in the wind. That’s when I experienced my very first withdrawal.

“Addiction” conjures up images of drunks slumped over a bar or junkies shooting up heroin, but really we can become addicted to anything. Dependence seems to be the criteria. Maybe anxiety, too, in the absence of the desired thing. These crutches exist thanks to little lies that we tell ourselves: I need this. A mindset like this can encompass many different degrees of attachment. I forget where I read the story about a woman who insisted she was an alcoholic because she had one glass of wine every night at 5 o’clock. A glass of wine is harmless, but it was the insatiable need for it that bothered this lady. That’s an example of someone with an unusually high level of self-knowledge, even if it’s a bit obsessive.

I have my own addictions. They are all minor, thankfully, but they exist, and I often wonder if my life wouldn’t be better without them and without the little devils that serve them by whispering their b.s. into my ears.

Caffeine

This one isn’t uncommon. For most of my life my primary vehicle of choice for this substance has been soda. Back in 2001, I perceived the need to knock it off and was doing pretty well when I took a vacation to Vienna, the capital of my heart’s joy. Like only a Boobus Americanus could do, I decided to stop at a McDonald’s not far off the Kaertnerstrasse to see if European soda was better than the stuff in America. It’s funny, but I don’t remember the outcome of that ill-begotten experiment, except that I felt that for the rest of the vacation I could drink soda. And then on the plane back, I drank soda, because vacation wasn’t technically over yet. Then the jet lag hit; take a good guess as to how I tried to combat that. I have been drinking soda ever since.

Only more recently have I put coffee into the mix. Thanks to the specialty coffee shops here in Philly, I have become a coffee snob, even though I can’t sort out vanilla or fruit flavors like one of those wine tasters with the pince-nez. At one point I was up to three cups a day, but that much got me so wound up that I was counterproductive. So I’ve cut back a bit from that. Nevertheless, my caffeine addiction is alive and well. I’m not a scientist, but I’m willing to bet that this phenomenon is at least partially a physical dependence. All the same, there are rubbish stories I tell myself to justify the habit: I don’t have energy until I have caffeine. This could be solved by getting good sleep, which can’t happen when caffeine is constantly in my system. Or here’s another: Caffeine, especially coffee, helps me to think and write better.  Maybe, to a point. James Altucher talks about this. I understand it completely, but is this really the only way to get the creative juices flowing? Is it the best way? I’ve written some really awful stuff on two cups of coffee. It’s similar to the guy who’s on this third drink and thinks he’s unlocked the mysteries of the universe when he’s actually just drunk. Honestly, my best ideas get started during long runs.

Somehow, I can’t quite bring myself even to try to get off the caffeine. I’m afraid of the headaches, and besides, the people at the cafe I most often go to are really cool, and it’s a nice place to get work done. I also wonder if I don’t use caffeine as a low-grade anti-depressant. It’s just a thought; maybe there’s something to it. The hilarious irony here is that I’m a highly anxious person, and caffeine almost certainly contributes to that. I know all this, yet I continue to drink the stuff. I guess I’m just a dunghill covered with snow, to borrow a line from Martin Luther.

Work

Industriousness is a good thing. I try to get work done efficiently so that I have more time for leisure and reading. It aids a more balanced life. It doesn’t take much for me to get some good momentum going, but once I get going, I can’t stop. Part of the reason I’m a night owl is that I don’t have an ‘off’ switch. Since there’s always one more thing to do, I’m always doing the next thing until my eyes are so heavy I can’t keep them open any more. That takes awhile, thanks to the caffeine.

The biographies of the great people in history are filled with accounts of relentless work ethic. It’s like there was some kind of spirit pushing these people along, or even possessing them. I am not great, and sometimes I’m lazy, but I can relate to that drive that simply will not stop. Some kinds of activities require very long periods of intense concentration. I find it’s the only way to get certain things done. This is where obsessive work habits bring an advantage. Losing track of time while getting lost in some problem about which you have  a passion can be a heavenly experience.

