“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.

 

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Peter Gabriel & Me: The Power of Music (Revisited)

sm22-300x224

The face this guy makes when he listens to “Here Comes the Flood” by Peter Gabriel.

Maybe not every time, and certainly not every time he is driving.

But it’s definitely the face he made while driving home, a week or two before Christmas, and even though he knew that song was next, it caught him by surprise.

No, that’s not accurate.

This song can never catch you by surprise, especially if you know it’s coming.

It’s always an emotional event; it always does something. Something always happens.

But there are times, perhaps if it’s cold, or dark, or you are alone, or in a particularly reflective mood, or unusually open to receiving its message, or uncommonly moved by the inexplicable power of art, when it is overpowering.

Occasionally, the tears come. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing. A thing you want to feel, a thing you need to have happen, at least on occasion.

(He did cry during movies. And conversations. He often cried alone, especially when he listened to music. And not even sad music.

So, you might ask, are you really suggesting someone should want to listen to music that is capable of making them cry?

Yes, he would reply.

But, you might ask, why would one want to do such a thing?

It’s simple, he would say. So that you know you’re alive.)

In this instance the title of the song is too perfect, so perfect it can preclude cliché.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Does this help?

More, another time, about this song in particular and Peter Gabriel’s power. Of the many artists I admire, I’m not certain there is another singer who can stir such meaningful emotions as Gabriel. Hearing is believing, and all it takes is some quiet time with any of his albums. Seeing him live adds considerably to the experience. In this great day and age, we can –and should– be grateful that moments we may have missed are preserved and can be returned to at any time.

Check it out.

That is the power we give and receive.

The power we share.

The power of music.

Share

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before* (Revisited)

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Over five years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about three years later that memoir regular readers of this blog were already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone, has gone from idea to execution. The continued plan for 2014 is to see this sucker reach an audience beyond the vital Friends & Family network. I will continue to give a healthy portion of profits –and all profits from all public events– to a handful of awesome cancer-oriented charities. (More on that, here: http://seanmurphy.net/please-talk-about-me-when-im-gone/about-memoir/.)

Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you’ve read it, please consider leaving a review at Amazon and/or Goodreads.com –it helps! If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…

Share

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before*

mini-murph-224x300

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Over five years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about three years later that memoir regular readers of this blog were already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone, has gone from idea to execution. The continued plan for 2014 is to see this sucker reach an audience beyond the vital Friends & Family network. I will continue to give a healthy portion of profits –and all profits from all public events– to a handful of awesome cancer-oriented charities. (More on that, here: http://seanmurphy.net/please-talk-about-me-when-im-gone/about-memoir/.)

Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you’ve read it, please consider leaving a review at Amazon and/or Goodreads.com –it helps! If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…

Share

Peter Gabriel & Me: The Power of Music (Revisited)

The face this guy makes when he listens to “Here Comes the Flood” by Peter Gabriel.

Maybe not every time, and certainly not every time he is driving.

But it’s definitely the face he made while driving home, a week or two before Christmas, and even though he knew that song was next, it caught him by surprise.

No, that’s not accurate.

This song can never catch you by surprise, especially if you know it’s coming.

It’s always an emotional event; it always does something. Something always happens.

But there are times, perhaps if it’s cold, or dark, or you are alone, or in a particularly reflective mood, or unusually open to receiving its message, or uncommonly moved by the inexplicable power of art, when it is overpowering.

Occasionally, the tears come. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing. A thing you want to feel, a thing you need to have happen, at least on occasion.

(He did cry during movies. And conversations. He often cried alone, especially when he listened to music. And not even sad music.

So, you might ask, are you really suggesting someone should want to listen to music that is capable of making them cry?

Yes, he would reply.

But, you might ask, why would one want to do such a thing?

It’s simple, he would say. So that you know you’re alive.)

In this instance the title of the song is too perfect, so perfect it can preclude cliché.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Does this help?

More, another time, about this song in particular and Peter Gabriel’s power. Of the many artists I admire, I’m not certain there is another singer who can stir such meaningful emotions as Gabriel. Hearing is believing, and all it takes is some quiet time with any of his albums. Seeing him live adds considerably to the experience. In this great day and age, we can –and should– be grateful that moments we may have missed are preserved and can be returned to at any time.

Check it out.

That is the power we give and receive.

The power we share.

The power of music.

Share

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before*

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Over five years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about three years later that memoir regular readers of this blog were already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone, has gone from idea to execution. The continued plan for 2014 is to see this sucker reach an audience beyond the vital Friends & Family network. I will continue to give a healthy portion of profits –and all profits from all public events– to a handful of awesome cancer-oriented charities. (More on that, here: http://seanmurphy.net/please-talk-about-me-when-im-gone/about-memoir/.)

Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you’ve read it, please consider leaving a review at Amazon and/or Goodreads.com –it helps! If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…

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Sanctuary*

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a short cut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The lake where I once caught sunfish; where I swam and drank my first beers. The lake where I skinny-dipped with the girl across the street, not knowing what I’d do without clothes on dry land. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflecting up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

*excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Peter Gabriel & Me: The Power of Music

The face this guy makes when he listens to “Here Comes the Flood” by Peter Gabriel.

