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What I’ve learned about forgiveness

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Last Christmas Eve, alone and on the verge of having a very bad acid trip, I accidentally committed to forgiving a bunch of people. The following is everything I’ve learned about forgiveness since.

The very first idea that helped frame my approach is that emotions are constructions. We know this because: 1. People in cultures without words for specific emotions don’t report feeling them. 2. We react differently to the same thing on different days.

There’s no divine right to react with Y to X stimuli.

“If you think about it from a brain’s standpoint, it’s trapped in a dark, silent box called your skull, and has no access to the causes of the sensations it receives,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, who wrote the book How Emotions Are Made, said. “It only has the effects, and it has to figure out what caused them. So how does it do this? There’s one other thing it can use, and that’s past experience. The idea is that your brain is constantly predicting what sensory inputs to expect and what action to take, based on past experience. Then it uses the incoming input to either confirm its prediction, or change it.”

Given enough updated input data, we can relearn what stimuli produces what chemical reactions. It’s extremely hard, but extremely possible. That gave me enough hope to push ahead.

Pretty quickly after googling “how to forgive” I got pretty frustrated. As a culture, we talk about forgiveness as an immediate decision. It’s just something you do and then magically you feel better. It took a lot of digging to unearth the bones of a process for how that happens. The best resource I found is Berkley’s Greater Good site.

How to forgive

Here’s my operating theory: The antidote to resentment is empathy. So what I’m trying to do here is to work my way from grudge to compassion. That’s the general arc, so then all I needed to do was break it down into steps.

Fred Luskin studies forgiveness at Berkley. He looks like a twerp who would wear a cellphone holster and zip-off khakis, but he’s got some good ideas. I amended his list of steps to forgiveness:

  1. “Know exactly how you feel about what happened and why it hurt you. Be able to articulate it to friends.”
  2. Grieve.
  3. “Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you two minutes—or 10 years—ago.”
  4. “Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are ‘unenforceable rules:’ You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.”
  5. “Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.”
  6. Gratitude.

Luskin’s main theory is that our hurts come from when we have an expectation about the world and it gets answered with a “no.” So for example you expect your best friend not to sleep with your partner, and the universe answers, “Nah.”

“The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with “no,” be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life,” Luskin says. “Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.”

You’ll notice this doesn’t involve absolving them. In fact, fully understanding and enunciating the pain they caused is essential. It’s acknowledgement, not acquittal.

I added “grieve” to Luskin’s steps. He mentions it elsewhere, and I’ve found it an integral part of my process. Especially if, like me, you are only articulating past hurts later, the grief can be decades delayed.

“At the most basic level, forgiveness is on a continuum with grief,” Luskin said. “The way I understand it now is that when you’re offended or hurt or violated, the natural response is to grieve. All of those problems can be seen as a loss—whether we lose affection or a human being or a dream—and when we lose something, human beings have a natural reintegration process, which we call grief. Then forgiveness is the resolution of grief.”

Luskin also has some convenient steps to grief:

  1. Acknowledge the full extent of the harm done.
  2. Experience the negative emotions that come with that.
  3. Tell people. “The human connection is central to healing,” he said.

Steps 3-5 on the forgiveness list are self-explanatory and also obscenely hard. If you can, try to surround yourself with people who tell you that you are worthy of love, and, if you can, try to believe them.

The last step I added to his forgiveness list was gratitude. This has been essential to shifting my brain’s impulses. Gratitude has only one step:

  1. Noting.

Just make a mental note when things are pretty alright, and store it away. Then make sure you’re looking for it. Note the color of the sky, once a day. Note when someone commits an act of compassion. Note when your cat is looking extra cute.

To practice this I meditate every day.

Self-forgiveness

In order to forgive others we must first forgive ourselves.

One Sunday after the Christchurch massacre I was sitting in silence at a Quaker meeting and one person stood up and said the sentence above. I very immediately recognized it to be true of myself, so it might be true of you too.

For example, I’m angry at my parents for inflicting existence upon me. In order to forgive them, I will need to forgive myself for existing. It will flow naturally through to them.

Cool. So what’s self-forgiveness look like?

One study suggests it’s “the shift from self–estrangement to a feeling of being at home with the self.”

Another: “We conceptualize self–forgiveness as a set of motivational changes whereby one becomes decreasingly motivated to avoid stimuli associated with the offense, decreasingly motivated to retaliate against the self (e.g., punish the self, engage in self–destructive behaviors, etc.), and increasingly motivated to act benevolently toward the self.”

I liked these definitions because they hint at a continuum. It’s not a decision you make by snapping your fingers. It’s years of intentional work.

One thing everything I read about self-forgiveness agreed on is that reconciliation is essential. To forgive others, most studies argue, you don’t necessarily have to reconcile or ever talk to them again. You can just release that pain and move on with your life. But it’s harder to never talk to yourself again.

Part of that is that you can’t control what others do. But you can control what you do. So if you know you’re going to continue to do something that demands forgiveness, it’s hard to keep extending that forgiveness. Or at the very least it cheapens the forgiveness into meaninglessness.

I see this as tapping into the same principle as the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling bad about something you did/didn’t do. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. “When we feel shame we need to learn that it is okay to be who we are,” according to Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist who studies emotional abuse.

My specific shame comes from my messiah complex, and the gap between my current self and perfection. I don’t know what yours is!

“This need to be ‘all good’ may have started because your parents or other caretakers may have had this unreasonable expectation of you and may have severely punished or abandoned you when you made a mistake,” Engel said. “Now you may find that you are equally critical of yourself and equally unforgiving.”

This is probably self-evident to you, but wasn’t to me: Perpetual guilt isn’t beneficial.

“The only wholesome purpose of guilt or remorse is learning—not punishment!—so that you don’t mess up in that way again,” Rick Hanson, who also works at Berkley, said. If I feel perpetual guilt (i.e. shame), it lessons my ability to learn from it.

“Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else,” Hanson suggested. “Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt or remorse, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more.”

For me, self-compassion looks like recognizing my faults and feeling appropriate guilt for them, but refusing to let them bleed into shame or believe they are indicative of my self-worth.

