Mar 04

To my friendsters

yuppies at the beach

A friend of mine used to tell me that looking at facebook depressed him because it seemed like everyone was having these amazing, satisfying lives, while he seemed to be going from one trial to another. It makes sense to me that we would post the best of ourselves for others to see and not the worst, but perhaps the fact that he was scrolling through the lives of hundreds of friends and acquaintances at once was deceptive, insofar as someone always has something good to share if you look at a big enough group. I personally know very few people who would claim to be content in any meaningful way with their life. Although everyone is making a valiant effort, and few people are outright failing.

How one defines success or failure is another matter. I know successful people by any worldly standard: their mothers would brag about their achievements breathlessly. And I know people who are not successful in the eyes of society, necessarily, but they do good, honest work, and have nothing to complain about in that regard. And yet, I know very few people who would say they are content. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be happy with my life.

Dear friends, acquaintances, fellow travelers through life, I am lonely and discouraged, and the conversations I have with you individually don’t resolve these feelings. I should say that I am not in any bad way, that I’ve been in a bad way before, and am now in a relatively good place. The best, in fact, I’ve been in maybe 15 years. In a good enough place to want to address the people with whom I’ve shared this world, although I am not sure what if anything I hope to come of it.

Many people think it’s a waste of time to complain about problems outside of one’s immediate control. This may be called the Alcoholics Anonymous school of thought: that whatever the external situation, we only ever have control over ourselves, and therefore we should focus on the things we can change within ourselves rather than things in the external world. That may well be a fine attitude, but sometimes a person tossed around helplessly by conditions outside of their control just needs to hear their fellow humans acknowledge that we are all in this same boat, at the mercy of events and circumstances, and there is little any of us can do about it. While it’s true that our reactions to external events are the only things we can control, not everyone can summon budda-like equanimity in the face of adversity. But everyone needs to feel like they belong to a group of fellow men and women, dealing with the same problems.

I don’t feel like I do. I don’t feel like I belong to a group of fellow humans sharing their problems and triumphs, the same external reality as me. Not most of the time. Not in a way I could call satisfying. At 37 years of age, having lived half my life in the same city, mostly the same neighborhood, knowing many of the same people for decades, I often feel like I am pretty much alone in the world. It’s kind of terrifying. In the long run, it becomes debilitating. It’s a feeling that, little by little, smothers initiative and hope, like an advancing glacier.

The last time that I did feel like I belonged to a group of people who shared daily struggles and joys was when I was in my early twenties. I was friends with some amazing people, and we all saw each other all the time, talked constantly, had lots of fun. I think we all looked forward to the future. It’s not that the future was disappointing, I don’t know, but the present certainly somehow turned out to be so. I’m still friends with many of the same people, but we don’t see each other as much, either because we don’t live close to each other, or whatever else. I’d like to think that maybe they all kept the feeling of belonging to something awesome, just sort of brought it with them to a new great thing. I’m sure it’s true for some of them.

I would assume that the people I know are smarter, more creative, more original and interesting, more gregarious, more goal-oriented and harder working than a group of people taken at random from the population, and yet I know very few people who would say that they are content with their lives. Maybe half the time, or on a good day. My friends may be special people, but they’re no more happy than anyone else. On the other hand, I know many people who are regularly tried to their limit by life, and sometimes past their limit. It seems that happiness has little or no correlation to smarts, creativity, sociability or hard work.

The problems we have with happiness are easier to understand with reference to the hierarchy of needs as described by Maslow. A person is first concerned with physical needs—food, shelter, safety. Only if these needs are met do we move on to the next level—belonging to a group and being loved. If all these are met, we can work on gaining the respect and esteem of others. Above all these is the work of self-actualization. Paradoxical as it may seem for educated, intelligent, and relatively affluent people to struggle with the more basic needs, it is no accident. The modern world would be impossible without lonely, insecure people. Aldous Huxley called our way of living “organized lovelessness.” There is not much love passing between the members of a civilization which considers its members chiefly consumers. Friends share things, buying and selling is technically something that only happens between antagonists.

