The good loser

The good loser

My greatest fear is looking like an idiot. I’m more afraid of that than getting cancer, being hit by a bus or losing my job. It’s not a worthwhile fear to have, and yet most days are negotiations of whether or not my clothes are okay, whether or not there’s a typo hidden in one of my articles, how to say what I want to say without pissing anyone off and how to wear a hat without making my hair do something stupid.

Most people struggle with insecurity at some point in their lives. I do battle with it often enough to call it a frenemy. I tell myself that it started in third grade when my then-best friend Anna Morales told me, on the playground (that hotbed of pre-teen drama), that she no longer wanted to be best friends. Or any kind of friends. I couldn’t have pulled the word “loser” from a thesaurus lineup at that point, and yet I knew for certain that:
1) I didn’t want to be one, and
2) I probably was one.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that some of us are born with a propensity for insecurity. Some people can cook well, some people can run fast, some people can doubt their every word/thought/move. It’s a talent, really. Just not one that will win any talent competition.

Lately I’ve been wondering why failure is such a bad thing, though. We live in a time of anti-failure sentiment. Teenagers in reality TV shows regularly bellow, “Failure’s not an option!” But of course it is. Because when success is your only option, it’s not, by definition, an option. Failure is what makes success sweet. It’s also what makes success a thing at all. Trial and error without error is just doing stuff. You win some, you lose some without losing some is just playing a game who’s outcome is predetermined — like tic-tac-toe once you know to claim the middle spot. Failure is probably more valuable than success — it’s a better teacher, a better motivator, a better whetstone. Failure teaches us not just how to do something right, but how to be humble, compassionate, interested, focused and hungry. Being human is way more about failing that it is about succeeding: Truly interesting people come with scars, battle stories, broken hearts and a capacity to self-heal and soldier on.

Losers make far better fictional characters than winners.

So what if I actually try to fail? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the last few months. What if I say things that people won’t like, write stuff that won’t get published, wear weird dresses and sing along to Taylor Swift songs? What if I set up challenges that I know I can’t accomplish? What if I’m the only one who wears a Halloween costume to work? What I go our for a drink alone and read a book in a crowded bar? What I take French lessons or dance lessons or singing lessons and suck royally in front of a room full of strangers?

What if, whenever failure is an option, I opt for it?

Last weekend I went to a concert and wrote a review. I’ve done this hundreds of times — this is not the part where I look like an idiot. I took my time with the review, did a little research, added in some quotes, wrote something meaningful. In one of the quotes, the musician said that after his tour he was going to retire that set of songs. I included that because it underscored the rare beauty of the show. That’s important to know because, after I posted it online, it got a zillion hits by fans who were either freaked out about the songs being retired, or eager to point out that the quote was made in jest.

1) By a zillion hits I mean more like two.
2) The comment didn’t sound like jest and it’s my job to report on what I hear.
3) I can only imagine the musician at his next show telling the story of the idiot reviewer who claimed he was retiring his setlist. “The press gets everything wrong,” he’ll say. People say that.
4) I wanted, desperately, to take the post down. To not risk being wrong. To not have strangers on social media make fun of me.
5) Strangers on social media: You are the worst. (Except for when you’re not.)

All of the above. Yes. But I’m going to let this failure play out. If I fail, it was with the best of intentions — with some lovely turns of phrase, with the desire to lift up a musician whose show inspired me. If I look like an idiot for any of those reasons, I think I can live with it.

I know I can live with it. No one has ever died from looking like an idiot. I don’t even have to research that fact, I’m just going to say it right here and now and deal with the consequences.

Review: Joseph Arthur

Review: Joseph Arthur

Originally posted at mountainx.com

It’s probably hard to open for The Afghan Whigs, one of the more formidable rock bands of the ’90s, with their huge sound and Greg Dulli’s powerful vocal — and even more challenging to open for the six-piece group as a solo artist. Unless you happen to be Joseph Arthur.

Of course, Arthur wasn’t exactly alone on The Orange Peel stage on Wednesday. He was surrounded by stacks of amps and his own array of equipment. Pedals, guitar, two mics, an easel and a Moog theremin (which he introduced with a wave of his hand, making the instrument warble and proving he’d stopped by the local factory).