There are a lot of reasons to not want to forgive. Linda Graham broke them down into three categories. (I don’t know who Linda Graham is and don’t feel like Googling.) The third reason is saving face.

“If our concerns about saving face foster a desire to retaliate or seek vengeance rather than forgive, we may need to re-strengthen our inner sense of self-worth and self-respect before forgiveness can be an option,” Graham said.

Great. So we’re back at others-forgiveness.

Methods

I have a few practical tips.

Again, what I’m trying to do is develop empathy. One thing many places suggest is trying to understand why the person who hurt you did what they did. This doesn’t mean absolving their decisions, or even believing that they tried their best. They probably had terrible and shitty reasons! As my friend Evan told me, “They did what worked for them, and that didn’t work for me. It’s as simple as that.” Rather, I find examining their thought processes mostly useful as an empathy-building exercise, by trying to imagine the world through their eyeballs.

So, for me, learning about cycles of abuse helped. “The sad truth is that those who were abused or neglected in childhood are more likely to become abusive or neglectful of their own children than someone who didn’t have these experiences,” Engel said. It’s still shitty whenever someone perpetuates it (especially because they know exactly how it feels!), but if you imagine your abuser as a scared kid being abused, it’s easier to feel compassion for them.

Another practice I’ve found helpful is to seek out and talk to others in similar situations as those who hurt me. I find that I’m quickly able to build empathy for the strangers struggling with the repercussions of their actions, even if I disagree with their decisions, even though I know the hurt they’ve caused. Then I try to transfer that empathy onto the people who hurt me.

It may also help to give them a gift, according to Robert Enright, who has a 24-step model to forgiveness. (Too many steps, imo.)

I like this because it reminds me of the Benjamin Franklin Effect. Basically, you are more likely to do a favor for someone if you’ve done a favor for them in the past than if you’ve received a favor from them. Benjy Frank had a hater, and how he won him over was asking to borrow a rare book from the hater’s library. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank-you note, and they became lifelong friends after that.

Does it work the opposite way? Can you learn to care about someone by doing nice things for them or giving them gifts? Probably! Our brains are super dumb and prone to manipulation, even when they are aware of the manipulation happening.

The last thing I want to leave you with is a Taoist meditation my friend Margarita taught me. This was the first bit of actionable advice I heard, around which I built everything written above.

It goes like this. Imagine a cup. It’s sitting in front of you. Now imagine that cup shattering. It’s in many, many shards in front of you. The meditation is two-fold:

  1. Acknowledge that the cup is broken. No amount of duct tape or Elmer’s glue can put it back together.
  2. Recognize that the cup held no value in and of itself. It was a collection of molecules in a particular arrangement. Any value came from what you placed on it. Maybe it was sleek and had a cool design you liked. Maybe it had sentimental value. More likely, you poured water into it and then used it to pour that water into your mouth. None of these are things the cup, sitting in the cabinet, inherently holds. They are things you added.

Then extrapolate this to your life. 1. Acknowledge what happened. You were hurt. Something was broken. 2. Recognize that the relationship held no intrinsic value besides what you placed on it. You sought love there, or you expected a need to be met. Most likely, your core desire was pure and beautiful. Forgive yourself for it, and learn how to meet it elsewhere.

I recommend investing in a sturdy broom.

How To Raise A Human Child, As Explained By Pet Owners

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Raising a dependent is easy. Humans have been doing it for literally generations.

You may be thinking, “No, actually, it’s really hard. I shower this thing with love and affection and kisses and this goddam motherfucking piece of fucking shit just screams at me all day long.” If you are thinking this, please consider that, well, maybe it’s super easy, it’s just that you, personally, suck.

But you’re in luck!

Because we, owners of pets, are here to explain to you how to raise your brand new human child! And to start, let’s figure out that whole crying thing, shall we?

Great. The first step is to establish what type of cry your human child is emitting. There are four different kinds.

1. Food/water

All living organisms need nourishment. Honestly, if your baby is crying, it probably just needs food. How many times a day should I feed my human baby, you may be asking yourself. I, a human adult, eat about once a day, scarfing down a sandwich over the sink sometime between my full-time job, trying to keep the baby alive, arguing with my spouse about why we never have sex anymore, and exhaust-crying every couple of hours. So daily?

Wrong!

Think of cats. You know how you leave food out for them to snack on throughout the day? Your baby has a similar stomach size, and cannot hold enough nutrients inside of itself to last a full day. You want to be feeding that sucker every couple of hours. Yes, even during the night. No, it has no respect for your morning alarm.

It takes a tremendous amount of willpower and sleep deprivation to keep the helpless creature known as the human child alive.

Luckily, you do not need to feed and water your child separately, like most mammals. Just give it milk for the first couple of months, before moving on to pureed fruits and vegetables. Don’t even consider solid foods like turkey jerky until it has developed teeth.

2. Defecation

An unfortunate side effect of all the food you will be feeding your baby is that it will shit.

New mothers love to look you in the eye and claim this isn’t a big deal. “Baby doodoo is different. It doesn’t smell as much and is almost like tar. It’s kinda cute!” they will lie.

They are as full of shit as their babies.

And just like people learn to touch their dog’s fecal matter through a thin plastic bag, you need to learn to dispose of your baby’s poop.

Dogs can be trained to shit outside. Cats are drawn naturally to kitty litter. (Unless you don’t clean it enough. Then they will pee on your bed and then act like nothing has happened.) Human infants will defecate wherever and whenever they feel like it, with absolutely no regard for sanitation or how much your rug cost.

Here’s a tip: Invest in some diapers. Trust us on this one.

Once you’ve swaddled your child, the trick becomes knowing when to unwrap it, clean it off, and re-swaddle. What this means in practice is that whenever your baby is yelling at you wordlessly, you’re going to have to stick your finger in the back of its diaper, pull it open, peer in, and see if you can see any feces. And even if you can’t, you’re going to have to pat its bottom to try to feel if any urine soaked through. Assuming that’s the issue, strip off the diaper, wipe, sprinkle with baby powder, and strap a fresh diap on it. Male babies tend to urinate when that fresh cool air hits their tiny baby dicks, so make sure you’re out of the line of fire.

