In a few days, I’ll mark the third anniversary of my father’s passing. It’s an event that marked the beginning of a terrible time in my life, a time that’s still happening. I’m experiencing some sort of existential crisis. I’ve lost my way, and I don’t know what to do.
In October 2012, I had a full-time job, and strong family relationships with my father, my wife and my mother-in-law. It’s now October 2015 and my father is dead, my marriage is over, my mother-in-law doesn’t speak to me, and I haven’t held a full-time job in nearly three years. What the hell happened to my life?
I’d always been a career nomad, and the end of my contract in December 2012 was supposed to be the launch pad for a new career as a freelance “content strategist” and writer for hire. I was a little worried about the lack of structure and external deadlines, but I was excited nonetheless. But the first half of 2013 was almost all taken up with going through my Dad’s stuff, throwing things away, cleaning, dealing with lawyers and real estate agents, etc. I had no energy for starting a freelancing business. Luckily, I picked up some film festival gigs at TIFF and Hot Docs. They didn’t pay much but I thought they’d help me in the long run to find better work in the festival and film world.
Then early in 2014, my marriage suddenly fell apart. Just like that my entire family structure and any emotional support I had left disappeared. That entire year still feels like an open wound. Friends did what they could, but I was missing the kind of family support that would have made it less devastating.
I began 2015 in a hopeful state of mind, but it’s almost over and I’m still drifting aimlessly, going in circles, and becoming increasingly fearful about the future. None of my film contracts has led to a decent full-time job. I’m further away from my past as a content strategist/communications professional and that’s reflected in the deafening silence from the more than 250 companies I’ve applied to over the past 18 months. I feel surplus, unnecessary, both professionally and personally. I’m an extra human. And that’s the worst feeling in the world.
I’m paralyzed. I’ve been tentatively applying for jobs in other cities, even other countries, but Toronto has been my home for nearly 50 years. I’d have even less emotional support if I left my hometown. But I hate waiting for my luck to change, and staring fearfully at my dwindling bank balance.
I’ve become much more cynical. My idealism and faith in the bigger institutions of life has been tarnished forever, and yet I don’t want to become a bitter man. But even if I avoid bitterness, I’m filled with guilt and shame about the things that have happened to me. About my current inability to participate in the world and live like an adult. I’m not self-destructive, but my lifestyle is beginning to affect my health. Worst of all, I’ve lost much of my capacity to hope and to care, and this saddens and frightens me.
I’m more sensitive to disappointments in my relationships and small setbacks can knock me down for days. I’m more aware of how thin the line is between success and failure, of good luck and bad luck, of getting back on my feet or of falling into a deeper hole.
I regret my earlier restlessness, even though I’m not sure I could have stopped feeling it. Now that I’ve lost almost everything, I miss the familiarity of that restlessness. I would rather feel that than the desperation I’ve been feeling lately.
When it comes to love, I’m still searching, but now I know what a damaged person looks like. He looks like me. And that’s not something I want to dump on someone new. But I’m not doing too well on my own, either. I don’t think I ever have.
To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m writing all of this. Or why I’d want to share it. Nobody wants other people to know how much of a mess they’re feeling. Except maybe I do. Because I think I still have a lot to offer, and I’m tired of feeling like I’m not needed or wanted by the world.
I’m not sure when I started it, but at some point in the last 12 months, I began an iTunes playlist called “My Comeback”. Music has always been very important to me, but I found that at my lowest points, I began to connect with music again in a powerful way. For maybe the first time since my 20s, lyrics jumped out at me again, and combined with the music, songs became comforting, nourishing, and inspiring.
This playlist will continue to evolve, but I wanted to share just a bit about how each of these songs helped me during the past year. Maybe some of them, or even my words about them, can help you, too.
Adventures in Solitude – The New Pornographers (from Challengers, 2007)
“We thought we’d lost you…welcome back”
This just popped up at random at some point in the summer of 2014 and maybe it was the title that initially grabbed me. I was having my own adventures in solitude for the first time in many years, and I identified with the lyric above. I also love that it’s written from the perspective of a friend, someone standing at a respectful distance but ready to embrace his wounded comrade back into a community of friendship.
