Thursday, December 02, 2004

Let's get happy.

[Ok: This is a much more personal posting than I ever thought I would write here, and I've been trying to figure out whether I should put this on this blog or on my own. But since there is the connection to politics, I thought it was more appropriate for early-adopter, so I hope you'll forgive my digression.]

I have long been convinced that people in the art world slouch - and, test me on this, go to an opening in Chelsea and you'll spot a room full of people with the worst posture ever - because they're trying to protect their hearts; that this small unconscious act actually is the result of some larger protective mechanism. I don't know if this is literally true, but I've been thinking about it recently, as my own posture has become more and more slumped.

And so I found myself last night, in a room full of lanky girls with geeky glasses and silver painted toes, feeling utterly alone and uncomfortable, trying to do yoga. I had already asserted myself earlier that evening by doing my own unique brand of territorial pissing (by talking the ear off the poor woman at the front desk, alternatively being a total asshole and being a whiny, needy bitch) and now I was surrounded by people who looked more or less just like me, and yet I was still trying to talk myself out of it, trying to convince myself that I should really turn around and go back home.

The voices in my head were breaking out into all-out war, fighting over whether or not I should stay. One would pipe in and say, Okay, look at the stomach fat on that chick. You look much better. Stick around while another would instantly scream out This isn't your world - look at these people! They're in real estate and publishing and public relations and a few goody-goody NYU students thrown in for color. You stick out like a sore thumb while meanwhile I'd slowly notice that the woman whose stomach fat briefly made me feel better about myself also had absolutely perfect ankles (which is to say ankles without gross scars and a long-abandoned, half-finished tattoo on one, like mine).

Still, I don't know if it was utter inertia or the fact that I had - in a brief glimmer of clarity - had the sense to purchase a group ticket that meant I paid a bit for a block of classes and therefore had to stay or give up a good chunk of cash, but I stayed. The class was gentle - as the poor woman at the front desk had assured me, many, many times - and it was heavily centered on meditation. The teacher was especially kind to me - as I had thrown a fit to ensure, even bringing up the non-issue of scoliosis - as, again, I was assured. It was, in fact, much more than I ever could have reasonably hoped for in an hour and a half class within walking distance from both my job and the PATH train, which cost $10 (all those conditions had to be met before I'd even consider walking in the door, let alone plunking down some cash, going into a changing room, or placing my shit in a cubicle).

And so, you're wondering: What does this have to do with politics? Well, quite a lot, actually.

I've been doing some drawings lately about the idea of cognitive dissonance. The best way to describe what this is is to give you a simple example: Cognitive dissonance occurs when you hand someone a lemon and tell them it's an orange; even as they object that this orange doesn't taste sweet at all and in fact it's really a lemon, you tell them over and over it's an orange until finally they believe you. It's what happens when you ignore your body and your senses to the point where you believe that what's going on in your brain is far more important and you convince the rest of you to come along for the ride.

I've been thinking a lot about this concept as I try and digest the election. It doesn't really literally translate, but there are many examples I can think of that really remind me of it. Gee, we all say we want to win, but we know that senators and candidates from the Northeast don't fare well for national elections, so let's all march to the polls during primary season and vote for a senator from Massachussetts. Gosh, the middle class is falling apart and really hurting and they all seem to be turning to the church for some relief, so let's trot out some rich movie stars from godless Hollywood to really get out that Democratic vote. The Right is of course no stranger to this concept either; several angry emails sent to me right after the election pointed out how the divorce and abortion rates in the red states are much higher than in the blue states (so much for those traditional family values) and how the red states receive more federal funding than the blue ones (so much for that supposedly smaller, Republican government) and so, they're clearly living in denial as well.

And so, what's to be made of all this? And, more to the point, what the fuck do we do?

Well, I think in many ways, the election offers to all the bright-eyed young people out there the cold, hard lesson that you can't change the world all at once - and this may be a good thing. Because, after you've expended all that time and energy, you might come to realize that at least you can change yourself. To me, where I'm sitting, that seems like a lousy, pathetic, sucker prize, but it may in fact wind up to be the best prize of them all, because that in turn may wind up to change the whole world after all.