Here’s another tip: Wipe away from the genitals.

One last tip: You’re going to want to dispose of that dirty diaper immediately. Either buy one of those expensive smell-proof trash cans built exclusively for diaps, or, if you’re on a budget, take it outside and throw it away in your neighbor’s garbage bin.

Try to train your infant to use the bathroom as soon as possible. Bathrooms are like large, self-cleaning litter boxes. If you’re doing it right, they require very little cleaning and maintenance to keep from smelling badly. They’re pretty sweet.

3. Attention

We all need to be loved.

Dogs are the least chill about it. They’ll run up and sniff your crotch, they’ll bark until you play with them, they’ll stare at you and whimper until you scratch their ear, they’ll dryhump your leg. They don’t give a fuck.

Cats will sit on your laptop while you’re typing, say, a blog about how to raise children.

Your baby will just cry.

Sometimes you can talk your baby out of it. Try singing, or cooing in hushed tones, “Listen, love of my life, fulfillment of both my dreams and biological imperative, you mean everything to me, but if you don’t stop crying for just a brief spell I’m going wring your adorable goddam neck.” But because babies do not understand English, sometimes you have to try to use other means to show them affection.

This is why you see people bouncing babies all the time. The physical sensation of being held and then falling and then not falling distracts them from what they were crying about in the first place. The good news is that because you are so sleep deprived, the irony of the situation—using physical stimuli to distract from loneliness, which is what led to the sex that led to the baby in the first place—will be lost on you!

4. Mystery cry

If you own a cat, you’re familiar with this last batch of meows. Your cat will cock its head, look at you, and meow plaintively. It usually takes a few months to realize that this one is because there is a bug in the apartment that the cat cannot catch.

We’ll call this one unrealized ambition.

Luckily, humans develop extremely slowly. Most aren’t even capable of holding a compelling conversation until they are 25 years old. So this likely won’t be an issue until they are too old to cry in public, and therefore it’s not your damn problem.

Like, for instance, once your baby is old enough to have a baby of its own, and it has been wearing the same pair of barf-stained sweats for 3 days straight, and can’t get the damn kid to stop crying, and its boss is giving it shit about taking the full 3 months of parental leave, and it goes into the bathroom to sob daily, that’s not really your concern anymore! All you have to do, now as grandparents, is stop by once every couple of weeks, pump the infant full of sugar, and peel out giggling that comeuppance is a sumbitch, leaving your child to deal with the sobbing grandkid you’ve left behind.

With the cat, just kill the bug to solve both of your problems.

Conclusion

Okay! Now you know the four types of mammal cries. Why don’t they develop language and specify between the different concerns, you ask? Who the hell knows. That’s not really important. What is important, now that you’ve gotten your child changed and fed and asleep for a few brief hours before it wakes up and starts screaming again, is that you find whatever bed your cat has been hiding under, slide down there quickly, and go to sleep before your spouse can see where you’re hiding and tell you that it’s your turn again.

We all want the same things

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When I was 27 I wrote 31 hour-long TV episodes in 34 days over the course of the World Cup in Brazil. It was the most taxing thing I’ve ever done in my life. We scarfed shitty fried foods while standing, not tasting anything. Everyone lost a ton of weight and got their debit cards ripped off. By the time I landed back in Miami, I was a mess of tangled beard and antisocial behavior. It was all I could do to smile at another human, let alone hold a conversation.

When I woke up my first night back in the United States, I walked to the only barber I could find 0n Yelp that accepted credit cards, whacked off all my hair, and then packed and headed for the airport to attend my little brothers’ weddings.

——-

I hate the question, “What was it like growing up in Asia?” Who are you, my goddam therapist? Fuck off. That summer I very quickly learned to hate the question, “How was the World Cup? Exciting?” I had nothing left of me to give, including faking enthusiasm for family.

It was brutal. I remember watching all the tourists walk to the beach in their bikinis, while I stared at a while wall in an uncomfortable plastic chair, sweating and clanking away on my keyboard. I never finished a show with more than a few minutes to spare. We would print scripts and run through the darkening streets of Rio de Janeiro to the tiny studio we’d built along the beach, our control room underground in what used to be a public bathroom.

It’s a weird sensation to listen to waves while you’re permanently stressed out. I started smoking again.

——-

It was a weekend designed to inform me that I am old. Two of my brothers got married two days apart. The day in between was my birthday.

I exaggerate and fiddle with the truth a lot on this blog, but those are the God honest facts.

I missed my layover in Atlanta and was delayed getting in, so I wasn’t there for my brother’s bachelor party. They played capture the flag in some field and used flour in napkins tied off with rubber bands so that when they threw them, it would show up on their black clothes. There were no strippers. There was no booze.

My family is fervently evangelical.

I managed to smile through some polite conversation when they got back, and then collapsed in an overstuffed bed in a corner room upstairs in my aunt’s house in Indiana.

The next day was the wedding. I was in it for some reason, even though I don’t talk to my brothers. The vest I had to wear was blue. The pants were grey.

I don’t remember a whole lot. I remember it was in a megachurch in the middle of some corn fields in Indiana. I didn’t get service in half of the church. The bride’s older sister got real huffy at me when I made a joke about divorce. No one objected to the union, and it was made official.

I assume my brother had sex for the first time that night.

The next morning, my 28th birthday, I borrowed his car at 6am and drove around the tip of Lake Michigan. I parked on the side of the street a block away from the W in Chicago.

I met up with some friends, co-workers who were there to cover the Pitchfork festival. Arielle met me at the beach, and we walked inside and picked up Romi and Di Palma and headed over. They did some interviews while I walked around, and then Arielle and I head-bobbed solemnly to Slowdive together. Di Palma got too high and kept trying to run off and we had to stop her because we knew she’d get lost. She also bought me a Cloud Nothings poster I still have up in my apartment in LA. Kendrick Lamar headlined, and we all screamed “Bitch don’t kill my vibe” as some parents nearby covered their children’s ears.

At some fancy place for dinner—I don’t remember what kind of food—we ordered a bottle of sangria and I spilled some on my shirt. In the Uber back, we heard a song with a distinctive sax line, but none of us knew what it was. Arielle asked her Twitter followers, and one somehow identified it.