“Got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows
Got nothing to lose but bitterness and patterns”
Spoon has been probably my favourite band since I first heard them way back in 1997. Britt Daniel just oozes cool, but even with his amazing gravelly voice and rock star swagger, it’s clear that he’s suffered his share of heartbreak. So it’s not surprising that there are two Spoon songs on this list.
“Got Nuffin” is the more upbeat of the two, a bouncy song with a propulsive Jim Eno beat about breaking free and looking forward. Daniel’s guitar work feels loose and almost improvised, adding to the sense of freedom.
“Do You” – Spoon (from They Want My Soul, 2014)
“Do you want to get understood?”
Here’s one about looking for the real thing. When you’re feeling burned after a long relationship, it’s easy to be fearful or cynical about love. But this is a lovely hopeful song about what I think is our deepest desire, to connect with another person and to feel fully known and yet still loved. I’m definitely not quite ready to open my heart this wide, but I want to get there, and this song is just a lovely hymn to not giving up.
“Shattered and Hollow” – First Aid Kit (from Stay Gold, 2014)
“I am in love and I am lost
but I’d rather be broken than empty
I’d rather be shattered than hollow”
These two sisters sing and play American country music like they were born in Nashville, but they’re actually from Sweden. Gorgeous harmonies and those first few lines just pierced my heart, but by the time the chorus kicks in with “we’re gonna get out of here, run from all our fears,” the name of the band made complete sense to me. During 2014, this song (and the entire record) was a salve for my wounds. It didn’t hurt that the album title indirectly (via S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders) references the very same Robert Frost poem that I cited when announcing the breakup of my marriage.
“Walk” – Foo Fighters (from Wasting Light, 2011)
“Learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?”
I’ve always loved Dave Grohl. One of the first stories I read about him was from a member of the riot grrrl band L7, who had enjoyed a sneaky shag with him after some concert. She just described him as an eminently decent guy, and I think as he’s aged, he’s only embellished that reputation in my eyes. He has a great sense of humour and seems to have very little rock star ego. Plus, he’s a huge music nerd, and is dedicated to telling stories about music that aren’t always about himself.
I bought Wasting Light when it came out after having pretty much ignored Foo Fighters after 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose. This song came back to me last year as I began to try to figure out what to do next. I’ve quoted the chorus above but the part that really pumps me up is when he just sings “I never wanna die, I never wanna die.” There are definitely times when I felt exactly the opposite. We’re all going to die, sure. But that feeling of embracing life, of loving it again, that’s what I want to feel, and this song connects me with that. It’s almost the soundtrack to the old cliche, “Baby steps…”
“Everlong” – Foo Fighters (from The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
“And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when”
And here’s an old one from Mr. Grohl. I think I read something recently about this song being about that feeling you get when you fall in love again after thinking it will never happen. First love is unique but second love is a gift you cherish even more because you never thought it would arrive. It also means trusting after being hurt, and so there’s more vulnerability and more at risk, which makes it even more tender. When he sings “promise not to stop when I say when,” I’m incredibly moved. It’s like he’s trying to get over the fear of losing something again before he’s even really felt it.
“I” – Kendrick Lamar (from To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
“Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart
On my sleeve, let the runway start
You know the miserable do love company
What do you want from me and my scars?
Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence
How many times my potential was anonymous?
How many times the city making me promises?
So I promise this…
I love myself…”
Using a perfect Isley Brothers sample, Kendrick Lamar drops his guard to share this anthem to loving yourself. Lamar’s from Compton, a place where there’s not a lot of hope, or opportunity, or self-esteem. Seeing him perform this live on SNL was electrifying and still brings me a huge dose of joy (despite his scary dope eyes!).
“This Ladder is Ours” – The Joy Formidable (from Wolf’s Law, 2013)
“Let’s sit and talk and slow things down
Just be our old selves again, finally
This is where everybody turns out right in the end
Can you play a part?”