Arthur started his set with “Still Life Honey Rose,” a moody and gently rhythmic song set to the musician’s own visual art projected on a pair of screens. He quickly picked up the energy with “The Ballad of Boogie Christ,” the title track of his 2013 release. Balanced between blasphemy and enlightenment, the song is soulful and rocking and offers a refreshing non-dogmatic worldview. Arthur can do that. From a lesser songwriter, the spiritual stuff would come off as agenda-driven; Arthur seems to use theological constructs as archetypal road markers on a path toward self-discovery and a greater openness to humankind. That, and the guy composes such lush instrumentation, layering guitar loops on stage and creating rhythms by beating on his guitar and stomping his feet, all enhanced by pedals.

Arthur introduced “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water,” a darkly gospel-tinged number, as “A song abut being disillusioned with yourself. See if you can relate.” Live, the musician’s songs differ to varying degrees from their album versions. Arthur seems less concerned with replicating his recordings and more in being attuned to the crowd and perhaps his own mood.

On “Even Tho,” (from 2004’s Our Shadows Will Remain), he crafted a beatbox-sounding base over which he unfurled, in stages, his falsetto and then a dusky modal register and finally an achingly ragged chest voice. That song morphed in Arthur’s spoken-world piece, “Travel As Equals” (the album version of — on Redemption City from 2012 — is both sung and spoken). “I Miss the Zoo,” another poem set to music, was performed while live-painting on stage, something the musician has incorporated into his performances for a few years. Because he uses loops, he can build a song and then hold a mic in one hand and a paint brush in the other. That intersection of music and visual art is remarkable to witness; so is the effortlessness with how Arthur manages so many moving parts in order to create a seamless one-man-band/immersive art experience. He ended the song with a theremin solo that sounded like saxophone marrying a piano in some futuristic world.

And that’s why Joseph Arthur — who’s been making records and touring for nearly 20 years — is one of most original and boundary-pushing artists in contemporary music. Follow him on pretty much any social media platform and prepare to be amazed by his creative output. It’s possible that he doesn’t sleep but, instead, channels his dreams into songs and paintings and the juxtaposition of the two. Arthur may not agree with this posit, but the overarching theme of his body of work is to bridge the sacred and the profane. He sees the golden in the mundane, the beauty in the tarnished. He nudges us toward a greater expression of our collective humanity (set to smart hooks and contagious melodies).

The bus to Glasgow

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

A rare sunny moment in western Scotland, 2013

Leaving Edinburgh is an escape only for the sake of escaping, not because it’s a place to run from. Edinburgh is both immediate and eternal, with its tangled old city and, in its not-so-new new city, the spacious Georgian apartments, shoulder to shoulder, fused into tidy rows.

Still, there’s more of Scotland to see. It’s highlands and lochs, its dramatic scenery and gritty, student-filled cities. And there’s the two hour stretch between Edinburgh and Glasgow — a suburban no man’s land where people live the kind of lives that probably don’t involve tartans or soundtracks scored by bagpipes. Or maybe they do.

The bus departs from the station in a belch of diesel exhaust. Only the locals board there. Tourists are oblivious to the city buses as they wait for their carefully mapped day excursions. Some plush coach that picks up at the Quaitch Guest House.

Quickly multistory apartment buildings give way to squat stone cottages with neat white doors. A pair of bay windows on each, because light matters. Old mixed with new, sometimes gracefully, but the city’s growth at its far reach is an ugly gash of mud and large equipment. Power lines across a gray sky, bus shelter at the end of the world.

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Cemetery behind St. Mungo Cathedral (Glasgow).

Norton House Hotel, Ratho Station. A guy boards with a short Mohawk and someone’s initials — perhaps his own — inked behind his ear. D.W. in script. Villages rise and fall beyond the bus window. They are stunted and napping, like villages everywhere. Towns don’t buzz like cities do. Cities never sleep. Towns keep hitting the snooze button.
A sudden slice of sun. A bulbous black cab muscles along a dirt road. In the distance, rounded hills sit, iced thickly with snow. Roadwork at Livingston. Traffic crawls. The bus driver has a shaved head with the ghost of a widows peak and a pale scar. Stands of pines and bare trees ring a snow lake. Fields of snow rest, undisturbed by traffic or sun.