It’s still my ringtone. Years later, I bought Di Palma City to City on vinyl as a going away present when she moved from Miami to New York. We did molly on the beach, and she left it behind. So now I own two copies.

When we got back to the hotel, Romi showed us her worst interview ever on her phone. Di Palma and I smoked pot in the bathroom with the shower running. We all kept hum-singing Gerry Rafferty at each other.

I forgot it was my birthday and forgot to stress and worry, and just relaxed for the first time in probably six months.

In the morning I think I gave them a ride to the airport, and I drove back under Lake Michigan, to a small church in Niles my family had attended when I was in middle school. I changed into a suit in one of the back rooms, met the other groomsmen, and then walked into the sanctuary where my father married my other brother. (To his now-wife. My father did not get married to my brother.)

The reception was a potluck in the back yard. They gave everyone small bottles of maple syrup because she’s from Canada.

I don’t remember flying back. I just remember my apartment in Miami, how white and clean it was. I don’t think I left for a week. Eventually I got a new debit card and rebuilt my life and got to the point where I could talk about the World Cup or aging or my loneliness like a sane human being.

I haven’t been back to Chicago since. My last little brother gets married there this weekend.

Someone’s here and then they’re not

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Rawles sat on my lap when we drove him to the vet. Deaf, blind, balding, and with kidney issues, his quality of life wasn't holding up at 14. When we got there and announced ourselves for the appointment, the receptionist said, "Oh, oh. I'm so sorry. Right this way." Rawles was too scared and unsteady on his feet to stand, so I held him. He was quivering. I remembered when I was 25 and all I could think about was killing myself all day every day and Rawles would blissfully jump in my lap and snuggle and I couldn't help but smile and keep living one more day. And then another. And another. Until somehow I made it here, to 30. Theo filled out the paperwork and handed over his credit card. The vet asked if we had ever done this before. I immediately thought to a week earlier, when we had to pull the breathing tube from Theo's infant son. I remember, after he passed, Jessie was holding her boy in her lap weeping. I put my palm on his head. He was so gray. I touched Jessie's shoulder and she looked up at me. I've never seen such raw grief; I hope to never again. She looked like a mother who had to watch her son die. That look, I'll carry it with me to my grave. The vet took Rawles out of the room and gave him a sedative. She brought him back and laid him on a garishly colored blanket. He was relaxed; his tongue hung out if his mouth. I put my palm on his head and cried. Just like I had cried in the shower that morning. Just like I had cried in the shower every morning since their baby died. The vet gave Rawles a shot and then checked his heartbeat with a stethoscope and then he was gone. We sat petting him and crying. Eventually the receptionist came and picked up the body that a until few seconds ago had been Rawles and walked out the back door. He was a good boy. This is my last post on this account. Thank you for following.

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[A Crow Looked At Me.]

Ride the Rodman

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One thing I had forgotten until my recent trip to Malaysia is that the government blocks most porn sites.

Pretty much any of the big flash-based sites don’t work. It’s not like I brought backup pornograpics, but whatever, two weeks without porn is fine.

Back when I lived there for a year, it was a different matter. For a brief spell, one of those shitty ad-infested sites worked. Then the censors found it, and it didn’t. The speed of the internet made it too infuriating anyway.

So here’s what I did: I brought an external hard drive to by buddy Low’s house in the basket of my motorbike, and then created a new folder:

Zac -> Video -> Other -> YeahYeahYeah

And within that, we placed several gigs of pornography that he had painstakingly downloaded over the years on Malaysia’s shitty internet (and occasionally on Taiwan’s wonderful internet). There was a bunch of classic movies from the ’70s, all grainy and with full bush and closeups that linger way too long than is comfortable. There was a lot of hetero girl-next-door clips of very conventional sexual intercourse. There was a bunch of Japanese porn with censored genitals (and naturally some shy chicks getting plowed on public transportation, at first kind of asking not to be raped but then I guess getting into it? And the people in the background of shots at the beginning mysteriously disappear after nudity happens). And I distinctly remember there being one where a bunch of cheerleaders are stranded in a bus and decide to all fuck and they surreptitiously all finish orgasming just moments before the teacher returns from his quest for gasoline. I liked that one a lot.

But the point isn’t to make you imagine me masturbating alone in my office, the ceiling fan circling slowly. The point I wanted to make is that it’s kinda weird to plan your horniness.

Like, you’re grocery shopping, and you get some kale because you’re trying to be healthy, and you think, “Oh, I would very much like to become horny on Thursday, I better make sure to pre-download this 2 hour Cleopatra movie that’s got both old Roman orgies and also weirdly some archeologists (played by the same actors!) finding the evidence and fucking a lot as well. And maybe I’ll d/l some Sasha Grey for when I am overtaken by hormones on Friday as well!”

(That Cleopat one is a real movie Low gave me. It’s pretty good.)

I’m reminded of Rob Delaney buying plastic sheets back when he was a practicing alcoholic, because it was a given that he would blackout and piss the bed several times a week.

“After arriving in LA and securing an apartment, I had dialed 1-800-MATTRESS and ordered a queen-size bed. It was a big step – deciding to stop peeing in a futon and start peeing in a real bed – and I took it seriously. When I went to buy sheets along with a little trash can and a bathmat and such, I knew I’d also need plastic sheets for my queen-size bed. I was a big boy now and big boys pee in big beds! I walked right up to a young woman and asked her where the plastic sheets were. She told me they were in the kids’ linen section with other kids’ things.

“Uh, I’m looking for plastic sheets for a queen-size bed.”

“Oh…”

“Yep.”

“Oh, um, we don’t have those. We could order them?”

“Well, then, yeah. Order them.”

In a moment of utter sobriety, I was 100% at peace with the fact that I was a voluntary, habitual, adult bedwetter and I was comfortable discussing it frankly with a stranger.”

And now here I am, frankly discussing my perverted masturbatory habits with anonymous strangers. (Hi, Dan!)

I’ve still got the hard drive and all the porn Low gave me. Hmu if you have an hour blocked off next Wednesday afternoon to be horny alone.