Maybe not every time, and certainly not every time he is driving.

But it’s definitely the face he made while driving home, a week or two before Christmas, and even though he knew that song was next, it caught him by surprise.

No, that’s not accurate.

This song can never catch you by surprise, especially if you know it’s coming.

It’s always an emotional event; it always does something. Something always happens.

But there are times, perhaps if it’s cold, or dark, or you are alone, or in a particularly reflective mood, or unusually open to receiving its message, or uncommonly moved by the inexplicable power of art, when it is overpowering.

Occasionally, the tears come. And not only is that not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing. A thing you want to feel, a thing you need to have happen, at least on occasion.

(He did cry during movies. And conversations. He often cried alone, especially when he listened to music. And not even sad music.

So, you might ask, are you really suggesting someone should want to listen to music that is capable of making them cry?

Yes, he would reply.

But, you might ask, why would one want to do such a thing?

It’s simple, he would say. So that you know you’re alive.)

In this instance the title of the song is too perfect, so perfect it can preclude cliché.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Does this help?

More, another time, about this song in particular and Peter Gabriel’s power. Of the many artists I admire, I’m not certain there is another singer who can stir such meaningful emotions as Gabriel. Hearing is believing, and all it takes is some quiet time with any of his albums. Seeing him live adds considerably to the experience. In this great day and age, we can –and should– be grateful that moments we may have missed are preserved and can be returned to at any time.

Check it out.

That is the power we give and receive.

The power we share.

The power of music.

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Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before*

Let me tell you a story.

It involves a white male born in a steadily prospering town to a slowly prospering family. His father, the first in his Irish family to attend college, like his wife, was raised Catholic.

This young boy played soccer, listened to music, read any book he could get his eyes on and went to a public school amongst kids whose names he could not always pronounce.

He served, faithfully, as an altar boy and developed a profound appreciation—and respect—for tradition and ritual, a lingering humility regarding forces and impulses larger and not entirely conceivable.

He was, and remains, comfortable with how much he does not know, as a visitor on a planet that expands outward each second, into infinity.

He was encouraged by parents who, more than once, reassured him that his curiosity would never dissipate so long as his capacity for learning did not abate.

He talked, listened and learned.

Looking back, the habits and routines inculcated inside his impressionable mind served as a foundation for who he’d become: flawed, tolerant, empathetic, insatiable, in love with the gift of life.

The pursuit of higher education, even as it necessarily exposed him to classes, books and teachers that ardently challenged—and often contradicted—many of the precepts he was once instructed to emulate, was a priority. It was the gradual, not always painless process of understanding the ways he could not, and should not share his parents’ perspectives in every matter that secured the respect for them he solidified as an increasingly independent adult.

The exposure to religion and the example set by his mother and father ingrained an acute solidarity with underdogs and the dispossessed. The charities he has supported (HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) reflect the causes and crises he endorses and decries.

He appraised the often enigmatic, occasionally debilitating specter of depression that stalked relatives on either side like a demented daemon; this condition a wind-whipped and sun-scorched flag planted deep alongside his family tree, a genetic calling card he has had, at times, a more than casual acquaintance with, obliging him to check himself lest he wreck himself.

Too much eyewitness to illness drove him to learn more than he might have cared to know about cancer, leukemia, and the various, run-of-the-mill maladies that all the doctors and dollars in the world can’t completely shield us from. This cognizance, coupled with an ineradicable conscience forged on altars and inside confessionals, further amplified an appreciation of how fortunate anyone is to be born in a first world country. To be born a healthy white male a blessing, just as being alive at all is an obligation—at once sacred and secular—to interrogate, expand, live: to abhor the self-indulgence of ennui and cultivate antidotes to quiet desperation—by any means necessary. To explore the creative impulse he could never fully fathom or explain, and expedite that dialogue (with himself, with others) by writing down those thoughts, images, feelings and fears; sharing them, so that as soon as they escape their frail human vessel they are free, without any power to scare or sabotage. To express emotions, allowing the heart to breathe and the mind to swim, the body a humble temple unto itself: a self-portrait of a work perpetually in progress. To encourage these sensations inside oneself so that they might awaken feelings in someone else, some not yet born and others alive but no longer living.

*So here’s the part where I address you, gentle reader.

First off, thanks for reading this blog. I resisted the blog thing for years because so many of the ones I read were either uninspired or a public airing of dirty (or worse, boring) personal laundry. Diaries and journals are kept in bedside drawers for a reason: they are an act of catharsis, celebration or introspection –or, at least, interrogation– that is best kept private. Remember when they used to actually come with locks on them? Do they still do that? Do they still make diaries anymore? Maybe I’m just old school. Here’s how I put it back in 2009 when I first considered the fact that I had, in fact, become one of those people who could use the word blog as a verb. Almost four years later (this blog commenced in November, 2008) I think the sentiment still applies:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that modest numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

All that being said, I was already publishing regular thoughts on music, movies and literature (alongside the occasional sociopolitical soap-boxery) at PopMatters –a site I encourage you to check out– so keeping a blog was not unlike working out: it was a way to keep in shape, mentally, and push myself to put thoughts in a semi-coherent form for a public forum. This is an endeavor that obliges you to edit with extreme prejudice: once you’ve written something that goes into the electronic universe, it stays written. I’m mostly delighted to consider that I’ve written a great deal of material that otherwise would have been lost to e-mails, conversations or that creative impulse killer, apathy. We should all do our best to remain allergic to apathy, because we owe it to ourselves and the world. Obviously.