Bathgate: smell of the bus heater, which is too hot. The guy one seat up blasts Bollywood music through his earbuds. Witburn, Falkirk, Newhouse. Ruins of an elaborate stone bridge. Small town of two-story sandstone buildings, all unembellished. It’s like a housing development, only hundreds of years old, and town-looking because it’s not trying to look like a town.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Robbie Burns (foreground) and Sir Walter Scott (background), both wearing seagulls as hats. High style for statues in George Square, Glasgow.

Signs for rooms with en suite, fish with chips. There’s always the option for less (a room with no bathroom, fish without the side of fries) because here you actually can have less. It’s a viable option. Smaller cars, smaller refrigerators, less personal space.

A church on a hill with its tall steeple and floor-to-ceiling windows presides over a rectangle of ruler-straight graves. The rows could have been planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Airdrie, Motherwell: a very old man in the front seat clutches a ruffle of newspapers. He’s dapper in his pocket sweater and striped scarf, occasionally smoothing his haircut with his hand.

Chapelhall, Holytown: The sprawl begins. Warehouses, factories, a clutch of suburban homes. New houses, all tan with red roofs. Billboards and exits. Skinny white birch trees, cows grazing 11 kilometers from Glasgow’s city center. Signs about everything and nothing. Industry is a dream, but not a satisfying dream. It’s the construct of the anxious mind rather than the restful vision of meadows and groves.

There are no more meadows and groves. Instead: Car lot, church yard, graves that run a mile alongside a housing development. The mingling of past and future dead.

Lunch in Hendersonville

Lunch in Hendersonville

I’m good at staying on task and getting things done. I’m not a procrastinator. And that’s mostly great, except for when it’s not — when I miss tomato sandwiches and peach pies because I’m too busy to go to the farmer’s market. When I miss eclipses and meteor showers because I’m getting the recommended amount of sleep. When I stay late at my job every day because the work never ends. Infinity is not a loop, it’s a to-do list.

So my plan, to keep myself from missing October (and its particular quality of light, the electric charge in the air and the fire of foliage gathering momentum as it moves from the high mountains to the foothills), is to get out of Asheville each weekend. Even if only for the afternoon. Even if only for a drive to the next town. That’s how I ended up in Hendersonville.

What I tell my husband, as we move along Main Street at a crawl, is that it’s exactly like Asheville with the crowds and the window shoppers, only everyone is old. “And from New York,” he says. That may or may not be true. There is a booth at the craft fair that’s further clogging Main Street, where you can sign up for delivery of the New York Times.

Really, Hendersonville is nothing like Asheville. It’s cleaner and brighter. Its streets are wider and its parking is free. The handful of blocks that make up downtown are washed by cold air, bright sun and burnish blue sky. Each white tent in the craft fair is manned by a middle aged artist with boundless enthusiasm for earthenware, oil paintings and batiked clothing. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. Women in whimsical glasses and matching whimsical clogs buy lawn art and wall hangings. Things for their mountain houses. There’s a real estate business every half a block selling mountain houses. There are doors to upstairs lofts on Main Street that claim to be vacation rentals. The town glitters with tourist money and antique stores.

20141005_160616_resizedEveryone is in the antique stores. (Everyone is everywhere — khaki-clad families eating ice cream despite the first chill of autumn.) They sift through arrowheads and lift ladder back chairs testing the weight. The antiques are post-Victorian and mid-century American. There’s no sign of Appalachia, but this isn’t where you go if you want Appalachia. I buy a vintage postcard of New York City and a wide-brimmed Fedora that costs too much but fits my head perfectly.