[Chanel.]

You’re my favorite but we’re phasing

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I recently visited Malaysia on vacation. It was my first time back in five years. Here are some feelings that I felt:

  1. You know how you’re out at a party and you come home and take off your pants and your socks and do that old person sigh/grunt as you sit down on your favorite chair? And you know how you only realize how stressed and emotionally jittered you were by how suddenly tranquil you feel? And how you’re still half-drunk, petting your cat, feeling the smoothness of his fur, drinking a tall glass of ice water and feeling at home, your true self again? The moment I landed, it felt like that. Like I had taken my pants off at home.
  2. Malaysia has changed a lot. There are new buildings and new stores and new roads and new bridges and new museums and new malls. It was like seeing an ex who has a new haircut and new job and new lover. There’s a longing and wistfulness for what could have been. In another life, I would have stayed in Malaysia and been content and watched all those changes from the inside, instead of melancholically seeing them all at once. And then I left, leaving Malaysia to change more without me, while I change more away from it.
  3. There’s a part in those shitty spy movies, when our erstwhile hapless hero suddenly realizes he knows kung fu and how to shoot a very long gun and has been a sleeper cell all along. Like he’s watching himself fight bad guys and is just as surprised as you. If the movie is delightfully trashy enough, he may turn to the camera and give you a little look. That’s how I felt about Malay. I just opened my mouth and language I didn’t know I knew poured out of it. If you had asked me to translate a phrase into bahasa, I wouldn’t have been able to. But put me in that situation and somewhere in my lizard brain is a section that barely lights up anymore, telling me what to say and how to say it.
  4. My superpower: I am capable of being unhappy anywhere. Within a handful of days at my favorite place in the universe, I got grouchy and tired of dumb touristy things. Mostly I just craved a routine and some time alone to process. The chemicals in my brain that make me sad continue to impress me with their potency. I should bottle them and sell them to people to feed to their enemies.
  5. Globalization bums me out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nativist. Globalization is coming, or I guess it’s already here, and we need to figure out how to mitigate its more brutal effects. But when I see soulless condos going up, blocking ocean views and trampling what used to be dope shit underneath, just so Singaporean businessmen can keep an empty weekend apartment, I’m like what’s the point. There’s an old snake temple, where vipers have lived for generations. Now it’s surrounded on multiple sides by garish buildings 30 stories high and the sounds of construction concusses down into the tiny rectangle of foliage where the snakes climb tree limbs. It’s just a bummer, man. Also, inflation really made me sad, but I think that’s just more a nostalgia thing.
  6. Physical distance from work is key to emotional distance. The farther away you go, the less you’ll care. I recommend going roughly half of the circumference of the globe. As we were flying over the Pacific, I could feel my stressors shrinking. And as we flew back, I could hear their static, like the volume knob on a radio turned up as we got closer.
  7. How do married people do it? I spent two weeks caring about another person’s desires and nearly lost my damn mind. The only thing I wanted by like day 10 was a couple hours to be alone, in quiet, without having to vote on our every damn activity.

[Migration.]

Can I dance in a pair of your shoes?

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cat on a leash

Tame Impala – Let It Happen

I’m in a loveless marriage with this girl named Wilson. On the rare days we don’t hang out, she calls me on her drive home from work, just to recount the day. She’s headstrong and pushy and passionate and makes all the decisions for both of us. I no longer have to choose what to eat after work or where to go on Saturday afternoon—a million oppressive decisions spared. It’s been soothing and comforting and safe in ways I didn’t know I wanted.

One lazy weekend morning, we were making omelettes at my place, all sunlight and white walls. I started cooking, because she was still Tindering on the couch. Eventually, she moseyed over in one of my baggy t-shirts and commenced micromanaging me. She had specifications for how to brown the meat, for how fine to dice the onions, for when to flip the eggs. I paused, spatula in hand, to turn and face her. I’ve been living away from my parents since I was 8. I’ve been making my own omelettes since age 10. I’m a competent and accomplished adult. I can fry up my own damn onions. But just when I opened my mouth to say all this, I realized: That’s the trade-off. All the tiny tedious decisions I no longer have to make, well, the same way I way I got out of them also means I don’t get to decide the shade of the outside of my omelettes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about control lately. Who we give it up to, who we exert it over, when we try to cling to it, and what all that says about us.

valle de los ingenios

Majical Cloudz – Control

Recently, I snuck into Cuba illegally with a girl I barely knew. Let’s call her Murry. She knew Spanish, so she became the de facto decision-maker simply because she had more information. She could ask people questions, learn facts, gather intel, while I stood by, smiling mutely. She was a terrible leader, never including anyone else in decisions or disseminating information. By the end, I was jumping into cabs and then asking, “Uh, where the fuck are we going?” I got grumpy and shut down, stopped talking to anybody in any language.

Then, just as I was about at my limit, we got sick. We didn’t notice a water bottle had been previously opened until too late. I spent 18 hours in a hostel bed in Trinidad, waking up only to diarrhea and shower periodically. Murry spent the night vomiting, dozing off on the floor of the bathroom. In the morning, I awoke more or less better, if slightly weakened from not eating for 24 hours. Murry slept on, so I slipped out with the driver to explore.

Our driver (it was cheaper than renting a car) was a quiet kid who didn’t speak a lick of English. I pointed at him and at me and said “solamente.” He said, “Que?” I repeated the gesture. We got in his ’52 Ford and drove.

For one glorious morning, I was in charge.

I saw two tourists, each with his right calf fully tatted up. I wondered if their friendship produced the similar tattoos or if the matching tattoos produced the friendship.

I touched the skull of a cow in the crumbling slave-owner ranch house of an old sugar plantation.

I pet a fat puppy and he waddled around after me as I wandered the plantation.

I drank guarapo, sugar cane juice.

I watched two kid goats prance around their mother and then suckle on her udders.

I went inside a discotheque carved out of a cave.

I saw the blackened, scorched top of the mountain where a brush fire had kept us out of the cave disco the night before.

I saw a woman wearing a Whatsapp tank top.

I saw a kitten on a leash secured to a cement wall.

