Last week on Write Where It Hurts, I wrote about some of my experiences managing chronic health conditions in the academy. At the same time on this blog, I talked about an experience at a coffee shop with a stranger that led me to reflect on the meaning of songs and playlists in relation to the people we believe ourselves to be. At the end of the week, I thought about the intersection of these posts as I attended my 15th Counting Crows concert to date. As I enjoyed the show with my life partner, I began thinking about the interesting ways Xan Nowakowski used Alice Cooper’s music to discuss nuances and variations in their own selfhood. In this post, I seek to engage in a similar form of self reflection utilizing my now over 20 year relationship with the songs of the Counting Crows.
Like Alice Cooper for Xan Nowakowski and other artists for countless people I have met, Counting Crows have been an essential element of my life since I first discovered their debut album – August and Everything After. At the time, I was realizing a previously unknown aspect of my origin, trying to understand fluid and gender sexual preferences and desires, helping my first love understand what it meant that he was initially born intersex, and seeking to make sense of the odd ways my brain seemed to work that no one seemed to understand. I remember falling in love with telecasters as I screamed “she must be tired of something” as Round Here echoed in my headphones, feeling like maybe I wasn’t completely alone in the way my mind worked as I heard “asleep in perfect blue buildings beside the green apple sea” and “how am I gonna get myself away from myself and me,” and feeling an ache as I repeatedly sang along to Mr. Jones as Adam Duritz asked listeners to “believe in me cause I don’t believe in anything.” I remember that listening to “Raining in Baltimore” made my first love smile without fail. I remember I didn’t understand why I was given away by my birth parents, why I wanted to hug and kiss the boys and girls (and intersex people I was just learning about) in class equally as much, why I wanted to wear pants sometimes and skirts at others when I could get them (I usually wore the skirts in the woods where no one would see), why I couldn’t believe in anything I couldn’t see, or why the world seemed to constantly change around me no matter how hard I tried to make sense of it – in short, I wondered “why am I so alone, I can’t go outside I’m scared I might not make it home.” I remember hearing a line from “Rain King” incorrectly and thinking it said “Mr. Henderson is looking for his son” and thinking if the Mr. Henderson I had just learned was my biological parent was doing this too. The record didn’t provide answers, but it did provide comfort and a form of expression I could not yet come up with on my own as a horribly confused pre-teen. It gave me hope for the everything that might be after August. It helped me imagine the possibility that “we were perfect when we started” and reminded me that “you don’t want to waste your life” when I really needed to be reminded of this point.
“She is trapped inside a month of gray, and they take a little every day. She is a victim of her own responses shackled to a heart that wants to settle and then runs away. It’s a sin to be fading endlessly, yeah but she’s alright with me” (Mercury).
Three years later, I was no less confused about my gender, sexuality, and lack of ability to believe in the unseen, but I was also reeling emotionally from the deaths of close friends and being sexually assaulted. I really felt “wasted in the afternoon” when Recovering the Satelites hit record stores. The melancholy in the songs somehow spoke to me on levels that no one in my life could reach and that I couldn’t really verbalize even if I ever would have wanted to. I remember howling “have you seen me lately” as I realized (though I couldn’t seem to stop) that I was strategically making sure less and less people knew anything about who I was, what I was going through, what I felt, or what I thought – I remember having learned at some point that people who’s minds were different, so called boys who felt like a girl, and people who were attracted to everyone instead of just one sex could not safely share these experiences. My life became a surface performance where I, like a trained monkey “all dressed up” with “no place to go,” put on a show and kept almost everyone away from what I actually felt and desired. For the most part, I don’t think anyone noticed, and looking back I think that was the point – “she’s trying to be a good girl, give em what they want, but Margery’s dreaming of horses.” As two more friends succumbed to violence and I tried to understand the ups and downs in my own head, the whole time period felt like “a long December” without the reason “to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.” I remember feeling dead inside (a feeling that would become normal over time – a numbness that it felt like only “Miller’s Angels” could understand) and filling notebooks full of nightmares and dreams, side by side, almost hugging each other in search of some meaning or peace for even just a moment. I remember begging for the way I was feeling to “please, don’t don’t come around.”