The need to love and be loved, and to belong, is very basic to us. If we find ourselves denied the opportunity to love and be loved or to belong, we can’t move forward to the higher needs, the direction in which fulfillment lies. Our society is full of people whose need for love and belonging has been thwarted to various degrees and for different reasons. Families don’t live together in multi-generational households like they used to, which puts a huge physical and emotional strain on everyone.  We don’t grow up knowing the other people in our community, either because of how much everyone moves around nowadays, or because there is no community to speak of. A child today doesn’t expect to follow in its parents’ footsteps as it once did, but instead has to figure out, almost from scratch, who he/she is and what he/she will do in life. This question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult techniques. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society is obsessed with individualism like no other, making it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

My very unscientific assessment is that many or most people in this society are extremely fucked up. It’s been so long since we’ve lived with anything remotely resembling humane and functional social arrangements, we don’t even realize we’re fucked up or that there may be another way. Under these circumstances, those of us who have maintained some semblance of sanity in our social life should probably be hailed as heroes. God knows it’s not easy. If you’re such a person, someone whose home is a place of love and whose relationships are based on respect and support, I hope you will keep in mind that the reason the rest of us don’t live as you do isn’t because we don’t want to, but because we are thwarted in our efforts every step of the way. Some of us, before we even begin to try, others by ourselves as we pursue strategies we didn’t know lead nowhere.

The rest of us, god help us all. Our need to love, be loved, and to belong is so strong and our options often so limited we tend to take what little in way of this that we can, whatever the circumstances. As a kid, almost every one of us has had a friend or group of friends who put us down and made us feel like shit, but we still hung out with them again and again. Hopefully, not for very long. As adults, we often do the same thing: we stay in awful relationships, jobs, and “scenes,” simply because the immediate need is so great. Or we settle for half-way satisfying arrangements, getting half of our needs met, because that may well be the best we can do. I think this is what Facebook is to most people: we would prefer to have real communion with others, but when we for whatever reason aren’t able to do that, Facebook fills some of that need. It can be hard to initiate real communion with people when the faces of everyone you pass on the street look like they’re passing kidney stones pretty much all the time.

Maybe you’ve heard that Americans now have two close friends each, on average, down from three a generation ago. Facebook notwithstanding. A quarter of Americans have no one at all to talk to about serious things, and another quarter have only their immediate family members. In another study, it was observed that Americans touch each other just twice an hour on average when two people engage in casual conversation. The French touch each other 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans 180 times. I don’t put much stock in studies and have little but anecdotal evidence to go on otherwise, but it’s simple common sense that even having friends and lovers, families and social networks of certain kinds may not necessarily offer us the emotionally fulfilling experience that we need. The quality of the social networks matters. I’ve lost friends to suicide who had hundreds of online friends and dozens of real-world people who cared about them deeply. None of it matters if we aren’t part of a meaningful whole.

I wish I lived in a neighborhood full of families living right there where they work, small stores selling all kinds of stuff, so that when you walk out of your house to buy groceries a few blocks away you see your neighbors and can catch up, and when you’re hanging out on your porch after dinner, you see the neighbors’ kids playing in the street and keep an eye on them so they don’t get into trouble. Living in this kind of neighborhood, you don’t have to post stuff and “like” stuff to remind people you exist, you get to have meaningful interactions just by living there, and maintain your privacy to the degree you prefer. Where everyone knows everyone else, someone is bound to check on you if you fall ill and miss some part of your routine. You have no idea how much time and energy having that kind of social network saves: from sharing knowledge, tools, chores, carpooling, baby-sitting, etc. etc. And you get to not be lonely, alienated, purposeless, meaningless, that is to say, you get to be sane.