Where I have trouble is in walking away from my work. I can’t compartmentalize it. It follows me around, and I even think about it while I’m out to dinner or getting a drink with a friend. Why do I do this? Maybe it’s that yellow blanket coming back in a new guise: Who I am isn’t good enough, so what I do must dominate my life. I don’t know if this applies to me but I think I ought to be on the lookout for it. I certainly am not the only one, if in fact it’s true. We are less human beings these days and more human doings, with one hand on the coffee mug and the other on the smart phone, being led about by the nose by Facebook updates and endless text messages. I’m thinking about instituting a Luddite Day in my weekly routine. No phone, no email, no Facebook, no planning, no work; just me and a book under a tree.

Phone

In order not to fiddle with or be distracted by my phone constantly, I have to leave it at home. Even turning it off doesn’t help, because I forget that I’ve shut it down and am constantly going back to it. As I hit the wake button, the phone starts up again; then I have to wait for it to boot up so that I can shut it off. Five minutes later, the whole cycle is repeated when I absentmindedly hit the button yet again.

Texting seems to be the most pernicious thing. I’ll turn the ringer off and put the phone face down on the table, yet I’m still checking it every two minutes, as if I’m an ambulance driver rather than a musician. This is a strange kind of nervous tick, I think. It reminds me of smokers who have quit who wear holes into their shirt pockets by reaching for cigarette boxes that are no longer there.

For years I refused to engage in text messaging. Then I discovered that it can save time in a lot of situations. Now I perceive, however, that it can also waste a lot of time. No, you don’t have to pick up the phone and speak to someone, but your time gets nickled-and-dimed to death by the Chinese water torture of getting a 160 character-long message every two minutes or so. Then someone tries to use shorthand and isn’t understood, and the whole conversation has to start over again.

More than once I have nearly thrown my phone into the toilet and flushed twice to make certain that it is gone for good. Alas, having no phone seems to be an even worse situation. Moderation is the only solution. I have seriously considered, however, not texting any more. I’m not sure how that would go. I have  a feeling that if I were successful, I could probably save up to an hour a day. That’s enough time to read a book in a week.

Conclusion

The late Dr. Gerald May, in his book, Addiction and Grace, goes through the science and psychology of addiction. It’s fascinating stuff; I highly recommend it. (I am also addicted to semi-colons, by the way.) After a long, compassionate, thoughtful excursion, however, he says it all comes down to this: just stop. Whatever addictions or bad habits you have, you just have to stop them. That pretty much takes away the excuses and forces you to get serious. I suppose a game plan is in order. Maybe a good motivator is to try to imagine ways in which your life will be better when the bad habits are gone. I did this when I lost weight, and it helped me to keep my eye on the goal line rather than the queue at the donut shop. If I were to give up caffeine I’d probably have more energy and less anxiety. If I didn’t obsess about work in down time, I’d probably have fresher ideas when it’s time to get to business. And if I didn’t text I’d probably spend less of my time being agitated at a nagging electronic device.

I suppose the question for anyone with a bad habit is whether they’re ready or not to believe that their version of the story is flawed. Those little liars in our ears don’t go away easily. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith, to ignore the demons that delude us. This calls for some soul-searching and fearless honesty, however seemingly inconsequential some of the behaviors in question may seem to be. Rooting out the weeds in our lives is not easy, but in my experience it’s always worth the effort. I should come up with a longer list for myself and starting hacking away with my proverbial scythe. Maybe I can brainstorm tomorrow over a cup of coffee.

My Worst Musical Performance Ever (Updated)

(Note: I left an left out an important part of this story, which I have now added.)

I was in seventh grade. Must have been about 12 years old. I had been playing the piano since age 6, and sometime in middle school I started accompanying the concert choir. Usually this task was divided among three or four different players; no one had more than one or two pieces to play. That year, my piece was a silly word play about various composers like Bach and Liszt, an attempt to elevate people by stooping to their level. It doesn’t work.

I don’t remember what happened exactly, but in the middle of this stupid piece, I completely fell apart, lost my place, stopped playing—leaving the chorus to trudge along a cappella. I was mortified. What could be worse? The problem with performance etiquette these days is that both performers and audience are supposed to pretend that everything is okay, even if it isn’t. If you’re listening to a performance that sucks, you still have to clap at the end, and if you’re a performer who’s laying an egg, you still have to stand up and take a bow. I found this to be the most humiliating part of all, having to stand up and take a bow after playing so badly that even the local high school band director or even a church organist would have known there were mistakes. I would rather have crawled into the piano.