Three years later, I began to suspect that Adam Duritz, the lyricist of Counting Crows, might be following me around. As This Desert Life emerged, I was obsessed with “films about ghosts” and I was certain that “the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.” Over time, more important people passed away, and I was no closer to making sense of my mind or my life in any coherent fashion. I was in the midst of considering sex-reassignment listening to “I wish I was a girl” while managing ever increasing swings from manic belief in my own awesomness and invinsibility to depressed suicidal fantasies and beliefs that the world was trying to kill me and that I deserved such a death. These swings were coupled with nightmares that made it almost impossible to sleep. My happiest moments came in day dreams and fantasies where everyone was still alive, being a boy and a girl at the same time was no big deal, my brain didn’t feel like it was out to kill me, my first love wasn’t dying, and everyone reacted like the couple of people I had met at that point with smiles and affirmation when I sheepishly noted that I desired and dated people of all genital types and gender identities (though I didn’t know or use the term gender identity at the time). I thought about the people I’d lost already and wanted to find a way to tell them “I’m doing alright these days” but I came up empty. Empty and numb wrestled for primacy inside me unless I stepped out into a fantasy reminiscent of “St Robinson and his Cadillac Dream.” I felt like I’d been “Hangin’ Around” inside my own head for “way too long” and desperately wanted a way out. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs every time “All my friends” came on my stereo as I sang along to the lines “one way or another I’m just hoping to find a way to put my feet out in the world” and “tryin’ to find a better way to get through the things I do the things I should.” Unconsciously, I began a pattern I continued for the better part of the next decade wherein I sabotaged any possible relationship (romantic or otherwise) because somehow being alone and unknown felt safer – “all I really know is I wanna know and all I really know is I don’t wanna know.”
“Can I say I wish that this weather would never leave. It just gets hard to believe that god sent this angel to watch over me. Cause my angel, she don’t receive my calls, says I’m too dumb to fuck, too dumb to fight, to dumb to save – well, maybe I don’t need no angel at all” (Miami).
When Hard Candy arrived three years later, some things had begun to change. In some ways, I had begun to “empty drawers of other summers where my shadows used to be” as a result of learning a lot about mental, sexual and gender variations, existing communities of other non-believers or nonreligious people, and common reactions to traumatic experiences. It turned out there were many people who saw and experienced sexual and gender fluidity as normal and natural like I did, there were countless people whose minds operated differently than standard models in the world, there were many folks who did not believe in the unseen, and many people who (like me) had experienced adoption, rape, loss of many loved ones, and other potentially traumatic events that felt lost, alone, different, or just plain changed after the fact. In all such cases, many people “had something breakable just under the skin” and many of them just wanted “to have a good time just like everybody else.” On the other hand, information only provided a frame of reference for understanding (on some level) the things I felt. I understood that what I was experiencing (in all cases) was not unique, but I remained “black and blue” and continued to shift back and forth between suicidal impulses and self medication. Only in a “dimly lit room where you got nothing to hide” did it all go away for a moment amidst the chemicals and tears. A contradiction emerged where I was happy I wasn’t alone, but only felt okay when I was alone – “I been up all night, I might sleep all day, get your dreams just right, let em slip away.” I dove into journal keeping as a way to have conversations since I couldn’t talk to people for the most part while sober, and I tried to find some meaning in everything I was learning from others and everything I had experienced to date. I felt like it really was “too late to get high” so I focused on trying to build some kind of life where the horror inside my head and the pain in my bones might benefit the world – in short, I began what Xan Nowakowski would later call Writing Where It Hurts. Simply put, I finally stopped hoping to be saved, and instead began to focus on what I could do that might help save others. For some reason, creating some kind of purpose from the pain slowly removed the suicidal thoughts, self medications, and fear and replaced them with an almost obsessive need to help anyone I could that continues to drive me to this day.
“Have you seen the little pieces of the people we have been? Little pieces blowing gently on the wind – they have flown down California, they have landed in L.A. – little pieces slowly settling on the waves. I’m one of a million pieces fallen on the ground. Its one of the reasons when we say goodbye we’ll still come around” (Come Around).