Anyway, I was eventually humbled to acknowledge that the next formal project I’d been preparing to tackle, as a novel, could –and should– be a non-fiction piece. Indeed, once I realized this (after several years of false starts, frustration and best intentions), I wished it had occurred to me sooner. And it was then that it dawned on me that I likely would not have been able to conceive of writing a memoir if I had not been blogging. Non-fiction and personal essays were not foreign territory, but a sustained examination of life and how it’s lived (including death and how to live through it when it rocks your world) turns out to be the best real-time training for getting one’s mind –and pen– around a full-length, unfettered attempt to make sense out of deeply, if not profoundly personal things. And then you realize (you are always realizing as you write, or think, or talk) that a great many of these matters are universal: we all wonder who we are, where we’re going and where our loved ones may or may not go when they are no longer here. It not only seems possible, but oddly appropriate to embrace the audacity of putting it out there, so to speak. Best intentions clash against execution and at a certain point it’s out of your hands: other people will determine if the work in question works. It is at once intimidating and liberating, the way it should be for anyone who puts words on paper.

Just about two years later I’m coming down the home-stretch, I hope, of a memoir that regular readers of this blog are already familiar with: Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone. The plan for 2013 is to see this sucker come to life in a format that is both formal and final. I’ve already been fortunate enough to secure the involvement of some amazing people, and that has inexorably made the project better than it would have otherwise been. It also has made it more likely, if even a tiny bit, that I can pull this off. For a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve touched on HERE and more extensively via the analysis I do for my “day job” (it won’t be hard to find it if you try), it makes increasing sense in the current state of publishing to embrace a DIY ethos; the same one so many others have already proven not only viable but, in many unbelievable regards, preferable. Even better, he who controls the production and distribution also controls the momentum: it need not be a big opening-weekend type all-or-nothing initiative (the sad and consistent SOP of entirely too much creative work). In fact, it can be the opposite, and get bigger and better as it goes along.

This is where you may very well come in: I plan to donate all or most of any proceeds to a yet-to-be-determined charity (but anyone who knows the illness that rears its hideous head throughout the story should be able to make some educated guesses where and what I’m investigating). Social networking and word-of-mouth will, naturally, play a hopefully-prominent role in disseminating the project and then who knows what might happen. If you have opinions, advice, connections or cautionary tales, I welcome your thoughts anytime (contact me privately or feel free to put comments below). Simply put, this thing is not going to design, market or endorse itself; if you’ve gleaned anything positive from my writing thus far, you can do me the biggest service by helping my mission become something I could never accomplish on my own. And in the final analysis, that is the secret not only of writing, but of living. Right?

To be continued…

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Solitude*

Anyone who has lost a parent (or worse, a child) can understand that when this happens it becomes an indelible line of demarcation: your life before and your life after. It does not mean nothing is ever the same or that you can never get past it (everything is the same and you can get past it except for the fact that nothing is ever the same and you can never get past it. You don’t want to).

Of course, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to appreciate that their presence—in the ways we can measure and the ones we can never fully fathom—are inextricable from one’s own. Up to a certain age my mother was my confidante, my confessor, my friend, my mother. It is discomfiting to imagine how I might have handled her death if it had happened earlier—not to mention much earlier—in my life.

According to the less than immutable laws of society, by definition I became an adult at eighteen. By my rather more reliable reckoning, I did not become an individual prepared to wrestle with adult realities until I’d finished graduate school and then spent several crucial years learning new things and unlearning others.

The period of time that did more than anything else to prepare me for the rest of my life, with and without my mother, were the months from early summer 1995 through late spring 1996. A mutually broken engagement and opting not to enter the PhD program that had accepted me are two decisions that befuddled friends and family, then, and likely perplex some of them, still. It was during this year that I figured out, for the first time, how to take care of myself. I was alone, really alone, for the first time, yet I found that I seldom felt lonely. Being on my own, alone with my thoughts, questions and concerns provided the space—physical and mental—to unravel the reveries that signaled the kind of person I hoped to become.

Being one’s own best friend is dangerous, potentially delusional territory and I knew it. But I found that the more time I spent alone the better I was able to love everyone around me, and my capacity to learn and evolve did not abate. By the time my mother got sick the first person I talked to was myself. If this had happened five or ten years earlier I would have been lost, without a foundation. My mother remained my number one resource in so many regards, but I was finally equipped to withstand the ordeal I had unwittingly been fortifying myself for. Depending on my mind, my music and an ability to take care of myself, I managed to get through it. Barely.

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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