Then my father pulled out a bloody camera. Right there from the front of the auditorium, I gestured defiantly and yelled, “Put that down!” He was furious with me. Strangely, the applause continued as if my unusual outburst had never happened. My father hasn’t taken a picture of me since that night. I understand why he was annoyed, but I don’t think he realizes, either, how I felt: He was about to make a record of the worst musical moment of my life.

That was a rough night, but it only got worse the next day. My section was standing outside the English classroom, waiting for the previous group to finish so that we could go in. One of the girls in my section verbally attacked me. “Thanks a lot. You ruined our concert.” I was too young at the time to realize that this was total b.s. for  a number of reasons. First of all, one piece doesn’t ruin a whole concert. Secondly, this little brat didn’t even play the piano. She couldn’t have done my job if she had all the desire in the world, but that never crossed my mind. So I was affected deeply by this. I felt like someone punched me in the gut. I have since learned that such behavior is often a factor of jealousy. A quick glance at the work of certain music critics lends credence to this theory. Not only that, I have also discovered that the greater a musician a person is, the more generous he or she is in the evaluation of another’s work.

There is a certain vulnerability in making music. It takes place in time; the musician cannot fix, adjust, or reconsider in the manner that a painter can, for instance. Doubtless painters have challenges that musicians don’t; in any case, this is the challenge that musicians have. (I know of one surgeon who claims that musicians have greater time-related pressures than he does.) I have lost track of the number of times I came within a fingernail of completely falling apart. And yet, sometimes it is those same “hang ten” kinds of performances that are enflamed with the fire of inspiration. It’s the kind of trade-off that Babe Ruth, who held records both for home runs and strike outs, would gravitate to.

But for a long time, I learned the wrong lesson from this worst performance, and I developed performance anxiety. We all have our own battles, and this has been one of mine. The truth of the matter is that too much anxiety chokes off musicianship, and it’s precisely because the performer is concerned about many things, but not about the most important thing. I get nervous when I worry about what people will think, but when I play for the love of music, that is when the great performances happen. In the era of Like buttons on Facebook, this task only becomes more difficult, but if music is to survive this Technological Dark Age (we have many gadgets but few books) that we are in, we musicians must resist what is essentially egotism and dedicate ourselves to the elucidation of the ideas expressed by our art. With any other approach we are simply letting the inmates run the asylum.

New Workout Routine

A few months ago I wrote about my fitness frustrations. I’ve made a lot of progress since then that I thought I should share.

The gym I originally joined wasn’t that great once I got serious. It was a great place to start at a cheap rate to see if I was going to stick with something other than running, and it served that purpose well. However, the trainers there, with one exception, didn’t really know what they were talking about. Not only did I get bad advice about the present, I didn’t know the way forward.

Sometime in November, I decided I’d had enough, so I signed up with a locally-owned gym with a good, friendly staff and trainers who know what they’re talking about. I haven’t taken full advantage of this yet, but I will. In any case, this was the first step to getting this situation straightened out. Not only is the staff more serious, most of the members are much easier to deal with, because they’re also self-starters; it’s rare that I have to wait for a lazy person who’s hogging a piece of equipment because they don’t know how to develop a circuit in order to keep moving. Rare. I guess this is the best we can hope for with humanity.

I made another important improvement in January when I ran into a friend of mine who’s a nurse practitioner and no fitness dunce. I complained that for the amount of work I was doing, the results weren’t great. At the time, this was my schedule:

Day 1: Chest, triceps, abs, front delts; 45 min. of cardio

Day 2: Back, biceps, abs, lateral and rear delts; 45 min. of cardio

Day 3: Legs; 45 min. of cardio

Day 4: A combination of days 1 and 2 (a trainer told me to do this…) and 45 min of cardio

Day 5: repeat day 3

Day 6: cardio only

I’m getting tired just from thinking about this. As you might guess, my nurse practitioner friend told me what is probably obvious to most of you but wasn’t to me: I was overtraining. While I was on this schedule I had the appetite from hell; I couldn’t keep up. I was going to go broke on food. My body craved certain things, like protein, which tends to come in products high in fat, so I wasn’t losing anything from my waistline. And the excessive cardio training was burning the muscle, so I wasn’t gaining as much of that, either.