We eat in the Irish pub with the grouchy waiter who doesn’t seem grouchy, but apologizes for his grouchiness to the table behind us. “It’s just been one of those days,” he says. Our table overlooks the street where every third person walks by with a tiny dog. There are signs everywhere saying no dogs in the craft fair area, but no one cares. The bikers have dogs. The older ladies have dogs. A couple walks a longhaired dachshund, a man with a standard poodle stops to talk to a man with a toy poodle.

We take the long way back to the truck, criss-crossing Main Street, walking on the quieter streets and looking into the windows of businesses that are closed on Sunday. Most of them are modern and geared toward tourists. A few seem lost in time — a seamstress shop, a barbershop. I want to stay longer and daydream about what sort of shop I’d open. Vintage clothing is the obvious choice. Books are next, but there are book shops already. One of the antique stores has an entire upstairs nook packed full of books in a string of rooms as small as closets.

I could live in such a place as the book loft. Reading dusty volumes of poetry and collections of Indian recipes. William Blake and Ron Rash, Edith Wharton and Beverly Cleary.

Holter monitor

Holter monitor

From an unfinished fiction project

People talk about hitting the bottom like its a major accomplishment. A milestone. But as long as there’s still breath in your body, you can always sink lower. I know this, because I’m sitting through the inter-departmental meeting wearing a Holter monitor. It sounds like halter — a fun, ’70s-retro top. Instead it’s more like a bomb, strapped to my chest with all sorts of wires running out the bottom of my blouse, connecting to a box that looks like a pager and fits in my pocket. Sort of.

I can’t focus on the meeting because I’m having a panic attack over how ridiculous I look. Or maybe no one can tell. The thing is to remember at everyone else is too busy worrying about how they look to care about how other people look. Except of course that’s a lie because the all-time-number-one-pastime of everyone everywhere is people watching. Okay, the all-time-number-one-pastime of everyone everywhere is drinking. But then people watching.

I’m wearing the monitor because I have this thing where my heart flutters. Just now and then. But what if? That’s what I keep thinking. What if I have an undetected heart murmur and it’s getting worse and soon the blood will be gushing. Either in or out, I’m not sure. Or maybe I’m having a heart attack.

What I have is anxiety, but the symptoms are the same as a heart attack, which makes me more anxious, which makes my heart flutter more. And I can’t catch my breath, and my chest hurts and so does my left arm. My right arm, too, but especially my left.

Maybe this time I’m hitting bottom. That’s what I thought in the doctor’s office. Not the regular doctor, but a specialist. A woman younger than me with a sleek ponytail and a lab coat. Those Dansko clogs in patent leather.

She hands me a gown. Tells me, as if we’re best friends, “These are so horrible, right? But everyone has to wear them.” And then she apologizes for the office being chilly.

In a gown and running shoes, with electrodes taped all over my chest, I jog on a treadmill. It’s called a stress test, I assume, because running in a thin cotton gown with not nearly enough snaps, is awkward and embarrassing, and therefor really stressful. The specialist in the Dansko clogs chews the tip of her pen and makes a few notes on her chart. “You don’t seem tired,” she says cheerfully.

“I ran five miles this morning,” I tell her, trying to adjust the gaping gown.

“Oh cool!” she says. “So you’re a runner.”

“Yes,” I pant.

After a few more minutes, the doctor slows the treadmill and I’m allowed to change back into my work clothes. Of course she doesn’t find anything, but she also can’t send me home empty-handed, can she? So she tapes me into the Holter monitor with its wire tentacles. I’m supposed to tuck the monitor into my pocket like, oh yeah, I just have this thing. No biggie.

As soon as it’s attached to my chest I’m very, very sorry. I’m sorry I came here. I’m sorry I let the fear take me this far. I’m sorry that I haven’t beaten the anxiety and now I’m covered in wires. I’m turning into Seven of Nine (only shorter and much less threatening). Mostly, I’m embarrassed of being healthy.

I am healthy. I know this. The only thing wrong with me is my head, but not in a tragic way. I just have to get through the inter-departmental meeting without anyone noticing my Borg hardware, and then it’ll all be fine.

Unless the monitor finds something.

Unless this is actually a bomb.

Unless a meteor hits the Earth, which could happen at any minute. Think of that and tell me your heart doesn’t flutter.