I saw a European woman with a braid of hair down to the small of her back. I wondered how she put on the hood of her sweater. I wondered how nectar-sweet it would be to be her, with her life, and her hair braid, and her individual worries. I wondered if she wondered what it would be like to be me.

I saw two horseback cowboys, jean jackets and cowboy hats, carrying a goat carcass and waving triumphantly at their friends as they rode through town. I saw their dutiful dog trotting behind, the goat’s skull in his mouth.

I swatted a fly that kept landing on my arm in the car. I remembered an old lady I met once, deep in the the Borneo jungle. She wore only a sarong and sat calmly on the wood floor of her house as mosquitoes sucked her blood. Meanwhile, I kept frantically slapping at my skin, waving my hands in the air.

In some ways, the battles we choose not to fight are a type of control.

Bay of Pigs

Mogwai – The Lord Is Out Of Control

Later, on the way home, I saw birds flitting around inside the Havana airport terminal. I wondered if the expression “free as a bird” applies to the ones stuck in an airport.

When we landed in Cancun, the entire plane erupted in applause. The man sitting across the aisle crossed himself and kissed his fingers, glancing upwards toward the heavens that we had just descended from. I smirked at the Latinness of it all, but I also became acutely aware that, for the duration of the flight, no one in the cabin had had any control.

[Currents, Are You Alone?, Rave Tapes.]

I will wait for it; you won’t for me

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A photo posted by @zacleerigg on

Twin Shadow – Half Life

On Thursday, Nov. 13, I attended a Twin Shadow concert in the back yard of the Thompson Hotel.

I had some thoughts:

  •   Somehow my friend Alice got us on a list, so it was free. I’d been sick for a week, just sitting around in my own germs in my apartment, and didn’t want to drive. We had some weird texts back and forth until I remembered she lost her license so that’s why she didn’t want to drive us either. In the end, I got an Uber to swoop by to pick up her and her boytoy, Shannon. We arrived an hour early and they didn’t even check our names, so we could have bluffed our way in anyway.
  •   I hadn’t seen any of my friends in a week, so I was mostly just excited to be alive and outside. Still, I skipped the $15 drinks, instead opting to spit phlegm into the bushes every couple minutes.
  •   The Thompson Hotel is pretty gorgeous. I’d never been there before. Alice had. That was the night Fides passed out on a bench and her and Figgy skinny dipped in the pool and then someone moved their clothes so they were wandering around naked looking for them. The next day Fides looked at the map on his Uber receipt and realized he had taken both of them home, so that was good of him. I couldn’t tell if Shannon was amused or annoyed by this story.
  •   We got there at 8 when the doors opened because the email said it’d fill up quickly. Band was scheduled at 9. They went on at 10. Meanwhile we’re all tapping our wrists where watches used to go and muttering about bedtime. “I’ve got some NyQuil shots to take,” I said.
  •   Rayner showed up and showed us pictures of the house he’s buying in New York on his phone, and then smoked from a stubby one-hitter. An white guy maybe in his 60s danced very awkwardly next to us. I kept getting fever sweats and having to lean back and concentrate on the breeze. I felt old, but then realized old people are still allowed to go outside and dance badly and smoke drugs too, so maybe it’s okay.
  •   Alice is from Australia and has a thick accent. She told an extended story about Gray Stones, an artist who used to have to sneak out of her religious home and dress in drag to perform. And then her family disowned her when she made it big. I asked if she performed under the name Black Rock. Alice asked if the story made me think about Gray Stones differently. “I’d never heard of her before tonight,” I said. “You’d never heard of Grace Jones before?” she asked, incredulously. “Oh,” I said. “Oh.” I tried to explain: “That’s why I made the black rock joke.” “Oh!” Alice said. “I thought you were just being racist.”
  •   Rayner kept marveling at the legs. A lot of hipsters came out for this one, the kind you don’t see around Miami too often. One was wearing overalls. “Am I allowed to wear overalls in public now?” I asked. Alice didn’t seem to recommend it. Rayner kept talking about how beautiful everyone is. I feel about Miami how like old family members of monarchs must have felt about coastal towns. There’s no culture except for rare visits, but goddam if life isn’t wonderful there, the wine freely flowing, the women gorgeous, the sea gorgeous. Things are slower and matter less. I think it’s a worthwhile trade. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m moving to Los Angeles in two months.
  •   Oh, right. The band. They eventually came on, so Alice and Rayner pushed to the front. I stayed seated at the back. The treble was too high. It was a terrible mix. Like atrocious. Up front all you could hear was the keyboard. In the back all you could hear were the vocals and bass. They sounded like muddled versions that just made me want to listen to the recorded songs.
  •   Between songs, the singer talked about one song and how the 75 in it was I-75. He said something about how if you’ve ever been 17 in Florida you know what it feels like to drive down I-75 rolling on molly. I’ve never been 17 in Florida.
  •   After a half an hour, Alice came back and asked if we wanted to go. We all left. I took two shots of NyQuil and went to bed.

[Eclipse.]

We’re all gonna die

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sufjan olympia

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

I attended a Sufjan Stevens concert in the Olymipa Theater on Saturday, Nov. 7. It was a positive life experience. Here were my thoughts.

  •   I picked up my friend Dubs at his apartment. His gf bought the tickets for his birthday (even though she liked the latest album far more than he did, so it was more for her), but then ended up going on a work trip for two weeks. I bought her ticket off him.
  •   We listened to the new Grimes on the drive and talked about Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show. Dubs told me to watch out for Aziz’s appearance on Stephen Colbert later this week, and recommended the Fresh Air interview by Terry Gross. I felt very American, or at least that I had a good handle on a specific genre of American culture.
  •   Olympia Theater is this old school movie theater, the first building in Florida with air conditioning, that’s been preserved as a venue. It’s always fun to go to, until you remember how steep the seating is, and your shin hits the chair in front of you for the duration of a show and hurts by the end. Still, the sound is crisp, so I don’t mind gigs there.