I love powerful women with guitars, and Ritzi Bryan from Welsh trio The Joy Formidable is a tiny powerhouse. But here in this song, she also reveals her tender side. Written to a friend who was going through a rough time, it’s a great ode to friendship and having someone there to help you persevere. It’s also got this band’s trademark mixture of epic riffs and Ritzi’s undoubtedly feminine appeal. The video is also a pretty good representation of what it felt like to be me last year, sandblasted by tragedy but still standing.
“Struck Dumb” – The Futureheads (from The Chaos, 2010)
“Misery is a little line of a little dash
It’s a subtraction sign
Happiness is a little cross so if you’re feeling lost
Use it to add it up
All of us are genius
There’s more than enough to go between us
Every day you create everything in every way
Laziness can go and play with ignorance on the motorway
All of us are genius
There’s more than enough to go between us
For crying out loud
Stop furrowing your brow
Stop living in the clouds
Go and make your mother proud”
The Futureheads hit it big back in 2004 with their angular postpunk and chiming harmonies, most notably on a cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.” Then people kind of forgot about them, which is a huge shame, because 2010’s The Chaos is ripe for rediscovery. It’s full of great hooks and upbeat themes, and for me, it’s played a big role in keeping me hopeful during a dark time.
“Struck Dumb” is like a 3 minute pep talk wrapped in an incredibly danceable pop song. It’s hard not to quote all of the lyrics because they’re all things you want to hear when you’re down. Though this isn’t really a love song, it moved me more as a creative rallying cry, like a way to smash writer’s block. And of course, I always want to make my mother proud.
“I Can Do That” – The Futureheads (from The Chaos, 2010)
“I’ve been waiting six months for a sign that this is not a farce
I’m sick of having to read between the lines
I wrote a hundred letters without expecting a reply
I’ve made more phone calls than a wealthy guy”
And this one really helped me as I struggled (and continue to struggle) with chronic under-employment and lack of career direction. The band is from Sunderland, in the north of England, where the economy is generally bad and jobs are scarce. Many people listening to this song would be familiar with the dark cloud that forms over you when you’ve been fruitlessly looking for work for a long time. The very title of this song is something that would pop into my head often when I looked at a job ad (or even when hearing about someone else’s job) and I like to use it as a motivational tool rather than an expression of envy or bitterness.
“1,000 Pounds” – Superchunk (from Come Pick Me Up, 1999)
“You finally pulled back when the world pulled your hair
At your age, life moves so fast
Twelve years old, skinny legs built to come in last
But you came through, you came through
When nobody expected you to
You came through, you came through
With all those narrowed eyes upon you
You came through, you came through”
This took me back to my early adolescence. I wasn’t really bullied much, but I was a nerdy, skinny little kid who wasn’t the most popular guy in his class. But I did have a toughness, a resilience that people respected. Lately, I’ve had to get back in touch with that core of strength that has helped me get through lots of bad times. I’ve faced lots of tragedies, lots of lean periods, and I can get through this. I love that there might be someone looking on and cheering for me the way Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan is rooting for the skinny-legged kid he’s singing to here. Maybe it’s himself. So yeah, maybe it’s a weird image, but somehow I’m cheering myself on.
She was a fairly recent acquaintance, someone I’d met through work. Although she was outwardly reserved, I’d hoped we were kindred spirits under the surface, but it turned out I was wrong. We’d met for coffee and I’d asked her for help dealing with a difficult situation with another work colleague. And that’s when she said it.
It turns out my issue with the other work colleague probably has something to do with my oversharing, too. “It’s not professional,” I can picture her saying, perhaps wagging a finger.
Over the past year, I can think of at least six people who’ve been unhappy with my level of personal disclosure online. Strangely enough, every single one of those people is from an English or Scottish background.
