May 18, 2017:
Today was a shitty day. Let’s just get that straight, you know, in case I need to be allowed a handicap by the end of this story. Chris Cornell killed himself, both of my children are sick, and we have a family member in the hospital. It’s a shitty, shitty day. Got it? Good.
I have issues with anxiety, but my anxiety is quiet. It’s been a slow build over years of losing people I love and working the the healthcare industry. I have a vivid imagination, and when it comes to predicting what all could go wrong in any situation, I can write up a nasty little screenplay in an instant. And since I’ve spent some time working in trauma ICU and emergency medicine, my brain has stored some excellent stock footage to attach to any potential shit-storm my untrustworthy weatherman of an imagination can predict (is that describing all weatherpeople?). I tend to internalize my anxiety, though. I just pull it all in and review the plays over and over until I break. I am a hard-boiled egg. I look like all the others on the outside, but I’m fully cooked inside.
So when a day like today happens, I need a little extra assistance. Luckily, I’ve found that yoga helps. Now, I’m not some master or anything like that. I can’t even touch my toes without bending at the knees. But it’s not about the flexibility. It’s about the breathing. It’s tuning everything else out and having an instructor, another human being, tell you that it’s okay to forget the rest of the world for an hour once a week. It really helps to know that, and I do need someone else to remind me of this on a regular basis.
Today, my wife encouraged me to go to a yoga class. She is wonderfully supportive and understands when I need these little extra bits of help. But there is still compromise to be made. In order to help make sure that our children were okay and in bed, I waited until the last class of the day to go. I thought it would work because it was a class labeled “yoga for all levels,” and I am definitely requiring a lot of leeway. Unfortunately, I underestimated what the word “hot” meant before the “yoga for all levels” part.
Hot yoga is dumb. They turn the fucking room up to ninety degrees and make you do ridiculous positions as quickly as possible. It’s aerobics disguised as yoga with the added “bonus” of feeling like you’re performing this manic circus act in the middle of a summer so hot you’d ram your car into a fire hydrant just to cool off. It’s the part of yoga I don’t trust; the part that gets into a “philosophy of toxins,” as I call it. No, you will not sweat out your toxins. Your liver and kidneys will do that for you. This is human physiology. You sweat to cool down your body. For instance, when you perform yoga aerobics, you will get too hot, so your body produces sweat so you don’t have a seizure. Got it? So…can we turn down the fucking heat, already?!?
Although mostly not relaxing in the slightest (at one point the instructor actually said he would point at us and laugh if we fell while trying to obey his instruction of taking our left hands behind our backs and clasping them with our right hands, which we threaded between our legs, while trying to lift up our left legs straight up into the air while standing on our right legs…I shit you not.), the instructor had a good point about practicing hot yoga. At one moment, while we were actually taking a break to breathe, find our centers, and calm ourselves, he said something about how we can endure heat and stress by taking the time to breathe and focus on our breath. I liked that thought, especially as someone of such thorough Northern European heritage that I sunburn while getting the mail and sweat if I spend too long making a decision under the light of my fridge. So, hearing that I could mentally master the stress of things by challenging myself to perform a one-player version of twister in a greenhouse was an inviting thing to hear. I’m not doing hot yoga again unless it will bring Chris Cornell back from the dead, but it was still an inviting thing to hear.
Finally, after enduring all I could endure and replacing my day’s worries with a new worry about the returning pain to the inner ligament of my left knee, it was time for the entire reason I do yoga: the relaxing part. For all of the other classes I’ve attended, the words “slow” or “basic” replace the word “hot,” and I am able to find some calm in the breathing and some confidence in my low-level ability to control my body, a talent that not everyone gets to enjoy. In other words, I feel good when I get to breathe and relax and someone gives me permission to, even if just for a few brief moments, tell everything about my day that is out of my control…the illnesses, the celebrity suicides, the stock footage of trauma interlaced with imagined scenes of people I love suffering…to just fuck off. I can finally say, “I need a moment, brain. Can we just put the station on something mindless for a minute?” And a minute is a powerful thing, indeed. The instructor started guiding us through simpler poses and stretches. His music selection that better suited an intense spinning class mellowed into a brew of tunes borne of relaxation. It was great. I was literally about to leave the class because of excessive sweat and growing left knee pain, but the instructor changed the groove just in the nick of time.