A photo posted by @zacleerigg on

  •   Our friend While met us at the show and stole someone’s seat the row in front of us. We talked about how Aziz treats old people in his show. Dubs told us about watching the show with his grandparents, who he had visited for four hours that day. His grandma has memory issues, but his grandfather finds it hilarious whenever TV shows talk about sex. “You would too if you grew up before that was allowed, or before there was TV,” Dubs said.
  •   In the off chance you didn’t read any press about Carrie & Lowell, SPOILER ALERT, it’s about Sufjan’s mom dying. I wondered aloud how one tours with an album like that. “He doesn’t wear wings for this tour, does he?” I asked.
  •   A band named Gallant opened. I liked their vibe and aesthetic much more than their actual songs.
  •   Okay, fine, I’ll just tell you. Sufjan leaned in. He and his band dressed all in black and didn’t talk throughout the set. They played nearly every song from the album. The lights behind them were incredible but tasteful. At several points, they projected old home video behind the band. It was very somber, poignant. “That took me to an emotional place it’s difficult to get to,” Dubs said. It wasn’t outright sad (I didn’t see anyone crying), but it was heavy.
  •   I liked the arrangements. They were understated (nothing ever felt extraneous), but the builds were large, and some of the new syncopated beats they added really drew out the songs. They closed the set with an extended instrumental song that I hadn’t heard before. I really enjoyed it. It made me think that if Sufjan put out an EDM album or had a deejay set, I’d want to hear it. I think he’s incredibly talented. It used to be I thought he should abandon all the excess instruments he threw in his albums and just sing sad songs on acoustic guitar. But I was wrong–about that and other things too.
  •   In “Fourth of July” they extended the ending. The whole band kept singing “We’re all gonna die” again and again, louder and louder. I thought about self-awareness. I mean, Sufjan has to be self-aware enough to acknowledge that that’s weird, right? Maybe not weird. But that it’s a Thing. To go see a band and they sing “We’re all gonna die” repeatedly is a Thing. And he has to be aware of its thingness, I think. Anyway, I liked it. That moment stood out.
  •   Sufjan is, as While put it, “Hand Guy.” He does weird boxy dances with his arms whenever he doesn’t have an instrument in it. He’s a terrible dancer. It comes across so bro-y. I had difficulty marrying this thoughtful, intricate songwriter with this dude bro-dancing. If you can, try to never see him dance in your life. It’s for the best.
  •   Since this is Miami, there were a lot of Woo Girls. I found this inappropriate. This dude is up there singing about his mom dying, and women are saying, “Woo!”? Rude. I think the worst instance was when Sufjan sings, “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross,” and a girl wooed loudly, right before the song ended. It undercut the line. Eventually, people got annoyed and started shushing. And then people would shush the shushers. There would just be shushes and ironic shushes circling around the venue. It was weird. I sighed and shook my head a lot.

  •   After the set, the whole band came to the middle of the stage, bowed, and walked off. The house lights stayed off, so I took the opportunity to rail against encore culture to Dubs. I just think it’s such a facade. We all know you’re coming back for some more songs. You know we know. Let’s not kid each other. We’re all adults here, so why don’t you just keep playing fucking songs until you’re done, instead of wasting my time? Dubs laughed at my hawt take.
  •   But then a weird thing happened. As I was ranting, I had a thought. Encores give shows a very specific structure. You have the bulk of the show in one sort of emotional or even narrative arc, then you take a break, and you come back for a few songs that have their own arc. Structures aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s what you do with them. And Sufjan did something beautiful with his. He came back with a colorful jacket and red beanie on, and played a much more upbeat second set of old songs. He chatted with the crowd. Everyone sighed, relaxed, and loosened a bit. For one night only, I was thankful that encore culture exists.
  •   “It sucks doing this show,” Sufjan said. “It’s like a funeral.” Then he talked about what it felt like to explore his sadness in the open in front of the world. How relieving and healing it was to him. It felt good, he decided, to hoist his grief on us, and we laughed.
  •   “I never thought it’d be a relief to play this song,” he said. “This is my murder ballad.” Then he launched into John Wayne Gacy, Jr., and it was a relief. I still remember the first time I heard that song. I was in college, listening on a compact disc with the lyric sheet in front of me. I was on the bottom of a bunk bed outside of Chicago, my brothers scattered in other bunks, as we visited my aunt. I read the last line, “Look beneath the floorboards, for the secrets I have hid,” and gasped audibly. Then I hit ‘back’ and listened to the song again. Then again. And again. Very few songs have hit me so hard immediately.
  •   The only non-Carrie & Lowell song I registered in the first set was Vesuvius. The second set was mostly his quieter songs. At one point, three of them picked up guitars, and Dubs said, “Bet they play Chicago.” I said, “Bet it’s Romulus.” He said okay, and we set the stakes: loser bought the winner a Martinelli’s apple juice. They played Chicago. “I can’t believe you thought they were going to play Romulus,” Dubs said. “I didn’t. I just like being argumentative,” I said. “Well, I’m glad that caught up with you finally,” he said. “It catches up with me daily,” I said. Later that night I bought him an apple juice at a wine bar and we sat grinning like idiots holding our plump little bottles as the women around us chatted and spilled Pinot Grigio.
  •   They closed the second set by inviting Gallant back on stage. Sufjan apologized for not having any happy songs of his own, so he had to borrow one. “If God is my copilot, then Drake is my ____ ____.” (Dubs heard “little horse,” but I don’t know if that works.) Then they played Hotline Bling. Don’t get me wrong. I love Hotline Bling. I think it’s the catchiest song going right now. But this was not a good cover. It was sloppy and slapstick. Sufjan kept doing his horrible dancing. Also, he invited everyone to stand, something I absolutely do not do when asked. I understand the desire to leave the show on that tone, I just thought it was sloppy and under-served the previous two hours.

  •   When the song was over, I stood, and walked out, thinking of all the things I want to tell my mother.

[Carrie & Lowell]

I don’t want to die in here

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The Mountain Goats, at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 7, 2015.

Mountain Goats – Heel Turn 2

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, I attended a Mountain Goats concert in the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was a positive life experience. Because I process the world this way — and, given the popularity of Buzzfeed, so do you — I will relay the experience in bullet points:

  •   My friends While and Fides met me at my apartment on Miami Beach, and we drove my white Jetta north. Initially Fides sat in the front seat, but then he realized he was too high to navigate, so he got out and swapped with While, who pulled up Waze on his phone.
  •   We stopped at a gas station because my dashboard light was on. While and Fides ran across the street to the Pizza Hut/Taco Bell and returned with several supreme personal pan pizzas. Apparently, both chains (as well as KFC) are owned by Yum! Brands, which peeled off from PepsiCo in 1997. I did not know this. Now I do.
  •   The pizza was greasy and I got some hand grease on the steering wheel.
  •   While and Fides talked about spoarts the whole way up. My friend Fitzgerald called me out for hanging out almost exclusively with women lately. This is why. Spoarts are so fucking basic. They’re the worst.
  •   The Culture Room is in a strip mall in Fort Lauderdale. As we pulled up, While claimed that the only band to reference Fort Lauderdale in a song is Mötley Crüe (in Girls Girls Girls). We talked briefly about the length of Tommy Lee’s penis in the Pamela Anderson sex tape.
  •   To enter, security made us empty our pockets and patted us down. I brought my one-hitter, so I stood out in the drizzle holding my pot between my phone and wallet while some dude felt up my legs. He let me in.
  •   The Culture Room is tiny. I felt uncomfortable lighting up because security would have been able to see me too clearly. I settled for plastic cups of Makers Mark instead, as we posted up against a wall with a good view (like I said, the venue was tiny). At some point, a super tall dude came and stood right in front of me.
  •   I hate tall people.
  •   According to the internet, height has almost no bearing on the amount of sexual partners you will have, unless you are under 5-foot-4 (for a male; 4-foot-11 for a female). So, seriously, fuck tall people.
  •   We moved.
  •   While pointed out that the opening band must have had a lot of turnover, because none of them had the same fashion sense. One of them wore jean shorts and a floral shirt with rolled up sleeves. But all of them had long hair. I am forever jealous of the consistency with which indie rockers can grow full heads of long hair.
  •   We were about an hour late, so we caught the last two songs of the opener and then waited for the Mountain Goats to come on. I sipped on Makers.
  •   Outfits. Darnielle wore a tweed jacket he found in your university professor’s closet. His red shirt read, in old timey font, “I hope you suffer.” His pants were salmon. He did not match. The bassist wore a plaid suit with a tie and pocket square. The drummer also wore a suit and pocket square (no tie). The saxophonist had on jeans and a denim shirt, so he was probably from Canada.
  •   I recently attended a wedding. In preparation I watched several videos about how to fold pocket squares. We have little idea, when we are young, how much effort it takes to look sharp. There are a lot of ways to fold a pocket square, but probably the best is to crumple it randomly and shove it in the pocket. Life’s silly like that.
  •   The other time I saw the Mountain Goats, at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, they had a three-man horn section. The addition of a baritone sax was a nice touch this time, but the sound wasn’t nearly as full as in LA. It didn’t help that Darnielle’s guitar was way too loud in the mix and they had other sound issues.
  •   Darnielle is perhaps the best poet in this country. I looked out at the crowd. I saw gauged ears, a black manchild with bleached hair, a girl with a bandanna like Rossie the Riveter. It felt incongruous. Here are Miami bros. Here is poetry set to tender sax about the pathos of professional wrestling in the 1980s. I wanted everyone to be two decades older.

Rossie the Riveter

  •   At some point, Fides walked over to me, kissed me on the temple, and said, “I love you, man.” I nodded. Then he walked back to While with two drinks in hand.
  •   I wanted to dance, but I didn’t dance.
  •   In the middle of the set, the rest of the band left and Darnielle played some slow songs alone. I remember really digging this part the last time I saw the Goats. This time it was boring, probably because I didn’t know any of the songs he picked. He said he likes to wing that section much as possible.
  •   I’m going to tell you how Darnielle introed one song. All of his intros are great; Darnielle is a soul-toucher. When he talks, he touches souls. I’m concerned I’ll ruin the effect, trying to remember what he said this far after the show. So. The one intro. Darnielle was explaining that when he was 19, after high school, he worked at a burger place called Jakey’s. His boss was a lady who got the restaurant as a gift from her husband. “I don’t want to say she was a bad person, but she behaved in a manner that made one suspect she had every capability of being one.” Darnielle worked six days a week. On the seventh day, his boss made him come in for the lunch shift, so he asked if he could get a free lunch. She said no. He called her “sub-human.” He mused about how back then, that was the most freedom he had: to mouth off to his boss a little bit, but not too much. But when you’re in the ring! When you’re wrestling bad guys! Then the glory of your vengeance can be visited upon the audience, and from your trousers you can pull a Foreign Object.
  •   When they played High Hawk Season, I remembered Malaysia, and how I used to shower with the door open, listening to this song. Then I remembered how in Asia they put the light switches outside of the bathrooms. Whenever I got drunk, I would flip off the lights while my roommates were taking shits. Then I’d scamper away giggling. I was young then, with so much of my life still to waste. I’m 29 now. I’ve fired friends. I’ve failed at things I tried really hard at for a long time. I can feel my body sagging. I looked out over the crowd, at how they were all so young, still so far from 30. Sometimes I wish I had that age back so I could be silly and careless. Other times I don’t. But on this night I did.
  •   The set ended with This Year and the encore closed with with Spent Gladiator 2. Both songs are about survival. Both songs mean a lot to me.

  •   Here’s something you probably don’t know about me: I have thought about suicide every day for the last six years, essentially my entire adult life. I don’t doubt that one day my brain will kill me. Some days it’s only in passing — the idle blip poking through my warm contentedness, arguing that I should probably end it now because it won’t get any better than this. Other days it’s thick, dozens of times frantically in a row, with specific plans and goodbye notes scrawled out in my head. That’s when I listen to the Mountain Goats a lot. I don’t know any other band that writes anthems about staying alive.
  •   After the show we hung out under an awning while Fides smoked a cig, watching the downpour around us. Eventually we gave up waiting and made a run for it, leaping over puddles and through the strip mall parking lot. I wiped my hand through my wet hair. We were drenched by the time we got to the car, but still alive.

[Beat the Champ.]