I’m Irish. In my childhood home, arguments were normal. One of my dearest memories of my parents is of me storming off to my room in the middle of an argument, and them gently knocking a few minutes later. They didn’t let me run away from my feelings. We sorted stuff out, sometimes messily, but in the present.
We’re often told not to “bottle up” our emotions, that it might lead to “explosions” of feeling, or maybe violence. But I think I have a better metaphor. Sinkholes are formed when water accumulates under a land surface and the soil underneath erodes, leading to a sudden collapse.
A sinkhole is a good representation of what happened to my marriage, I think.
I’ve always needed an outlet for my emotions. I don’t consider myself an extravert, so often I’ve dealt with things by writing about them. When personal online publishing became a reality in the late 1990s, the issue of oversharing became inevitable, although not many people would have foreseen it at the time. As someone who began keeping a homepage in those days, and then starting a personal blog, I’m bound to be stuck in my idealistic, perhaps naive, way of thinking. We didn’t do it for “hits” or traffic. We did it to find connection, to make some friends who might understand us, even though we didn’t live near each other.
Fourteen years ago this week, I attended my very first SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. The personal weblog I’d started the previous year, the one you’re reading this on right now, had led to the establishment of a few tentative friendships. As I got off the plane in Austin, I was nervous. Would these people like me in real life? Would we be the same people we portrayed ourselves as online? It was a real concern. Imagine my relief when people I’d only known as text on a screen came up to me and hugged me. We’d found our “tribe,” we’d say, and years later, many of those people are still very dear to me.
So when my life began to come apart last year, I turned to a group of people who are spread out all over the world. I don’t see many of them often, we don’t even speak on the phone very much. This is the new reality of connection. I shared my life struggles with these people, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, wherever else my real friends might be. Sure, lots of other people can see what I’m writing. I’m not ashamed. I wear my heart on my sleeve whenever possible, and I’m freer because of it.
I may lose people who don’t like that. I won’t say friends because how could they be friends if they’re embarrassed by me? I may lose potential jobs or work opportunities because of that. To that, I’d offer that my online presence was formed in the years before “social media” was something for my resume, when it was a way for me and millions of others to find our voices and use them. When the web was more about personalities and less about commerce. I’m not using a bullhorn to talk about myself, but I won’t be shushed, either.
In an age when the notion of “privacy” is under attack, I overshare. My government and several other governments, along with most of the world’s largest corporations, know so much about me already. What I buy, what I read, how I vote, where I go, what websites I visit, what I search for. Why not show them and the rest of the world the real me? I’m so much more than my data points. I’m a glorious ball of contradictions, stumbling through this life making mistakes and finding joy and enduring pain and loving and being loved, being misunderstood and ignored, and maybe hated, too.
So, last weekend, I turned 50 years old! It’s hard for me to believe, but it really happened. And despite it being the coldest night of the winter so far, at least 25 of my friends made the journey (some from as far away as Waterloo!) down to Kensington Market to celebrate with me. I’ve been a recent regular at a cozy little bar called the Kensington Lodge, and they were nice enough to let me curate my very own playlist of favourites. I’d been planning to include music spanning my entire lifetime, but I found that by the time I got to 1985, the playlist was 150 songs and more than 9 hours long. That’s the reason that I started my party at 5:00pm! Even so, we only got up to about 125 songs played before we all headed home. Here for posterity is my epic playlist. And I’d be happy to organize another 9-hour party somewhere just so I could play this again!