I’m from Pennsyldutchylvania, so I respond to problems in two ways: hard work, and harder work. The South Philly Italian influence has moderated this mental disorder to some extent. I’m still suspicious of anything that looks too easy, though. My friend told me to do three days per week of weights and intersperse cardio days in between. So now I do chest, etc., one day, cardio the next;  back, etc on day 3; cardio the following day; legs and abs on day 5, and just cardio on the last day.

Within two weeks I was losing weight and gaining muscle. I don’t want to gain a lot of muscle, just definition, but this is working. My appetite is back under control, so I can better control unhealthy byproducts such as fat. I also have more energy in general and more energy to go outside for a real run and not simply phone it in on an eliptical or a treadmill. Finally, it’s easier to fit these workouts into my schedule; as a result, my days aren’t as frantic as they were there for awhile.

It’s tempting to watch a triathlon and get carried away with your ambitions in the fitness department. Those guys do this stuff for a living. They probably have their own trainers and nutritionists and an entire day to focus on what they need to do. I don’t, and that isn’t going to change. But I have found an equilibrium, and I intend to keep it this way. Through various phases of this pursuit, I have had to learn and re-learn that heroics are not necessary. As a former fat person who is scared to death of relapse, this is hard, but I need to learn to trust myself. Once you’re un-fat, you don’t wanna go back.

I’m now on Twitter

After resisting for the longest time, I have now joined Twitter. You can follow me here.  I’ve actually found it to be useful. Like everything else, it has its junk, but it seems to be a great tool.

Why I didn’t think of taking the username FragmentedObsessions is beyond me. It’s one of those mental blocks that’s now too late to fix. For the time being I’ll be tweeting on everything on that account, however much my professional area and my blogging don’t always mix well. If it becomes necessary to separate the two, I will.

Carpochondria

I don’t know much about cars. What I do know has come about through necessity as problems have arisen. This is my own fault, but I must plead that there have been mitigating circumstances. By the time I was old enough to understand cars, they were already unfriendly to hobbyists. The advance of technology and regulation has made hands-on experimentation almost non-existent. For most of my life what I knew about the internal combustion engine came from boring drawings distributed by the local public school #69. There was one exception, our high school physics teacher, who would tell us spectacular stories about stuff blowing up, which makes it a little more interesting.

Lack of knowledge can do a couple things. First, there is cluelessness, at which time one thinks everything is just fine and you don’t need to do a whole lot, except maybe change the oil. Ignorance is bliss. Then you get bitten in the nose by a huge problem that comes up because your car wasn’t properly maintained in all the details. This happened to me in October 2007. I was home for a family funeral when my aunt asked my father what that horrible noise from my car was. I thought they were nuts. The car made some noises, but I didn’t think there were any severe problems. My dad listened to it and said take it to the mechanic and be prepared to spend money—lots of money.

The mechanic had my car for two or three weeks. Saturns, the brand I drive, are notoriously difficult to get parts for, and so things took awhile. The engine also needed to be torn apart. New timing chain, new engine mounts, a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember anymore. But I do remember that it cost $1500. That’s a lot of money for a restless artist like me. Luckily I had recently gotten a bunch of gigs that gave me the money I needed to get this work done. I remember standing at an ATM with a friend of mine in mid October, looking at my unusually high bank balance. I said, “Something is gonna happen and I’m gonna have to part with all this money.” And it did. I learned not to tempt fate with comments like that.

You’d think that getting the car back after such a thorough job would re-instill confidence in my outlook on cars. Instead, the whole episode fired up my OCD, and every little noise I heard scared the hell out of me. This is the second consequence of ignorance. One afternoon I was driving down Oregon Ave. and I heard the most awful brake noise ever. After I stopped, though, it kept going. I looked up and saw that it was a plane landing at the airport. Not only that, valves tapping can sound a lot like a bad timing chain (to my untrained ear, anyway), so that always had me compulsively listening to the engine. In the wake of the major repair, the engine was running a lot more quietly, and so I heard a lot of extraneous noise.