I know many people don’t trust this notion of an “idyllic neighborhood,” since the idea of it evokes nothing in their minds except the WASPy, white picket fence, small town ideal of a place that is supposed to represent everything that’s good and great about America but is in reality more often than not a bigot-infested, repressive, close-minded hellhole many of us have been lucky to escape from and never look back. A great neighborhood full of people who trust and help each other isn’t automatically a false ideal, or a Trojan horse for small-minded values. Just as a white picket fence, waspy small town isn’t automatically devoid of acts of genuine acceptance and generosity.

This stereotyped kind of place might exist here or there, to greater or lesser extents. There have been summer days when I could have sworn Riverwest is this idyllic kind of a place. But really, not so much. What makes a great neighborhood what it is takes place over years, decades, centuries, not days. Riverwest is ok and all, but… There are few places to shop and none to work so you have to drive everywhere. The kids seem more jaded with every year refusing to acknowledge you even if you see them walk past your house twice a day for years. My own generation is getting to an age when realism trumps idealism, so we make ourselves scarce. People around town seem to be terrified of each other. And no one visits anyone anymore.

So, I’m sure it’s me now as much as anyone else, passing the shitty attitude around and around instead of opening myself up to people, but it’s got to stop. No one’s gonna win, at this rate. I don’t imagine it’s a matter of simply gritting your teeth and smiling more. But to be honest, I’m not even sure what to suggest. I kind of think we’re fucked. The people who can be civil and neighborly do their best, with various degrees of success, while everyone else is trapped in awfulness by either poverty or money, health or trauma, lack of imagination or an evil upbringing. Whatever.

I hate to end on such a negative note. I guess the severity of every problem is in the end in the eye of the beholder. The reason I’m so pessimistic about this issue is that every component of it seems to be stacked against a positive outcome. Americans (and westerners in general) don’t see this as a problem, are by and large not aware that their quality of life suffers because of the individualism and materialism of their lifestyles. When we inevitably feel depressed and bewildered, we’re likely to look for the cause in the things we are doing and consuming rather than in the things we are failing to do. Economic institutions which have such sway over our lives are not only not concerned with the death of the community spirit, they actively encourage it because it is their meal ticket. Corporations are well aware that members of strong communities make for bad consumers, and that conversely, depressed, lonely people are the best consumers. The government is the weakest it’s been in a long time and getting weaker by the day. Even assuming that people wake up and demand a saner, more sustainable community-oriented society, it’s very unlikely that the holders of real power who exercise disproportionate influence over our governments would take it laying down. Do you even realize what it would take, specifically, to backtrack from the rapacious model of capitalism we have become prisoners to? An end to economic growth, for starters: sustainable communities are by definition zero growth, on the whole. A dismantling of virtually all economic systems with global reach: we can’t be ferrying raw materials across the globe to be assembled by semi-serfs and shipped back to where people can afford the finished products. This should be obvious. These strategies will necessitate a mass exodus of people living in places like Phoenix, Arizona, since there’s no way millions of people can live in the desert without exploiting the resources acquired elsewhere.

The list goes on and one. All we’re trying to do is re-introduce sanity, but this requires dismantling all the insane things we’ve surrounded ourselves by. We’re obviously not going to do anything of the sort without a cataclysm on the order of a nuclear war. Short of this, we can just try to smile more and hope for the best. There are many, many good people who refuse to participate consciously in selfish, shortsighted behaviors, and I hope I can spend more time with some of them in the near future.

May 10

Gentle Soul

Camping in langlade co, wisconsin


This is for my friend, Josh Gilman, a talented and generous person who is impossible to forget. He could change the life of another during a brief interaction, maybe because he didn’t see any interaction as “passing,” and appeared (and really did, I believe) to give all of himself to a person or a situation regardless of how small or insignificant it may be. This is what many people remember him as: someone who could be discussing the most personal and profound things with a stranger within minutes of meeting, someone who was as thrilled about life and its possibilities as we should all be, and maybe once were.