p.s. The above photo was actually taken at Kensington Lodge the night of my party. I don’t know whether that sign was there just for me, but it felt appropriate. 🙂
Help! – The Beatles (1965)
In My Life – The Beatles (1965)
Le temps de l’amour – Françoise Hardy (1965)
All Day and All of the Night – The Kinks (1965)
Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones (1965)
I Fought the Law – The Bobby Fuller Four (1966)
Judge Dread – Prince Buster (1966)
Wipeout – The Ventures (1966)
Here Comes My Baby – Cat Stevens (1967)
These Days – Nico (1967)
The Way Young Lovers Do – Van Morrison (1968)
Rain From the Skies – Delroy Wilson (1969)
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (1969)
No Fun – The Stooges (1969)
Wild World – Cat Stevens (1970)
What is Life? – George Harrison (1970)
Who Loves the Sun? – The Velvet Underground (1970)
Sweet Leaf – Black Sabbath (1971)
Queen Bitch – David Bowie (1971)
Cross-Eyed Mary – Jethro Tull (1971)
Do Ya – The Move (1971)
Thirteen – Big Star (1972)
Growin’ Up – Bruce Springsteen (1972)
Dream On – Aerosmith (1973)
Search and Destroy – Iggy and the Stooges (1973)
She Cracked – The Modern Lovers (1973)
Higher Ground – Stevie Wonder (1973)
Magic – Pilot (1974)
Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (1975)
More Than a Feeling – Boston (1976)
Livin’ Thing – Electric Light Orchestra (1976)
Carry On Wayward Son – Kansas (1976)
Blinded by the Light – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (1976)
Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones (1976)
I Wish – Stevie Wonder (1976)
Breakdown – Buzzcocks (1977)
Sonic Reducer – Dead Boys (1977)
Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Barracuda – Heart (1977)
The Passenger – Iggy Pop (1977)
Teenage Lobotomy – The Ramones (1977)
God Save the Queen – Sex Pistols (1977)
Hanging on the Telephone – Blondie (1978)
Just What I Needed – The Cars (1978)
Uncontrollable Urge – Devo (1978)
Shot By Both Sides – Magazine (1978)
Hot Child in the City – Nick Gilder (1978)
Another Girl, Another Planet – The Only Ones (1978)
So Lonely – The Police (1978)
I Just Wanna Have Something to Do – The Ramones (1978)
Nicotine Stain – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)
Warning Sign – Talking Heads (1978)
52 Girls – The B-52s (1979)
Someone’s Lookin’ at You – The Boomtown Rats (1979)
I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick (1979)
London Calling – The Clash (1979)
New York City – The Demics (1979)
Tired of Waking Up Tired – The Diodes (1979)
Hey St. Peter – Flash and the Pan (1979)
Damaged Goods – Gang of Four (1979)
Flat Tire – The Government (1979)
I’m Bored – Iggy Pop (1979)
Got the Time – Joe Jackson (1979)
Transmission – Joy Division (1979)
Disorder – Joy Division (1979)
My Sharona – The Knack (1979)
Pop Muzik – M (1979)
Bed and Breakfast Man – Madness (1979)
Cruel to Be Kind – Nick Lowe (1979)
In The Flesh? – Pink Floyd (1979)
Bring on the Night – The Police (1979)
Rock Billy Boogie – Robert Gordon (1979)
I Got You – Split Enz (1979)
Cool for Cats – Squeeze (1979)
The Logical Song – Supertramp (1979)
Heaven – Talking Heads (1979)
Picture My Face – Teenage Head (1979)
Down in the Park – Tubeway Army (1979)
Teenage Kicks – The Undertones (1979)
Making Plans for Nigel – XTC (1979)
Ant Music – Adam and the Ants (1980)
A Forest – The Cure (1980)
Twist and Crawl – The English Beat (1980)
Raised Eyebrows – The Feelies (1980)
My Mistake – The Kingbees (1980)
This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide – The Kings (1980)
A Song from Under the Floorboards – Magazine (1980)
Paint by Number Heart – Martha and the Muffins (1980)
Ace of Spades – Mötorhead (1980)
Blue Boy – Orange Juice (1980)
The Wait – Pretenders (1980)
High School Confidential – Rough Trade (1980)
Happy House – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1980)
Do Nothing – The Specials (1980)
Pulling Mussels – Squeeze (1980)
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) – Talking Heads (1980)
Disgusteen – Teenage Head (1980)