It should be noted that I have had some positive existential shit happen at the end of yoga classes when the instructor has chosen good music. I remember fighting back tears after one of my favorite instructors guided us through a wonderful series of slow, deep stretches while Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” played in the background. These moments, especially when tied to something as important in my life as music, are why I keep going back to yoga. The terrible images disappear under a blanket of sanity. It no longer matters that I have a good idea of what Chris Cornell’s lifeless body must have looked like; I could focus on appreciating the music he made while he was alive. The session ended on a good note. I felt positive, I felt incredible. I felt the opposite of how I felt for the previous 45 minutes of hot, bullshit yoga that had no bearing on my “toxin levels,” especially considering the amount of extra formaldehyde and lactic acid my body produced because of the strange circus act I had just put it through.
Then I was “allowed” to lie on my back. I pulled my knees into my chest. I breathed deeply. A new song came on, and the tempo was noticeably mellower. I was in my wheelhouse again. I breathed deep, slow, and whole. It was a great feeling. The first song for this portion of the class was alright at best; nothing worth remembering. Then, the next song came on.
The song didn’t get me straight away, but it was instantly likable. It didn’t ring with me the same way that the first notes of Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” struck me down in the parking lot of Quonset Hut (a now defunct record store in Akron, Ohio) when I first put it on, but I appreciated its honest delivery. It was a simple and quiet song with a straightforward melody. The singer’s voice was nothing highly remarkable, but his voice was clear and unfamiliar, and he sang the lyrics with what felt to me to be a genuine tone. There was nothing unique in his voice, but there was nothing that felt false. The lyrics were decent, too. After the day I had, I appreciated the line “we’ve got to get away from here” being sung without desperation; just a simple statement of fact. I needed something to grab onto for the hot and miserable replacement for my typical dose of yoga, and this song was building into something worth latching on to. Then the hook hit, and it hit with what felt like Pink Floyd precision.
Instantly, I was in the place where I had been begging to be all day. This was what I was waiting for. This was part of why I did not mind spending the day caring for everyone but myself, worrying about everyone but myself…because I knew that I would be able to have this time, this moment, this now.
It felt tremendous, and all of my anxiety vanished. I decided that I was strong for getting through my day. I realized that I had done the best I could do. I felt good. I felt proud. I felt as though everything was going to be alright. The song got to me, and I accepted it with open arms.
I’ll admit it: I nearly cried.
Then, sadly, the song ended. I wondered to myself how I could ever figure out who sang that song. Considering my love for music on the end of the dial that taps in toward Radiohead and Pink Floyd, I thought I had explored musicians similar to these artists who had created music that rescued me from other awful situations. Potentially finding an artist new to me who might be able to get me through troubled times using brand new notes and rhythms was exciting. I was desperate to find out who had rescued me from this situation, this “sick family + successfully suicidal idol” piece of shit day. Luckily, the next song was “Golden Slumbers” by The Beatles. It was the first song in this instructor’s playlist I recognized. My plan was formed. All I had to do was ask what song came before The Beatles. I relaxed pleasantly through our instructor’s final, really kinda terrible, song, anticipating finding out who the artist was who had shined a bright light upon my otherwise dark day.
When the class ended, my shirt was drenched in sweat, my towel was wet to the point of no longer being useful, and I was completely out of water. Still breathing heavily, despite the fifteen minutes of cool-down, I approached the instructor, eagerly anticipating the great reveal of this artist who had made my day.
I remember striding toward my instructor. He wore a half-smile when I approached, no doubt identifying me as an impostor, as one of those who thought the hot part was bullshit, but nevertheless he cheerfully complied with my request to find out what song had played before the timeless “Golden Slumbers.” He rifled though his iPhone, finding the playlist fairly quickly. I watched as he swiped his finger through all of songs before he finally found it. He looked me up and down almost imperceptibly, painfully aware that he was about to drop a bomb in my lap.
It’s called “Sign of the Times,” he said. Then he paused unnecessarily.
“By whom?” I plead.
Then, his next words slowed in time and deepened in tone, just like the kid saying “forever” in The Sandlot. I watched his lips curl into the unnatural fleshy ripples we can’t perceive at regular speed as he spelled out the name that would instantly erase my bright and chipper feeling.