Stop rolling your eyes. Ok, I've just blathered on to you what any two-bit, wannabe guru would say, but I've got backup - in the guise of the FAA, no less. You know those crappy safety talks they make you sit through as you're waiting for your flight to take off? I tune out too, but I've sat through it enough times to know that they really drive home the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask first before helping those around you.

Now, to many people's minds, helping yourself first might mean raiding the petty cash dish at work or some other silly act, but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about helping yourself in a more universal, less material sort of way. Like, I look around all the time and see my friends in a really bad state and so I work up this crazy dream of building some kind of utopian society where we can all go and be happy... but how the fuck can I pull that off when it's been several years since I can say I've experienced sustained happiness myself? You need some sort of guide to help you through a major shift like that, and it helps if that guide can be yourself and the life you've actually lived.

You have to be at peace with your beliefs and the life you're living to really create any kind of change. I remember saying to a Republican friend of mine who was fearing the convention coming to NYC to bear in mind that behind every ski-masked, molotov cocktail weilding protester (sigh - remember when we all thought that was going to happen?) was a girl who just got dumped by her boyfriend. I didn't mean to disparage the protesters at all (I think they had/have legitimate reasons to be angry) but rather to personalize the protesters a bit to someone who didn't understand where they were coming from. But I realized recently that there was more to it than that. That degree of anger, that venom that has to be behind the hurling of a molotov cocktail at a random Republican - well, you get a new boyfriend and the anger fizzles out. It's not a good place from which to create any kind of change. It's its own form of cognitive dissonance - oh, I'm mad at George Bush, so I'm going to hate all Republicans - yeah, that'll help change the world.

So, back to the yoga: It's not like I don't exercise. I exercise a lot, actually; left to my own devices and with nothing else to do, I will run or walk to exhaustion. I have thought nothing over the last few years of "stepping up" my exercise routine - adding little bits here and there to push the aerobic component - but it's been damn near impossible for me to do anything that involves slowing down or relaxing. The rest of my life is like this too - working four freelance jobs isn't enough, I have to also take on the role of assistant editor to a local magazine, read tons of stuff in preparation for my work, actually do my work, do all my household crap, and a million other things. Hell, I'm exhausted as I write this, but you don't see me going to bed.

It's not that slowing down is counter-intuitive - slowing down is damn intuitive. You have to fight like hell to keep working when your body begs you to quit or to focus your brain on some subject when you're falling asleep. It's just that keeping endlessly busy is my way of ignoring the general unhappiness I feel in my life; keeping so busy means that I feel like crap just about all the time which leads to me feeling alienated from my own body which leads to more unhappiness which leads to more busyness. And on and on and on, until the point where I find myself rushing down the street, avoiding all eye contact, hell-bent on going where I need to go and doing what I need to do, which means disconnecting with everyone and everything around me.

I sensed that there was a real crisis coming on in my life back last winter, and I thought the solution was trying to connect with different kinds of people, that I had become simply too caught up in my own little world and getting out a bit more would help. I really extended myself and started all these penpal projects and going to different places and talking to different kinds people. That has been a worthwhile project that I wouldn't change for anything; I'm truly happy I did it and I definitely intend on keeping those relationships going.

But I'm realizing more and more that this was, in many ways, another extension of my busyness (adding more people to my life only meant I had more stuff to do); that I'm really not going to learn anything from talking to anyone else until I slow down and listen to myself for a change. Easier said than done, of course, but I really think that the first step for me in this is trying to work out some of these knots that seem to have overtaken my body and getting in tune with myself, and to get some sleep and three decent meals a day, for a change. Maybe then I can get some clarity and figure out what the next step is.

So, that's the plan for now. I'm going to dig in and be happy. Or I'm going to try. I have to admit that I find New Age people to be hateful, so yoga may not really be the solution for me, but at least - for the first time in a while - I think I may have a firm grasp on what the real problem is.


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