Similar to Counting Crows at the time, the next few years passed in a blur, and before I realized it I was much older and looking at the world in a much different fashion. As Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings came out, I was preparing to enter graduate school, and again I felt like the music was following me somehow. Like the lyrics of “Washington Square,” I “locked up my bedroom” every night in a new city and “walked out into the air” with a sense that maybe, just maybe, classrooms could provide an optimal space for helping others. While my mental and physical pains could render me useless (still can and do at times) on “Almost any Sunday morning,” I had somehow that I still can’t explain figured out how to “open windows” even though I remained sure that when I did I would simply “wait for someone warm to come inside and then freeze to death alone.” I had made peace with living as a boy, girl and anything in between from day to day or moment to moment, with desiring bodies of various types, forms, and histories, and with the fact that “I don’t believe in Sundays, and I don’t believe in anything at all.” Somewhere inside myself, these once frightening realities had become a source of pride, and the way my mind constantly shifted from a Saturday night style all out party to a Sunday morning style wish for death somehow seemed appropriate in a world littered with inequalities, pain, trauma, and violence. I began to realize that being “so different” was worth it as long as I didn’t allow myself to be “insignificant” in terms of positive impact for the world around me because I really didn’t (still don’t) “know how to see the same things differently now” – pain, others or my own, should be something we all fight against daily in any small way we can as far as I’m concerned. I remember being amazed that my ability and (even when I don’t want to) need to de-construct and analyze everything in order to understand how once taken apart it might work better for all was something I was about to do for a living. I listened to Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings on repeat all summer as I prepared for graduate study thinking “I’m coming along real good, but I still can’t do most of the things I should,” and for the first time seeing this as a positive aspect of my experience.
“Now I’m not breaking, the train’s just shaking. I never made it here before and there’s a wide mouth spinning the girls around til they can’t take it anymore. I used to dream in the dark, in Palisades Park, up over the cliffs and down among the spark. It’s a long life, full of long nights, but its not what I was waiting for” (Palisades Park).
Once again, there were many events and transitions contained within the six years between Counting Crows records, and once again, as Somewhere Under Wonderland hit the shelves last fall I felt like it spoke to who I had become in the passage of time. Whether I thought about the ways “the world just spun me around” or the ways “she gets the blues, it carries us through,” I found myself reflecting on the past few years, and the surreal experience of finding myself somehow in possession of everything I could ask for personally in this world at present. I thought about past experiences where I dreamed “of sunlight” and sang “of smaller things,” and how making it through my own “memory play where the memory fades” has allowed me to direct almost all my attention to the little ways I can help others, accept myself in all its varied inconsistencies, and try to make a small difference in the world. Having also learned how to truly open up to others for the first time since I was a teenager, I found myself replaying the many times people asked things to the effect of “come on Adam tell me what the hell is wrong with you” and “tell me what the hell am I supposed to do” before ultimately realizing they love me or leave me but couldn’t live with what I put them through. Recognizing this theme inspired seemingly limitless appreciation for those who fought through my defenses and helped me get rid of them so I could connect to others personally again. I’ve come to accept the contradiction noted above wherein I “live alone, but I am hungry for affection, I just struggle with connection.” I have found piece in my own “melodies of failure and the people I have thrown away” because even if I “spend all my tomorrows coming down” I can still find solace in the fact that even though “I know I never said I loved you” that as long as I don’t give up “I might just try again tonight.” As a result, I experience the present comfortable in the realization that every day is just “one more possibility day.”
“You can run out of choices and still hear a voice in your head. When you’re lying in bed, and it says, the best part of a bad day is knowing its okay, the color of everything changes, the sky rearranges its shade and the smile doesn’t fade into the phone call and one bad decision we made. And the worst part of a good day is the one thing you don’t say and you don’t know how but you wish there was some way” (Possibility Days).
As I look back on the past that makes up my life to date and the imagined future ahead, I thus find myself focused on the possibilities rather than the problems. If my years living with me and listening to Counting Crows have taught me anything, its that the labels are artificial, fluid, varied, and flexible whatever form they take, and what really matters is what little steps we take to ease the pain of others and learn to embrace ourselves in a world that seeks to tell us who and what we should be instead of who and what we could be with adequate support and collaboration. It is with this view that I write to you from Somewhere Under Wonderland encouraging you to, in whatever way you prefer, embrace yourself, reach out to others, express your positive and negative experiences and emotions just in case the process helps you and / or others, and see what positive impact (no matter how large or small) you can make on this world. In my case, the music helps me see myself, and so I ask you to reflect on this possibility in your own life as I step away from the computer, turn on my stereo, and enjoy some Counting Crows tunes on an afternoon in the midst of an ongoing life.