Los Angeles – X (1980)
Brand New Life – Young Marble Giants (1980)
Black and White – The dB’s (1981)
Watch Your Step – Elvis Costello and The Attractions (1981)
Sex Beat – Gun Club (1981)
Sorry for Laughing – Josef K (1981)
Academy Fight Song – Mission of Burma (1981)
Ceremony – New Order (1981)
Super Freak – Rick James (1981)
Tainted Love – Soft Cell (1981)
Ghost Town – The Specials (1981)
Throwing My Baby Out with the Bathwater – Tenpole Tudor (1981)
Song Without an Ending – The The (1981)
It’s Going to Happen! – The Undertones (1981)
The Look of Love (Part One) – ABC (1982)
I Could Be Happy – Altered Images (1982)
I Love a Man in a Uniform – Gang of Four (1982)
Love Plus One – Haircut 100 (1982)
Compulsion – Joe Crow (1982)
The Safety Dance – Men Without Hats (1982)
Falling and Laughing – Orange Juice (1982)
Love My Way – The Psychedelic Furs (1982)
Someone Somewhere in Summertime – Simple Minds (1982)
Nova Heart – The Spoons (1982)
A New England – Billy Bragg (1983)
Don’t Walk Past – Blue Peter (1983)
The Walls Came Down – The Call (1983)
Saved By Zero – The Fixx (1983)
Laughing – R.E.M. (1983)
This Is The Day – The The (1983)
Europa and the Pirate Twins – Thomas Dolby (1983)
Blister in the Sun – Violent Femmes (1983)
Sixty Eight Guns – The Alarm (1984)
The Saturday Boy – Billy Bragg (1984)
Cath – The Bluebells (1984)
Gonna Get Close to You – Dalbello (1984)
Tenderness – General Public (1984)
Are You Ready to be Heartbroken? – Lloyd Cole and The Commotions (1984)
Doesn’t Really Matter – Platinum Blonde (1984)
Waxie’s Dargle – The Pogues (1984)
Listen to the Radio – Pukka Orchestra (1984)
Harborcoat – R.E.M. (1984)
How Soon is Now? – The Smiths (1984)
This Charming Man – The Smiths (1984)
My Ever Changing Moods – The Style Council (1984)
Take On Me – a-ha (1985)
She Sells Sanctuary – The Cult (1985)
Like to Get to Know You Well – Howard Jones (1985)
For a long time, the title of this post was going to be “F**k You 2014” (yes, my language has become much saltier over the past year), but I decided to change it to something that at least tries to look ahead rather than backward.
After losing my father in October 2012, my only blood relative in this hemisphere, my idea of family changed, was forced to change. And now I’ve lost both my partner and best friend, and her mother, the only mother I’ve known over the past two decades.
The sturdy structure I thought we’d been building together for nearly 17 years turned out to be made of spit and tissue paper.
I’ve written a lot about this, some publicly, most privately. But often I’m just reduced to mute:
So this is definitely not my most articulate blog post.
And just to make things worse…
Since May (when I began keeping a written record), 78 job applications, not one interview.
I look at my dwindling savings (aka the inheritance I wasn’t supposed to be spending) and for the first time, I’m actually worried that I won’t recover from this. I want to be a part of the world and I know that I have a lot to contribute. But for the last year I’ve felt a bit like a surplus human being, unwanted, unneeded. That’s definitely not me. I need to get the twinkle back in my eye.
What does Act III look like for me? I turn 50 years old in February, and if I’m very lucky, I might have 25 years left of this life. What will I do with it? How will I learn from what’s gone before and make this next year and next stage of my life better?
I’d hoped that I’d be able to make this blog post a bit more hopeful. I don’t have the answers yet. Maybe I’ll never have them. The last year has been very hard, and I am hopeful the year ahead will be less hard. But that’s a pretty feeble kind of hope. A new friend has told me that my job for now is just to pass the time. Nature will sort out the rest.
So 2015 is a blanker canvas than I’d ever expected. To mix in some more creative metaphors, it’s a clean white page and an empty stage. And I’m trying to see that as a good thing.
So, curtain up on Act III…
P.S. Strange to look back at a few older “new year” posts: