Give Up On 100% – Two Useful Percentages for Perfectionists

The whole country is infected with it right now. You can see it seeping into discourse like a poison, choking off voice after voice with scornful cynicism. “Impeachment is meaningless – no president has ever been removed from office that way!” “The damage has been done, why disrupt the system further?” “The system itself is rigged; there’s no point in playing at all.”

“You poor fool,” they say. “Don’t you understand there’s no point in fixing anything if you can’t fix everything?”

Listen. I get it. We’re all in a frantic fog right now, the kind of mindset you fall into when you’re constantly being gaslighted by an abusive narcissist. Someone is trying to destroy your reality and substitute his own, and that person desperately needs you to believe that any step you take to protect yourself is pointless if you can’t fix the whole world in the process.

But ask yourself why he needs you to believe that. Why is it so important that you do nothing to improve your circumstances, defend your loved ones, advocate for yourself? Why is an abusive person always mortally terrified of you making the slightest move to help yourself? That seems like the attitude of someone who’s trying very hard to not let you find out how little control they have, doesn’t it? That seems like someone who knows the only reason he keeps winning is because you believe him when he says you shouldn’t try.

Termites in your soul

Unfortunately, even if you can get away from that person (god willin’ and the creek don’t rise…) we’re all growing more perfectionist over time, and this mindset will kill you. I’m not being dramatic. Perfectionism is on the rise worldwide, according to a meta-analysis of cohort studies between 1989 and 2016, the first time perfectionism has been studied across generations. It’s approaching a legitimate public health epidemic, because perfectionism is linked (by another enormous meta-analysis of 284 different studies on the subject) to a host of clinical and psychological issues including anxiety and depression, PTSD, self-harm, eating disorders, hoarding, chronic headaches, insomnia, even suicide and early mortality.

Perfectionism destroys your desire to work, undermines your self-worth and creativity, causes you to sabotage your relationships out of insecurity, eats away at your body and mind until it kills you. It shuts down every hope and inspiration with “that’s not enough.” Nothing is ever enough. Perfectionism is like termites in your soul, chewing away at your foundations in a way that you might not even notice until your footing crumbles away beneath you.

Okay, so it’s bad for me… but it also makes me perform better, right?

Well, no. Sorry.

It might feel like being a perfectionist is required – it’s certainly helped you at work, and you can’t offer a single thought on any subject on the internet without some asshole wants to bitch about how there’s a fringe case your suggestion doesn’t address. Social media lets us filter out blemishes and show a perfect image of ourselves to the world, and slowly we start to hate looking at our real, imperfect face. Our feudal capitalist structure more or less forces a competitive, zero-sum view of the world on its children, one where there is never enough for everyone, and so basic human rights and safety can only be offered to the very deserving. It’s a compliment in some circles, one of those things you say when the interviewer asks, “What’s your biggest weakness?” “Oh, I’m a perfectionist – I work too dang hard! Please, exploit my maladaptive coping mechanism for our mutual monetary gain!”

But it doesn’t actually work. In a study from 2016, our friends Mr. Hill and Curran of the 1989-2016 meta-analysis found that athletes, employees and students alike saw very little or no benefit to their work, skills or progress from perfectionist tendencies and attitudes, and vastly increased their likelihood of burnout. The same study found that perfectionists quit faster because they’re afraid to make mistakes, so they often leave a trail of abandoned enterprises behind them. Perfectionists take longer to complete the tasks they do manage to finish, because they’re wasting time agonizing along the way. You’re working harder, not smarter.

So what can you do?

Perfectionism would have you believe that there are only two percentages that matter: zero percent, where you currently are (and always will be, says that nasty voice in your head), or 100 percent, where you must get in order to accept credit, feel pride, be finished and move on. The baseline for accomplishing anything becomes 100%; that’s your expectation for yourself, and so you project that expectation on the people around you. Anything less than exactly what someone wants (even if they weren’t clear about what exactly that was) feels like a total failure. In order to be acceptable, you have to be flawless.

These aren’t useful percentages. They’re about as informative as a black-and-white view of the world, and about as connected with reality – that is to say, not at all. What do complete, effortless success and utter, crushing failure have in common? You don’t learn anything from either one.

So let’s replace these all-or-nothing percentages with something more useful. Let’s try… 1% and 70%.

Start with 1%

Sometimes, to combat our extreme mental blocks, we have to get a little extreme in response. The perfectionist brain wants to look at this 1% and round it down to zero, and you’re gonna have to fight that impulse with everything you have.

Let’s say you have something very stressful and emotional and difficult to do – say you want to buy a house. That’ll stress anybody out. What are actual, mechanical steps to buying a house?

  1. Find a house you want to buy
  2. Pay for the house
  3. Sign a TON of papers
  4. Move in

Most difficult tasks in life are like this: a series of physical and mental tasks, none of them individually especially challenging. Everything we do, no matter how emotional or stressful, from planning a funeral to breaking up with someone to discussing climate change with the UN, can be broken down into a series of simple mechanical tasks. Usually those tasks are some form of “write some stuff on papers” and “talk to some people about stuff.”

You know how to do those things, that’s not hard. What’s making it hard is you’re saying to yourself, “It’s time to buy a house! So let’s go… buy a house!” You’re asking yourself to go from 0% to 100% in one action. That’s impossible, and you know it. This can become a way that we avoid doing things – we deliberately avoid analyzing the problem or figuring out what kind of help we need, because if we did, we would have to, like… do it.

So start with 1%. If something is overwhelming, start breaking it down into smaller tasks. You’ll know you’ve hit a workable level when you find a task that makes you snort with derision – “That? Of course I can do THAT, that’s a cakewalk.” Great. That’s your 1%.

Your perfectionism is something you’re going to have to defeat over and over in order to accomplish anything. You’ll have to beat it when you begin, and again while you’re doing the thing, and again when it’s over and you want to scrap the whole mess because it’s not flawless. Beating it when you begin is about accepting that 1% is indeed progress. It’s more progress than you were making while you were arguing about how much progress it was, isn’t it? But you thought arguing was a good use of your time. So instead, spend that time doing 1% of what you need to do. The argument will still be there when you’re done; we can have it again if you want.

Beating perfectionism when you finish is about accepting that 1% is indeed an accomplishment. If you get something done and every time you say to yourself, “Well, yeah, you did that, but that was fuck-all, that was nothing compared to all you still have to do”… tell me, is that the kind of sentiment that gets you all fired up to do stuff? Because for me, it’s not. For me, if I want to get something done, I have to be able to reward myself based on reality, what I actually did, not what I should have done or could have done. Your “should” and “could” don’t exist. They’re inventions, made-up stories meant to encourage you to behave, like Santa Claus. Why are you living your life like you’re on the Naughty list from birth when Santa doesn’t even exist?

At 70%, pull the trigger

Now, I don’t want to get caught in the fallacy that most of the world is currently mired in, that being the idea that because someone is a billionaire, he has profound insight that you can and should use to become like him. Most billionaires got that way by failing upward with inherited wealth. If you put them in a basement apartment on minimum wage for a month, they’d show up at Wal-Mart thinking they need an ID to buy groceries. These people, for the most part, do not have any useful tips for success beyond Rule 0: Be born a white man.

But… one thing that all successful people do more than the people below them is make decisions, right? That’s the whole job of the CEO, making decisions. He might not have any expertise, might never have seen the product his company sells, couldn’t tell you how to make it or what’s in it, but if you ask him, he’ll decide what to do and things will move forward.

Jeff Bezos, our Glittering Capitalist Overlord, told his shareholders in 2016: “Most decisions should probably be made with around 70% of the information you wish you had.” Why 70%? “If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re being slow.” Think about it – when you’re doing research, trying to figure out how to solve a problem, at the beginning, there’s a lot of new data. But once you’re closing on 70% sure, you’re not learning any new essential data. You could spend six hours trying to increase your knowledge from 70% to 75%, but you probably won’t stumble upon any new, immensely critical data, and you can’t guarantee your decision will be any better for the extra time spent.

Most people agonize. They have analysis paralysis. They want to nail down every possible piece of information and go into something feeling like they’re 100% prepared. But what will happen if you instead stop when you’re about 70% sure… and just try it? Bezos points out that course-correcting is usually pretty low-cost – most decisions can be reversed or adjusted once you’ve begun. So assume you’re wrong; okay, you jumped the gun a bit and if you’d waited, you might have avoided making the mistake you just made… but you might not. It might have happened anyway.

And what if you’re right? You moved before anyone else. You’re not just right, you’re right and FIRST. That’s how people make the big bucks, by taking a gamble and guessing right when everyone else is too afraid of losing to roll the dice. In order to win, you’ll have to lose, a lot, and not let that scare you into giving up.

Now… debug

If you’re a programmer, and you want to know if your code will work… do you read the code? Is that the most efficient way to find your own mistakes? It’s not, really – if you didn’t see the mistake when you wrote it, you probably won’t when you read it over again. The best way to figure out if your code works is to try it, to run the damn thing and see what breaks.

When we sit in stillness, trying to figure out the perfect course of action, the best step to take for the maximum reward, the one solution that will work forever in all situations… we’re trying to debug the code without ever having run it. It’s a waste of time. We simply don’t have the information required to make a coherent judgment at that point. The experiential data you’ll get from just fucking doing a thing is the stuff Bezos can’t write down and no list of life hacks will tell you, and it’s essential to success. Any decision you make without experience doing the thing you’re deciding on is going to be less than sound, because it’s based on a faulty foundation. It’s full of termites, and they’ll tear down everything you build if you let them convince you to sit there and watch it happen.

A Manual of Happiness

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.

– Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Content warning: lots of explicit talk about suicide and the mindset that accompanies suicidal ideation.

I bang on about absurdism a lot, but I haven’t really put anything coherent together explaining what I mean and how it underlies everything else I endlessly bang on about. There are a couple of sonnets with some musings as an appetizer, but they occasion more questions than they answer, because, well… I tend to start conversations in the middle, I suppose? With you, and everyone else. I think of this as a conversation we’re having, you and I, from which you can glean that the people who suffer me long-term are very patient creatures who don’t mind being ranted at for fifteen minutes and calling that “a conversation.”

So I was bopping around trying to answer some questions and express myself like a goddamn person this morning, and scanning back through Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” essay because I reread that shit like scripture, and I snagged on the line quoted above. This is why I tend to read and watch and listen to the same things over and over, hundreds of times – I get different insights, notice different elements and interpret differently each time. I never paid much attention to this line before, but today I’ve realized… that’s what I’m trying to do here. That’s what I’ve been trying to make all my life, in bits and pieces and a thousand different media: a manual of happiness.

suicide with a grin

It’s a ridiculous idea on its face. Who can say what happiness is? We never really know what we want, or how to fulfill all our nebulous needs. And the last person to tell you how to be happy should be a traumatized data ghost ambivalently haunting a run-down flesh prison who brings up suicide with a grin in every conversation, like good Christ, is that strictly necessary?

My friends keep this gif handy, and it’s a totally fair way to respond to virtually anything I say, although it’s not a foolproof way to shut me up.

But of course, the more ridiculous the idea, the more I like it. That’s the whole deal. That’s absurdism. I want to do this because it’s a pointless, silly thing to do that I am desperately unqualified for, much like everything any human has ever done, and for that reason it’s beautiful to me.

I’m not sure what form such a thing should take, and obviously me running in here with a new project going, “This is the new best thing ever!” is something that happens semi-regularly, so nodding and smiling is a perfectly reasonable response to my blather at this point. We’ll see how it turns out. Think of this as an introductory essay.

drunk and full of bright ideas

I think perhaps there’s something worthy to be said about happiness from the perspective of someone for whom it’s never been a given. We get a lot of advice about how to live from people claiming to have attained “success” in their process of personal development. It’s good salesmanship, fair enough – they set up a before and after picture with you on the shitty end, and on the other side, their perfect life of whole grains, yoga, four-hour Tantric sex and a schedule full of Oprah-approved activities. The one sure way to get from before to after? Buy their product!

The people who have been the most actual help to me in my life have often been the most damaged. The people who saved my life were the people who were also drunk and full of bright ideas at three in the morning, that’s why they were handy when I did something stupid. The shiny healthy people we’re supposed to emulate… those people are asleep at three in the morning. They’ve got to get up for yoga at five, after all.

Some of the kindest, most insightful, most comforting and inspiring people I’ve known would have said they were desperately unhappy. Sufficient happiness and purpose to keep living just isn’t that tough to achieve for most people – most people whose brains produce the right chemicals, most people who haven’t been kicked in the head by circumstance or other humans. Neurotypical people don’t have to analyze the reasons they’re still alive and come up with something bulletproof that stands up to endless interrogation. They find it weird and pointless when you try.

But if you’ve ever been suicidal, you’ve stared straight at the fact that you could check out at any time. That understanding is a reorientation of your perspective on the world that never truly leaves you. The first time it occurs to you, like all bad ideas, it seems like a sudden panacea, the sword that cuts through all the Gordian knots in your life. Long before it ever occurred to me, I lived with a man who’d attempted suicide twice before I met him, and tried another three times during the years we were together. He told me once that the days after he decided to kill himself and made a plan for it were the happiest days he’d had in years. All his fear and regret fell away, nothing mattered, the world felt bright and real and precious. He concluded from this that suicide was a good idea. This was, let me at this point emphasize, where he was very wrong.

a sense of existential freedom

What my undead friend was experiencing but misattributing is a sense of existential freedom. He confronted the fact that continuing to live was a choice, that all his misery and all the pains of his life were in his power to simply reject. He chose to reject life, and thought the sense of freedom and peace he then felt came from the rejection. But ending our suffering by checking out of it isn’t control, is it? It’s surrender. It’s letting the meaninglessness of the universe make him meaningless. It’s admitting that he thinks his life is worthless unless something external grants him value.

So to truly control his life, to maintain that state of happiness, of existential freedom that he felt having made a choice to end his life… how could he have done that? If it wasn’t the rejection of suffering that made him feel stronger than his burdens, at peace with his failures… what was it?

It was making the choice. Choosing consciously to live gives us the same control as choosing consciously to die: ownership of our fate. It’s not about what choice we make… the choice is the thing. The fact that we have the choice, and know it, and make it consciously, gives our lives all the meaning they will ever have.

only we can choose to die, rather than be killed
only we can choose to live, rather than be alive

An illustration: animals don’t, for the most part, commit suicide as a way to end their suffering. (The lemming thing is a myth.) There are parasites that can induce self-destructive behavior, and many animals will give their lives for their young or group in an altruistic way, but these aren’t suicide the way humans refer to it. The animals who have been seen to behave self-destructively in response to emotional pain have largely been animals with deep bonds to humans – animals we’ve trained in conscious emotional behavior.

What I’m saying is: choosing to continue living is a privilege only conscious beings have. Only we can choose to die, rather than be killed. Only we can choose to live, rather than be alive.

You can’t control the misfortune you encounter, but if you act like you can’t control it, you will live the life of a victim and a martyr. You will spend all your days mourning the control you don’t have and the life you could have led if only the world didn’t insist on fucking you so hard, so specifically, so personally. The only possible agency you can get in your life is by reacting to things as if you can positively affect the outcome, by pretending that your actions are meaningful and your perspective has value. You have to live like you have free will, because if you don’t, nothing matters anyway.

lunge at your life like a rabid wolf

Happiness is a matter of choice. Not choosing to be happy, but choosing to be here. Choosing to keep choosing. Choosing to commit all your attention to the experience you’re having and act with the agency you have, rather than raging at how little you can control and what you wish was happening instead. Regardless of what’s going on, y’know, try to act like you want to be here on earth, instead of acting like a four-year-old somebody dragged along to a boring cocktail party.

I know it sounds like what I’m saying is a complicated retread of “accept your fate, be happy with what you have and you will find peace, grasshopper,” but that’s not it. I don’t want you to accept your fate. Do not go gently into that good night! I want you to fucking rage at the dying of the light, and laugh at it, and give it the finger while you light more fires. I want you to realize that the only joy you’ll ever tear from life is going to come when you lunge at your life like a rabid wolf, okay?

Every time some new bullshit knocks on your door, another bill in the mail, another breakup, another war, another random accident, I want you to grin like a fucking pirate with a knife in his teeth and start looking for opportunities to express yourself in this situation, to respond how the passionate, defiant creature inside you wants to respond. You think it’s impossible to feel like a badass existential warrior when paying bills? I call that cowardice, my child. That’s you saying that in order to be strong, in order to be brave, in order for you to be worthy of your own admiration, you need big, easy, cartoon villains to fight, shiny rewards to win, unequivocal victories to brag about.

That’s you forgetting that being alive to pay those bills is a choice you made, and you’re making it again right now, every second you don’t jam a pencil into your jugular. You picked those bills, you decided that they were better than an eternity of utter nothingness. You chose to be here… and then you chose to drag ass through life like it’s a consolation prize.

Choose again.

Life’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. What if somebody caught you reading a book like that and said, “Hey, why do you care about that? What’s the point? All the endings are written down anyway, why go through all the rigamarole when it doesn’t really matter what you choose?”

You’d be bewildered. Somebody who’d say that fundamentally doesn’t understand the fun of a game, of any activity where we have a modicum of agency and a lot of inflexible structure. Of course the ending is predetermined, nobody cares about that – the fun part is participating, getting to flex the little power we have within the confines of the system, to see what we can do. The fact that you get to decide anything is the whole point, the only point. It’s all you can do, so if you’re going to read the book at all, it’s the most important thing you can do. If you’re not doing it consciously, you’re not enjoying the book, and it’s because you decided not to participate.

In this book, you can’t go back and read the other endings you passed up. All you can do is choose. So choose. And choose again. And again. Pay lots of attention to how the world is, not how you want it to be, not what you hope or you fear. Then, with the little control you have… make the story more interesting any way you can. Look hard at the world, believe that you can change it, laugh at the despair in you that tells you how stupid that is, and start trying stuff. Make a decision, see what happens, and recalibrate. Stop trying to debug your code without ever running it.

the choice is the thing

By being here and putting up with the bullshit, you assert tacitly that being here is worth it, that being you has meaning.

When you become conscious, when you think about your existence, you declare: “I’m here!”

The universe responds, as it always does and always will: “No one cares.”

Next time the universe tells you this, like the next time you turn on the TV, repeat after me:

“I care. And I can care because I exist. I think, therefore I am. The more shit you throw at me… the more I think, the more I care, the more chances I get to try new things, change and grow, discover stuff I don’t know and see things I haven’t seen. I choose to be here, which makes being here important, because it was my choice. I care, and that’s enough.”

92 – The Last One

Poetry inspired by poetry. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge bitchard (gender-neutral form of “bitch/bastard,” tell your friends) about poetry. I’m only willing to admit to liking a poet if I’ve been blown away by literally everything I’ve read of theirs. 100% quality or nothin’. It’s not about mechanical aptitude; it’s not about format. Mostly it’s about the poet’s heart. I recognize a heart like mine when I see one, by how it’s constantly bleeding all over everything.

One of the three poets who have managed to pass muster by this completely bullshit standard, Rainer Maria Rilke, was a German Romantic, better known for his passionate letters to his loved ones than his poetry in this country. The first poem of his I ever read is still my favorite, and I’m going to reproduce it here, because it’s short and great and he’s very dead now, and because it inspired the sonnet today:

“I In Flames,” May 2008
 Come thou, thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body's fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee:
the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.

My gentle and mild being through they ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.

Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.

It’s the last poem Rilke ever wrote, the last entry in his notebook two weeks before his death of leukemia at age 51. I love his personalization of Death as a friend, someone kindly who comes to pull him away from the suffering of his body. Rilke believed that we grow our deaths inside us from the moment we’re born. I find that idea elegant.

There’s something morbidly lovely about the idea of nurturing and building our particular Death within us all our lives, our one duty in life to bring this being into the world – Death is an infant born the second we die. It takes every second of our lives to create her, every pain and every joy, every scar and sorrow and mistake. That’s why she has such kind eyes – because she knows that all of your mistakes make her wiser, more tender, more understanding. All of your life is part of her, indispensable, even the bad parts, do you see? If you let her, she heals your wounds with her hands, as if every touch laid skin grafts over your raw and aching soul. She’s the only person in the universe who loves you more when you fail.

There are a lot of voices in my head,
and then there’s someone else who never speaks.
She smiles a lot, and dresses like a priest.
The others say that she’ll talk when I’m dead.

I’ve found she’s more softhearted than you’d think –
cries whenever we go to the movies,
always the begger
never that choosey
but when I mention suicide, she winks

and shakes her head. Refuses to be rushed.
I’ve tried to make her speak a thousand ways –
She has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen,
and when the hammer falls she’s never crushed,
but she won’t take command of this machine,
just hangs around, awaiting the end of days.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

75 – Roll the Bones

Lot of people from my generation – Millennials, there-I-said-it – tend to say that they don’t have good luck. That, and… how do I put this… trauma attracts trauma? Not always in a negative sense, just, you surround yourself with people who understand what you’re going through, and the ones who stick around will be the ones who can hang when your life gets deeply fucked. Some people interpret this pattern – Party Acquired! Oh wait, rocks fall, all die – as bad luck.

I don’t, really. I think that the rocks falling, the goblin invasions, the bad credit, the abortions, the birthing and dying and all the other adventures… they’re adventures, which means most of them are going to be primarily a sequence of bad shit happening to people who don’t deserve it. Maybe you, maybe someone you love, definitely at least once in your life. That’s not luck. A lot of times it’s the way the game is designed.

Luck comes into it when you roll initiative, when you decide whether you’re okay with that sequence of bad shit, and if you’re not, how deep you’re ready to roll on putting a stop to it. Sometimes you win. If you don’t play a lot, you’ll get the feeling that you win about 50%. About a crapshoot. The effect of luck takes longer than the occasional flutter to perceive.

Luck is about repetition. Luck is about trying, and trying, and trying until one day, something’s different. For no good reason, just because it was time, because you showed up and tried every time and this time was the one time. Yeah, you see the people on TV who won the lottery because they got a Powerball ticket in a birthday card, never gambled before, but the reason those stories blow up is because they’re astonishing. Most of the time, the guy who hits the jackpot is the guy who’s spent $6,000 at the slot machine this winter. That’s how odds work. The more you play, the more opportunity you have to make them better.

Everywhere I go, I try doors. Just turn handles in walls, all of ’em, any of ’em. It’s a policy. See a door, think of it, give it a try. You’d be shocked how many things are unlocked that probably shouldn’t be. People see me open the steel door behind which a treasure trove of brooms and cleaning products hides, and they call me lucky. They didn’t see all the other locked doors I’ve tried since I was tall enough to reach the handles.

Getting better, healing from trauma, is in my experience very much like that. You have to do something that they tell you will work for a long time, watching it not fucking work, before it even kinda works. I know I’m saying “a long time,” and you’re hearing me, but I heard that too, and I was underestimating how long. It’s longer than you think. There will be a moment when you go, “This was supposed to help me, this was supposed to feel good, I was supposed to be getting better, I’ve wasted all this effort, I know it’s supposed to take a long time but surely I’m doing it wrong if it’s not helping by now.” The point when it starts actually helping, in my experience, is two weeks to a month after that.

You have to stick with it. You have to be willing to roll deep. You have to be ready to fail again and again and again and call the one time in a hundred that you succeed “good luck.” Because that’s how you keep getting luck: by rolling the dice.

“Restless,” July 2012.

Always said that I’m a lucky person.
What you’ve got to understand about luck
is that you need to stop passing the buck –
luck’s not a judgment, it’s an assertion.

They say that luck is when preparation
meets opportunity. What they don’t say
is that preparation gets in the way
and good luck comes from repetition.

Everything takes just a little too long
before it starts to function like it should.
You have to punch a lot of planks of wood;
it stops hurting only after you get strong.
But it never hurts quite like the fear could,
and each scar speaks more clearly:
we belong.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

65 – Saturated

Some free associating around sensory images from growing up in the desert. I spent a lot of time outside when I wasn’t confined to my room, because being at home generally sucked, and I remember many long hours just wandering the streets of Tucson, walking into construction sites and washes and under bridges, taking pictures, finding cool rocks, listening to my Discman. Mostly alone, sometimes with my best friend or my dog.

It’s easy for me to lose myself in a sensory experience. You’ll catch me making faces at memories and taking pictures of brightly-colored trash, convergences of lines and shadows, stark contrasts. I can lose an hour on an interesting pile of stones. I’m really fond of this sculptor and photographer named Andy Goldsworthy, and I fall into similar kinds of activities, building little patterns or arranging debris just so.

Andy Goldsworthy, “Winter Moss and Fog.”

Thus, the poem, I guess. Thus, I tend to make a mess. Thus, when things go badly, I pretend to be worried about real things – money, house, other people – but deep within the private spaces of myself, I’m only truly concerned with whether it was the most poetic and interesting catastrophe that could have occurred at this point in the story. It doesn’t bother me much when my life is full of failure and chaos – that’s life in the wasteland. It bothers me when the chaos is not interesting, when the struggle is banal rather than beautiful.

Ultimately that’s a matter of how you look at it, though. I choose to steer toward the rocks, so I can see them very well, and when I do that, I almost always discover something beautiful. A lot of times, that thing is my own blood, the taste of a new and novel form of failure. Sometimes… sometimes it’s a new island, the shore of a vast new world to explore, one that takes apart my life and stitches it back together full of love and wonder and data.

Thing is, if there’s an island, you can’t see it until after you hit the rocks. The only way you ever get to the island is if you find the rocks, or the crash, or your blood beautiful enough to keep steering that way.

There are distinctions between sand and dust
that you can feel, and some that you can taste –
never let a sensation go to waste! –
dust tastes like coffee, and sand tastes like rust.

My senses don’t lie, they’re just overwhelmed.
So much more happening than you can see,
it’s like the colors are shouting at me.
Without asking, the painter takes the helm.

The painter steers us straight toward burnished rocks.
The sailors, so fatalistic before,
throw their hats and cheer when they see the shore.
The ship cracks up and unfolds like a box.
The painter tastes his own blood. He’ll need more
to make a shade of red bright enough to talk.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

At the Miracle Sausage Factory

I haven’t had a lot to show you this week, but it’s not that I haven’t been writing – there are a lot of words in a few drafts here, they’re just sprawling and unfocused and I can’t toss up any kind of conclusion.  I’m having a hard time right now if you want to know the truth.  A lot of stressful, expensive life shit coming up, but also the journey to mental health isn’t a straight line, as they say, and sometimes you fall in the Well again.

Last weekend I stumbled, because the previous week was too good.  Yep.  That’s the exciting world of trauma.

“Hey, so I see you got a gig.  Seems like somebody thinks your work is good.  I see you went on a date.  Someone wants to be your friend.  Of course… you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? 

Of course you do. 

You’ll show them that you’re utterly worthless and they were foolish even to offer an opportunity, and they will be angry at you for wasting their time by continuing to exist while not matching their exact specifications. 

That person you went on a date with will discover any moment that you’re too broken to be a good friend, can’t offer anything to anybody, and then they’ll be hurt because you were so callous and stupid as to accept their offer of friendship.

You should have known better than to accept any of those things; look at you, you’re going to drop them any minute, and then everyone will find out how worthless you really are.  It’ll happen sooner or later.  Why not speed up the inevitable?”

I know I sound like I’m being dramatic here.  I wish I could say that this isn’t exactly what happens inside me every time I’m offered any kind of opportunity.  Any kind of help.  Any kind of reward beyond the barest minimum I’ve earned.  But this is it, the bottom of the Well.  This is where I’ve lived for a very long time.  I’m just starting to get out of it now.  Last few weeks have been a little setback.

electrified steaks with legs and hats

But I am getting out.  What’s interesting about that is… the first time, it was instantaneous.  A bit of a mind flip.  I’ve tried to write about this, and that’s one of the huge, sprawling drafts I’m failing to finish, because it’s very simple and yet very complex to explain.  The short version is, I saw it one way, and then I found the right words to look at it another way, and suddenly my perspective shifted.  I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, and that was part of my certainty that if I ever fell down again, I would never get back up.  How could I?  How can you reproduce an epiphany?

It turns out that an epiphany is like anything else: if you slow it down enough, you can see that it’s composed of many different parts.  Like anything else, it’s a chemical process, because that’s what we are, arrogant sacks of protoplasm, electrified steaks with legs and hats.  Everything is chemicals, including all our emotions, and all the physical responses they create in our meat machines.

pick the miracle apart

How do I get back up again, when finding any kind of self-worth the first time was so hard that it felt like a miracle?  Walk through the miracle again, slowly.  Slower than that.  Pick the miracle apart.  Yes, this will diminish its glory.  No, it doesn’t matter, because there are more miracles ahead, and this one you must know how to execute in your sleep.

Walk through all the steps we took again.  We started with self-care.  Eating food.  Remember food?  Drinking water, not just Coke.  Man cannot live on caffeine alone.  You slip on this stuff, not a lot, just a little over time.  Usually when things are going well.  Your good mood doesn’t feel as precarious, so you don’t stress too much when you forget to eat a time or three – this is different, you’re busy, you’re feeling better.  And then it all crumbles away under your feet in an instant, and you’re right back where you started.

Remember the words we said.  The things that really mattered, that expressed what we needed to say.  Say them again.  It feels so much stupider the second time, and it felt stupid as hell the first time, but grit your teeth harder if you have to, okay?  Do it when nobody else is home.  Take it seriously one more time for me.  Just one more time, say the stupid words out loud.

I love you.  I am right here beside you.  I will never, ever leave you.

You’ve said that to a girlfriend or two, right?  A child, maybe?  Probably more than one.  You can’t say it to yourself?  I know, you’re rolling your eyes, what’s the point, that’s dumb.  Sure, okay, if it’s dumb then why wouldn’t you just do it?  Just do it for me, because I asked you to, and it’s dumb and it doesn’t matter, right?  Why can’t you look yourself in the fucking face and say what you said to at least four girls in your twenties?

I love you.  I believe in you. 

I will not abandon you, no matter how many mistakes you make.

You are worth it.  You are worth anything.  You are worth the whole world to me.

If it makes you cry when you say it, that’s a sign that you need to say it more.

If you really, really don’t want to, if you’re ostentatiously not giving a shit, if you’re still rolling your eyes at me?  That’s a sign too.  You can ignore them as long as you like.  Recovery isn’t a straight line, as I said, and I’m gonna mix my metaphors here, it’s like riding a bike.  Sure, sure, with the falling and getting back up again business, that’s part of it.

What I mean is, when you’re learning to ride a bike, there’s this moment when you’re going, it’s working, you’re pedaling, and you get excited.  You’re doing it!  You’re really doing it!  And you look back to see if your parents are watching – and turning around makes you wobble and crash.  That crash is bad, the first fall where you had any kind of speed built up behind it, and it feels like you never want to try again.  And when you do, you hesitate – you know what it feels like to fall now, how much it hurts, and you don’t want to feel that again.  But when you hesitate, the bike wobbles.  You have to pedal fast to stay up.  So your fear makes you more likely to fall.

You’re going to fail at getting better again and again, and it’ll make you want to hesitate, make you scared to trust yourself.  It’ll make the steps you took feel stupid and trite.  You’ll doubt, you’ll look back, and when you look back, like Orpheus, you’re lost.

Go through it all again.  Don’t just go through the motions – do it like a priest going through a ritual, a doctor doing their pre-surgery wash.  You’ve done it a thousand times, and each time you do it carefully, lovingly, mindfully.  Not because every time is important, but because that’s the kind of person you are.  Because it’s important to you, not to anyone else, and what’s important to you matters.

“If you find yourself at the edge of a cliff and you’re wondering whether or not to jump… try jumping.”

John Lennon

What can you hope to gain if you scoff your way through everything you do?  That’s the thing about magic they’ve been telling us since the beginning, right?  It only works if you truly believe that it will.  Step forward with surety when you’re at your most unsure.  If you’re headed at the cliff anyway, don’t walk off the cliff, god damn it, leap.  Because it’s only exciting when you commit.  Because it’s only fun when you try.

This is the thing.  It’s not that every single day is going to be worth your time.  It’s not that every single person is going to be good to you.  It’s not that every single occasion is really worth putting on pants and getting all styled up for.

It’s that you are.  You are worth doing those things, and a thousand things more.

Be honest with yourself.  When you say, “Is it worth it?  Should I bother?  Should I ask for what I need?  Should I insist on being treated well?  Should I put effort into this thing that matters only to me?”

What you’re asking is, “Am I worth it?”

Start from the baseline assumption that you are.  That’s your rock.  You are worth any amount of effort… to you.  You are worth any trouble, any amount of time spent making you happy… to you.  This really shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but for a lot of us, it is.  The idea that we have a right to prioritize self-care, the authority to decide what that looks like… the society we live in would like very much to squash that idea.  It would like very much to decide what your self-care should look like, so that it can sell it back to you at bargain summer prices.

That means that self-care is a radical act.  So stick it to the man.

Say it.  Once more, with feeling:

My needs and boundaries do not make me unreasonable or crazy.

I can and will defend my self-care ferociously.

I am entitled to decide what constitutes self-care, and to change that definition as I see fit.

When I disregard self-care for even a few days, I quite literally risk my own life.

I am worth the trouble.

In Defense of Making a Mess

I made a big mess of my desk this weekend playing with pastels.  Pastels are wonderful because they’re so damn forgiving while being incredibly imprecise.  If you make a mistake, just go over it with a different color, or smudge it into something else.  I think, against all reason, this is what a pathological perfectionist like me needs from a medium.  Bob Ross would say that art is about happy little accidents, and if you draw or paint or happen to be the kind of traumatized that makes you watch a lot of Bob Ross to calm the howling animals in your brain, you know what he’s talking about.

I can’t draw

There are people who can grab a scrap of paper and a pen and dash off a clean five-minute sketch that will blow your mind.  I am not one of those people, but I grew up surrounded by those people.  My living room walls are covered with my mom’s art, screenprints of giant pies over hallucinogenic patterns, photocopied pages from zines she pasted together in the 80s, shreds of tissue paper painted with contorted human figures, dark collages of book pages, cut-out letters, and splattered acrylic that cracks and flakes onto the carpet with each passing year.  My stepdad is a sculptor and potter and painter; I grew up with paintings of his that were bigger than me, canvases eight feet to a side that I imagined could crush me if they ever toppled off the wall.  My father was in a rock band when I was a kid, and his grim, restless devotion to staking out time for his art regardless of the consequences made a deep impression on me.  So I grew up saying, “Oh no, I can’t draw.”

Then I met a few more people, and realized that there’s a level of “can’t draw” that should shut me up saying that forever.  I realized that what I call “can’t draw” is actually “a pretty enviable natural talent with no practice.”  I realized that the reason the people around me were good was because they spent every free moment they could spare working on what they made, screwing up, making messes and figuring out how to salvage the work from the mess.  This is… hard for a perfectionist to hear, and it’s harder when you’re a child.

There’s something inside you that deserves to take up space out here

I’m not going to say that artists don’t make good parents, because I think that’s unfair and untrue, but I do think that artists have to work consciously to be good parents, especially around the subject of art, because artists are by definition egotistical.  We have to be.  The very idea that a stranger should give a shit what you think, what you see – to assert that as hard and continuously as you must, to declare that your vision is worth the time and money you’ll put in and the time and money you’re asking from your audience in return, you have to believe it yourself.  You have to be able to fall back on the private certainty that even when you make mistakes in getting it out, there’s still something inside you that deserves to take up space out here.  You have to be certain that what you’re doing matters, and that even if it only matters to you, that’s enough.

That is not what I was taught, unfortunately.  I was taught to be seen and not heard, taught that even when asked to participate, I was to be as unobtrusive as possible, while displaying lavish gratitude for being allowed to remain in the room.  To quote David Sedaris, a writer of funny essays about his abusive family that my family bonded over in between abusing one another: “My parents did not live in a child’s house, we lived in theirs.  Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator, or anywhere near it, because our parents recognized it for what it was – crap.”

Don’t drag a bunch of shit out

I was about five when I saw my parents reading and drawing and talking in the living room, and I wanted to sit with them and draw too.  Not to interrupt, I knew better, I would just listen, just be part of the happy artist family creating side-by-side.  I brought out my markers and my notebook to draw in, only to be told, “Don’t go dragging a lot of shit out here.”  It became a favorite line.  Whenever I was caught exiting my room with more than one object in my hands, I heard, “Don’t drag a bunch of shit out here.”  The message was clear: our art is real and deserves to take up space, deserves to make a mess, deserves to inconvenience others.  Your art is shit and we had better not see it in the public areas.  I’m trying to remember the houses I grew up in, whether you would have known my parents had a kid if you’d just walked in the front door and looked around, and I don’t think so.  There was no evidence for my existence outside of my room, and that was called “keeping the house clean.”

Do you understand, child?  You are a mess.  Your art is a mess.  It is never acceptable to make a mess, even just for the duration of an art session, even if you intend to clean it up.  Don’t drag a bunch of shit out here.  This space belongs to our art, which is real, and our mess, which is necessary.

You know what?

Fuck that.

I’m here to make a mess.

I’m here to make a big mess, the kind you’ll spend centuries cleaning up.  I’m here to make mistakes, the kind that’ll scar me for life.  I’m here to make art, and it’s going to be bloody, and it’s going to stain, and I’m not here to apologize.  I’m not the kind who can throw out a clean ballpoint caricature that you could sell for twenty dollars, and the guy who can do that couldn’t do it ten years ago either – ten years ago he was swearing because the side of his hand was stained blue from all the time he spent scribbling.  Ten years ago he filled a trashcan with a whole ream of paper and didn’t draw a single thing worth saving.  He made such a huge mess, for so fucking long, that he took down whole forests with his mistakes.  And now he’s at Comic Con or his publisher’s office, staring at the clean, polished prints of his work, and he doesn’t recognize them… because all he can remember is the mess he made.  The mess that somehow brought him here.

This is my desk while I was working with the pastels this weekend.  Normally I do my drawing over on the couch by the window, because the light’s good and it’s an excuse to get out of my chair and keep my ass from putting down roots in the cushion.  But I was mixing media here, trying to find a good way to lay linework over pastels (charcoal pencil, turns out!), and I needed the hard surface, so I sat at my desk.

2019-05-18 12.48.20

For the first twenty minutes or so I fretted, in the back of my mind, about the pastel dust I was repeatedly blowing off the page onto the desk.  I saw the colored fingerprints I left on my keyboard and mouse while I worked, and I cringed.  I imagined my wife coming into the room, imagined her scolding me for the mess.  She’s never done that, not once… but I can imagine her doing it in vivid detail.  I’m an artist.  My brain is excellent at inventing villains who tell me to give up.

But there were moments – these pure, arresting moments – when it wasn’t simply that I was no longer bothered by the mess, no longer worried about cleaning it up… no, I felt its necessity, its essential role in the process.  My first finger is black with pastel residue, so that when I brush away dust from my page, it leaves dark streaks there.  A mistake.  Then comes in another finger, this one golden from smudging another part of the picture, and it softens the dark streaks, gives them depth and dimension, and suddenly there’s something there that wasn’t there before.  A ghost in the paint.  A happy little accident.

I try to enhance it, not by selecting another pastel but by dragging my fingers over the desk, picking up undifferentiated dust and debris and probably some skin cells and then going after the paper like a toddler, all ten fingers clawing and stroking and shoving the color where I want it to go.  I feel like a caveman – thoughtless, seeing only the lights in my head, I seize the most colorful thing in my vicinity and crush it in my fist, watch its neon-bright blood pour between my fingers, slap my palm on the wall to make it splatter.  Nothing but this.  No money, no fame, no love, no possible future could be brighter than this, could be more important than making this mess and immersing myself in it.  Even the art that results – you know as well as I do that it’ll be a fragile, tenebrous shadow of the thrashing, violently colorful vision in my head.

how can I get that perfect blue out of your eyes

No one will ever see what I really wanted them to see, and that’s part of the misery of being an artist – that we must always be cursed to know how far what we made is from what we imagined.  But… in a way, this is also the only reason to make art.  Not the followers, not the mails, not the likes, not the reposts, not even the finished product, because the finished product doesn’t capture that vision, can’t ever quite satiate that need to get it out.  It’s the feeling of sinking my fingers into clay, into paint, into earth.  It’s the scrawling, feathery symbols I draw when I spill the pencil box.  It’s that moment when I’m so immersed in my work that when someone comes along and says, “Hey, you’re making a pretty big mess there, are you gonna clean that up when you’re done?” I stare at them in feral silence, thinking, “How can I get that perfect blue out of your eyes and onto this paper?”  Maybe they can see it in my face.  Maybe that’s why they fuck off so fast.

Getting your hands dirty is the only thing that matters.  The doing, not what you’ve got when you’re done, however much or little it is.  The villain in your head starts to rant, shouts, “You’re making a mess, and for what?  You made a mistake – now it’s ruined.  You made something imperfect – so you’re worthless.  You took too long, and you wasted our time.”  And what I’m trying to say is this:

The mess deserves to be here.  It lives here.  It works here.

The doubt does not.