In reality, he just smiled and quickly said “it’s by Harry Styles,” before walking off and wishing me a good night.
Harry. Fucking. Styles.
That’s who just made my night? That’s whose voice guided my mind into a state of rest? The dude from One Direction? My mind felt betrayed by my heart. I felt violated.
When my wife was pregnant with my son, she had been a vegetarian for about ten years. She went through pregnancy with my daughter while being vegetarian, and had no problems whatsoever. But with my son, she started having some enormous cravings for red meat. She would wake up and want steak. She would stick her nose out of the car window when we’d pass a Longhorn Steakhouse and breathe in, smiling. Finally, she caved in, as any good mother would. Her son was telling her that he needed meat, so she had to eat meat. We went out to dinner at a fancier burger joint called The Rail. It was one of those places that actually knew where their meat came from and when it was packed, not mystery meat McDonald’s. If she was going to break vegetarianism and give her son the food he craved, it was going to be good quality, damnit. I remember her hesitancy as she brought the burger up to her mouth, but the scent of the meat helped her the rest of the way, and she sunk her teeth in deep. I couldn’t tell what was happening in her mind as she was chewing. Her eyes were closed and her face was flat. There was no perceptible emotion. Curiosity could not let this moment pass without commentary, so I begged her to tell me what she thought.
“Goddamnit. This is exactly what I needed. It’s so good. Fuck.”
That’s roughly what she said. She was happy that she was providing the tiny baby growing inside of her the exact nutrition he requested, and her body reinforced the good decision by giving her pleasure in the task. But in her mind, the little parasite fetus and her taste buds had both betrayed her. The idea of eating meat disgusted her throughout her pregnancy, but she still ate it nonetheless.
I had no idea how this must have felt to her until I found out that I loved a song written by Harry Styles.
I rushed to my car and found it on iTunes. I played it again. I still liked it. I actually liked it a little more upon a second listen. What in the hell was happening? What the fuck, brain?
The lyrics and melodies actually improved with repeated listens. Sure, the song isn’t anything groundbreaking in terms of composition, but it’s well done. Then I asked the appropriate questions:
Why have I already prejudiced myself against liking things by certain people just because I hate their previous work?
Why am I trying to filter my world and how I experience it emotionally by automatically eliminating certain things, just because they have sinned once in my mind?
I have a special relationship with music. I am a musician, and playing and listening to music has just about saved my life on several occasions. I take the art seriously for the most part. So when I hear boy bands and other music that is obviously pilfering off of the marketing system, I feel a bit offended. One Direction was one of those musical groups that was an obvious marketing ploy, and Harry Styles was a part of that. So, in my mind, Harry Styles had committed a mortal sin. But why?
It’s a common post-drunk anxiety to think “What did I do last night? Did I piss anyone off?” Or, at least that has happened with me, and part of why I don’t drink anymore. That feeling that you’ve committed an act in the past that is irredeemable by other people, casting a permanent shadow over everything else you will ever do, is a terrible anxiety to have. People naturally are different, make mistakes, and do shitty things. But that shouldn’t permanently scar the person, making them unapproachable forever. So why do I do this with art and musicians? Perhaps it is, in part, because I fear the same will happen to me. I will release work, and the work judged to be bad will permanently turn people away, one by one, until there’s no one left to give any future work a chance to be enjoyed.
As I’ve said, I have anxiety.
So if I fear this happening to me, why am I willing to do the same to other people? Why do I feel so unwilling to give Harry Styles a shot at being one of my favorite artists?
I decided to give him a chance. I put on the entire album, ready for him to convert me into a fan. Why not? I like making people laugh, and the thought of sending Facebook updates from a Harry Styles concert that I would no doubt attend either alone or willfully chaperoning a group of fangirls was pretty funny. So I let the album play with an open mind.
And I’m happy to tell you, for whatever reason, that the rest of it is shit.
That made me feel better.
But that one song, though…I guess when your body tells you that it needs red meat, you sink your teeth into that burger and smile.
As soon as my son was born, all of my wife’s cravings for red meat dissipated, and she has maintained a vegetarian diet ever since. Perhaps my love for Harry Styles will fade away once the family all gets healthier. Who knows?
But for now, I accept it as a sign of the times.
P.S.- The really dumb video of him flying doesn’t help my ego…