I shared all this one day with Jeffrey Tucker, who is an astute observer and advisor on things both profound and mundane. “Michael, you’re a carpochondriac,” he said. It’s true. I have terrible anxiety about cars but little of the knowledge to deal with it. This means that I often take to Google to sort out the issues that need attention and the ones that don’t. This is dangerous, a little bit like going on WebMD with a headache. I’m the kid in Kindergarten Cop that says, “Maybe it’s a tumor.” I always gravitate toward the worst case scenario—a problem which is probably diagnosable outside the specific subject of cars.

Wednesday, on the way back from Atlantic City (where I lost a small amount of money playing roulette; just call me Dostoyevsky) the low coolant light came on. This hasn’t happened in years. I probably should have had the coolant completely replaced a while ago, but this is one of those maintenance things that can get lost in the daily grind, given the hidden nature of much auto maintenance. Last night on the way home from rehearsal, I heard a sound of rushing liquid under the dashboard. This has happened from time to time for awhile, but only for the first acceleration or two, first thing in the morning. I never looked into it; most of the time I wondered if I was just nuts and was hearing things. Last night it was bad enough that I Googled it. It can be a sign of low coolant, which seems harmless enough. However, it can also be a symptom of a damaged or blown headgasket. This worries me, since this sound happened occasionally well before the low coolant light ever came on. The good news is that the oil on the dipstick looks normal. Oil with a creamy consistency is bad news.

With all this weighing on my mind, I did what any reasonable person would do: I went for a long run, and I just let my mind crank out ideas. If this is the end of this car, I’ve got options, none of which involves getting a new car. Options are good; they get you out of doomsday territory, which is not a very happy place to be.

I stopped in to my mechanics’ shop earlier today and told them the cliff notes version of this story. They seem less than half as concerned as I am, but then again their knowledge comes from years on the job and not from a couple of frantic internet queries. They have a game plan in place and don’t seem to be ready to pronounce the car dead yet.

Why do I obsess on the worst? Maybe there’s a part of me that has a death wish for this car. I’m tired of the anxiety it causes me, not to mention the money I spend to keep it going. If we get through this little bump in the road, there’s the inspection, which is due in May. My car is 12 years old, and one of these days I will need a major fix to keep it in line with these ridiculous emissions regulations. With the economy in the tank and people driving cars longer, I wonder how long it will take for pressure to mount for some of these regulations to be relaxed. Fat chance. Passengers are being digitally examined just to get on an airplane and few people are even making a peep about it. We like misery.

But forget the car death wish. Maybe this is the impetus to put automobiles on my list of new hobbies to be explored. Over the years I’ve learned to admire car mechanics. They get a bad rap, but the good ones are fantastic. They can hear the difference between valves tapping and a timing chain on the brink. They can chase down problems step by step in machines that often seem to have minds of their own. They’re like doctors, really, or maybe philosophers. There was a time in my life when I had been reading too much Richard Weaver when I thought all this was just boring stuff on the sensate level. I was a bit too much like Niles and Frasier Krane. But the best philosophers were also concerned with matters of science, as well they should be. This really can be fascinating stuff, especially when you have a good mechanic like mine who believes that an informed customer is a good customer. So they explain everything to me. As a result I know a lot more about cars than I used to, but still not enough to keep carpochondria from being my first reaction to a problem.

Rot

Occasionally, I am in Center City Philadelphia when it’s time for me to go over to New Jersey for my weekly voice lesson. In this case, I take the PATCO train, which runs from the city to suburban points southeast, until I end up at my destination of Westmont, which is near Haddonfield, the local County Seat of Suburbia. They’ve got some nice Presbyterian churches and a Krispie Kreme. What else could you want? White Castle, perhaps.

The nearest train stop to me in the city is located in a relatively safe neighborhood that is nevertheless host to a lot of drug activity. Miraculously, this filth has only caused one murder on that corner that I know of in the past several years. All kinds of funny stuff happens below street level near the train platforms, though: Cops arresting some variety of transexual prostitute is commonplace, and the smell of piss permeates everything.

The train makes its way through the underground tunnel until it gets to the Ben Franklin Bridge—a real beauty of engineering, even if it is named for a clown. One looks right and left to see the area that was rent in half by this construction project in the early 20th century. The story goes that this had devastating economic effects.

I used to be afraid of bridges as a kid. I thought they could collapse and dunk us into the water at any moment. Now they’re some of my favorite things. The Ben Franklin can’t compare with the view from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge out over the New York Harbor, or the majesty of the Verrazano Narrows at dawn, but it is comely in its own right. From the middle of the span, one looks out over miles of cityscape. Handsome old churches dot the landscape, marking neighborhoods that have really gone to seed over the years—some more recently than we’d like to think. In the distance one sees the Philadelphia Sports Complex, testimony to the American desire to watch recreation rather than to engage in it. And then there is I-95, Philly’s disastrous idea of a waterfront.

Over to the left one can see Camden, which actually has a real waterfront, complete with a ballpark, the Battleship New Jersey, and the Aquarium. Several magnificent buildings stand proud amidst the war zone there, testifying that there was a time when this city was a magnificent place with a future to anticipate, not unlike places like Reading, PA, which I like to call Little Camden.

Back underground, through the bowels of the city. You see all kinds of interesting things in Camden, as would be expected, but you’re more likely to see an ugly fat couple making out than a violent crime. I realize this violates Suburban Myth, but when did popular myth ever amount to much more than a fanciful sport of self-congratulation? (The English sin, the French disease, etc…) Nonetheless, there are gigantic social problems in these cities, and it’s overwhelming to think about the scale of them.

The train resurfaces in Suburbia, and I disembark in apparently safer, saner neighborhoods. But you know what? I think the problems are just as bad there; it’s just that Suburbanites are good at hiding it, like Lester Burnham’s family in American Beauty.

It’s almost impossible to take this little train ride and not wonder how these problems surfaced and how they might be solved. The last time I did it I got to thinking about the effort it takes to improve just one city block, one church, one school. Even to do this it takes one or two strong leaders and a lot of other people cooperating, not to mention a lot of money.  Multiply that effort by thousands even to reflect what it takes to change a medium-sized city.

What caused all this illness? Many cite the race riots. Maybe. I wasn’t alive; I don’t know. I also wonder about monetary debasement, which has its own economically deleterious effects. Whatever the causes, they are likely complex and deep-seated. Erik Erikson had a theory of personality development which wasn’t really chronological in how it looked at causation; rather, Erikson had three categories (I forget what they are), and a person’s history in these three categories kind of swirled around their life, creating the human being that they were. In hindsight it could be untangled, possibly, but there was no telling the future. I have  a feeling that the rot our society has experienced has not really been on a linear trajectory either, but rather the soup that we are left with after many ingredients have been thrown in. Is it even possible to untangle all the causes now? Is it anything other than counterproductive?

This ads up to one gigantic mountain of an issue, and I wonder how often people realize that when they swoon in front of a politician who promises panaceas for the world’s problems. And what’s with the politicians who think they can take this stuff on? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? Messianic delusions?

From where I sit it seems to me that the politicians are useless and can only effect harm. We have plugged our ears to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and have confounded government and society. The rot that we see in our culture can’t be chased away with policy. The disintegration of humanity can’t be fixed with a salute to the flag. Over and over again, government has taken on social problems and only made them worse. The War on Poverty, at least according to some, brought us the fatherless family. The War on Drugs brought violence to the streets. Social promotion brought us an illiterate population. The War on Tara, as George Bush called it, brought needless fear to many hearts.

Not far from me there is a business whose owner took a chance a few years ago by setting up shop in a somewhat dicey neighborhood. I used to avoid walking there after dark. It has become the centerpiece of a rebirth of that area. These are the kinds of investments that need to happen if our culture is to be put back together again. Brick by brick. Everything on a small scale. This doesn’t afford a demigod an opportunity to congratulate himself or herself; but it does give us a chance to get out of the rut we are in.

I was eating dinner tonight with a friend when the subject of urban violence came up. What would it take for me to move out of the city? A whole lot, really. I think it’s important that if you believe in the place you live, you stay and do what you’re supposed to do there. It’s my little contribution to bringing back a reason to be optimistic. What’s yours?

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