Perhaps more than anyone else I know, Josh made his life be about beauty and truth. What generations of people romanticized and further generation maligned and made fun of as cliché, he pursued in earnest and, I would say, with success. When he lived in Colorado, Josh would sometimes face his amp towards the Sangre de Christo mountains and play guitar to the uninhabited distance. If this sounds silly, the fault is with my writing.  Or maybe with our stupid jaded times, because, I assure you, we may be endlessly rediscovering things others discovered previously, but this is just what being human is about.  No two loves are ever alike, as no two sunsets are ever alike.


Josh spent much of his life traveling, abroad and in the U.S., for pleasure and in pursuit of ideas, people, or beauty. He’d hiked the Appalachian trail, where a bear raided his food and left him to walk a two or three day stretch of the way hungry. To my knowledge, he camped in Yosemite, visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, lived in the San Luis Valley in the high Rockies. I have beautiful pictures he took in Mexico, as well as from multiple trips in Southeast Asia, where he biked the length of the Malaysian peninsula to Singapore and eventually to Sumatra to see the Orangutans before they are eradicated from the wild. He spent significant amounts of time in Thailand on multiple trips and wanted to settle in Chiang Mai for good, though on his last trip there he came upon a politically volatile and unstable situation which thwarted any plans for staying. Josh also travelled to meet writers and poets he liked, or in homage of ones already gone. Josh admired Gary Snider, the beats in general, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jim Harrison, Patti Smith, Neil Young. He travelled to meet Doug Peacock in Montana, and to hear Amiri Baraka speak in Madison, as well as others, I’m sure.


I don’t remember meeting Josh when we went to grade school together, but sometime around then I came over for lunch. We weren’t close friends and I didn’t know him that well, and hanging out on this occasion was the result of living a block apart and sharing the walk to school on occasion. I don’t think we were even in the same grade, since they put me in a class with younger kids because I had just come over to the U.S. from the U.S.S.R. and didn’t speak good English yet. I remember Josh striking me as an easy person to be around, and generous, more like the Russian kids I knew in that regard than American boys. I think even then, he saw material objects as meant to be shared and used for the purpose of making others happy. When we became friends years later, this was among the qualities that impressed me most about him. Without any pretense, like it was the most natural thing in the world, Josh did things for people he cared about, things to make them feel good.


I would get to know that house really well some years later, housesitting when Josh was living in Colorado. He was jealous that I got to hang out with Juniper, the brilliant border collie. Much of the handyman work the place has seen over the past decade has been my doing, for better or for worse. A couple years back, I spent a beautiful summer afternoon making a watercolor of the facade from across the street, a present Josh wanted made for Renee, his mom. Later in the day, a neighbor lady came to Renee to ask her if she was aware a man was drawing the house. In the heady days of Bush-era paranoia, perhaps she thought I was scoping out the place as a terrorism target.


In the mid or late 2000s I spent the summer living in the garage, which Josh transformed into a remarkably homey space with Asian hangings, candles, furniture, and whatnot– among the latter, a woven prayer rug from Afghanistan with an AK prominently and intricately depicted in the center, and a theme of weapons continued in the margins. Not sure where he got that thing. He had a way of creating sacred or liminal spaces which really worked in a magical, unfathomable way, half ritual and half empathy. We cooked food on a coleman stove and drove Renee mad burning huge bonfires and playing music into the night, as friends came and went with the ease afforded by a garage hangout and summer nights. The culmination of that period was the art rummage sale we held early in the fall, at which I sold every single piece of art I ever made up to that point to a generous friend and gave away many drawings to others. It was billed as “Full Moon Gallery,” a benefit for the Chiang Mai Artist Collective (which never materialized but was intended to be the next phase of our lives– more clearly so in Josh’s mind than mine).


The artist collective in Chiang Mai was for us, but it was also meant to be a place and an experience available to anyone who wanted to escape the mindfuck that is this nightmare of a creatively stunted and competitive society for a simpler and cheaper alternative on the other side of the world, as well as for friends he had made there on previous trips. It would be a place where people could live in beauty and make art to send back to the states to sell. Almost as soon as he got back to Thailand, I think, it was clear that things had changed and the plans had become an impossibility: the friends he looked forward to seeing where in the dumps, the country was on the brink of rioting, the prospect of settling down was all but impossible. Biking the length of the Malaysian peninsula on the way toward Sumatra, hoping to see the last of the remaining wild Orangs before they were wiped out, he encountered angry and fearful people along the way. Later in the trip, armed with razorblades and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, he tried to get rid of the large “Siempre” we had tattooed on his thigh that summer before he left. Alone in some hotel room in some giant city, it must have been quite the opposite of what he hoped for when he left for Thailand with every intention of staying. I can’t fully wrap my head around this, but I can’t wrap my head around the way he just decided he was gonna start an artists’ collective across the world and went for it, with the assumption that if he built it, people would come. This is how legends are made. I don’t think I ever had this kind of confidence and certainty in my vision or myself.


Josh was genuinely happy to see people he cared about succeed, and was unstintingly generous with his time and energy towards this end. The art rummage was one example of his faith in me, commissioning the painting of their house another. At the same time, he could be utterly mute about his own art and accomplishments. I never learned about the book of poems he had collaborated on with Antler and two other poets, “Four Against the War,” until I googled his name this year. I don’t think we were friends when he was writing most of those poems, and he never showed them to me, so I was only to realize what a talent he had when I couldn’t tell him so anymore. This is the price of exceeding humbleness. Its not that I was ever unaware of how special he was when I did have the benefit of his company, but we don’t make a practice of telling as much to one another, assuming that the unspoken fact is confirmed automatically by virtue of our bestowal of our friendship on another. Of course this may or may not be the case, and probably isn’t the case when you are depressed or agitated and your entire demeanor sends the message that the whole universe is shit.


I saw the gnarly scar on Josh’s thigh where the “S” used to be when he came back later that winter, but even though I lived in a rented flat just up the block from him for the rest of that year, we spent little time with each other compared to the summer previous. At some point during the following year Josh had cloistered himself off from me and everyone else I knew for the better part of a decade. Because I didn’t see him for so long, I can’t be sure when the change in him took hold, and whether it did all at once or gradually over those years. It was clear that he returned from Asia shellshocked, but not as clear what happened and what it meant. Maybe he was going through the protracted funk of trying to figure out how to live meaningfully in a world which doesn’t care whether you live or die, just that you produce value. Though, this being a general diagnosis applicable almost universally among many or most of us, its probably not of much use.


When we reconnected after that period, Josh had much more sadness about him. For a year, we both lived in Bay View and could visit each other by taking a ten minute walk past the big park and across KK. I think Josh was miserable for much of that winter, because he said as much, but for me the walks we took just talking and hanging out were anodyne; though I too was depressed in my life and far from productive or pursuing anything like a concrete plan. Sometimes we walked to Anodyne Coffee and marveled at the way people live their lives and what they consider important. The extra time I got to spend with him that year is a huge reward I was somehow given for I know not what good deeds. Josh brought much wonder and beauty into my life, as I know he did to pretty much everyone who knew him.


Josh thought life was a spiritual journey. The way he had of being concerned with things on a non-physical plane meant he was present for whatever was going on then and there. In light of this, the decision he made must be seen as a considered one. It may be true that suicides are impulsive acts, and that prevented from carrying it out, a person has a 4 out of 5 chance of living out their lives to old age. But statistics don’t ask, “What were these lives like? Fulfilled? Happy? Meaningful?” At the same time, I know (as Josh surely knew) that there is an element of chance involved in all of this, and that life is fickle. It is always possible for everything to change at a moment’s notice, for love to take you where you didn’t know exists, for the shunned and ridiculed weirdo with his head in the clouds (yurodiviy of Russian folklore) to become the only person with anything resembling answers in a sudden reversal of everything anyone has ever known or taken for granted. He may have felt this gambling isn’t “honest,” or just that the odds aren’t good. Or maybe it simply comes down to the ratio of pain to joy, and his reached an unacceptable level.


I’m not the first to note that all too often, it’s the best ones that are taken away, that seem to stand no chance of making it in this world. I won’t be the first one to say that this isn’t right, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. The facade was maintained, only a generation or two ago, that the goal of all our endeavors, all our industry, is for the betterment of the lives of men, the notion was that progress was human progress, concerned with the welfare of our species, if not the welfare of all life. There was serious discussion of what people would do with all their free time once menial tasks were mostly automated. Maybe it should have been obvious that this was a charade all along, and to some it probably was. Today, even the charade has been dropped: “progress” has come to mean the development of objects from simple into more complex forms, the total price of the stocks traded by robots and rich people on the NYSE has come to be an indicator of the fitness of our society, and no one talks about growth in terms of our minds or souls any longer. A society which, in the words of Aldous Huxley, is based on “organized lovelessness” does not deserve to exist. It is yet to be shown whether it can exist, in the long run.


Why we put up with it is another question. Clearly, many of us are simply not aware that any alternatives exist. Most people are convinced that the best they can hope for is a raise, a winning lottery ticket, “true” love, as opposed to the false kind. They’ve never seen a truly happy person in their life, have no idea what happy people do, where they come from, what kind of environment they inhabit, what they consider important. Most people wouldn’t know what they’re looking at if they did come across such a phenomenon. I have, and what’s more, I’ve been one. A very faulty one, perhaps, but one nevertheless. By and large, this is a matter of the company you keep and are blessed with. The friendship I got to enjoy with Josh was part of the reason why I know what happiness for human beings feels like.


Kurt Vonnegut, speaking to an assembly of the American Psychiatric Association, said: “All of you, I am sure, when writing a prescription for mildly depressed patients… have had a thought on this order: ‘I am so sorry to have to put you on the outside of a pill. I would give anything if I could put you inside the big, warm life-support system of an extended family instead.’” Whether they did have had such a thought is something only they know, clearly they wouldn’t remain psychiatrists long if they not only believed such heresy but went around saying so. But I will take Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom over an assembly of psychiatrists any day: the point is that family—extended family—is an essential element we humans need to succeed, or to exist on any level but the most unfulfilling. Extended families don’t treat each other as bosses, employees, competitors or customers. Extended families offer a human being the opportunity to love and be loved, to be a student and a teacher, to be comfortable in the knowledge that they are accepted for who they are and will always be, that while they may do something that can hurt or disappoint, they themselves will always remain a part of the group. By and large, no group of people, related or not, gets to live any longer in a manner that would allow their members to live, grow, and die in the embrace of the kind of community that we require to thrive, certainly no one I’ve ever met. If we’re lucky, friends fill some of that space for some of the time—I consider myself about as lucky as anyone I know in this regard. Needless to say, it’s a tall order to maintain the level of support we require in an informal group of this kind.


Here’s hoping that the end of this dark age is at hand. When we finally manage to change the premises on which we’ve built this society, premises like man’s mastery over the rest of creation and, by extension, some men’s mastery over others, we may have a chance of ridding ourselves of the organized lovelessness that is the condition of such a society. When and if we do that, we will surely remember the ones who didn’t make it as the victims of the bad old days, and some as the prophets who pointed the way towards sanity. Not that that can ever take their place.


I miss Josh almost daily, still. Living in a city which we spent so much time in together can’t help but remind me of things we did, but even without outside triggers, I am the person I am today because of Josh. Sometimes I feel like with his passing, I am taking on his qualities. I got a puppy recently, and this has brought on all kinds of changes and new experiences which sometimes seem like deja vu, except not of something I’ve already lived, but that Josh did. I imagine him training June to “heel” and curb her prodigious energy as I do the same with puppy, or walking the Milwaukee river trails as we do almost every day.

josh at taj mahal

Photos in this post except the top one are ©Josh Gilman.

Stay tuned for a page featuring Josh’s poetry, fiction, travel writing, photos, and more.