Sunday, June 1, 2008

Josh B, Laughing Fish and Me

So a lot of you out there who are my friends on MS may have been delighted to see a lovely message from me letting you know about this site. The specialness you felt then may have worn off when you then visited the site of any other mutual friend to see the exact same post. Well, guess what, I got 347 "friends", and I'm gonna die of old age if I sit here and try to think of how to write the same message 347 times in 347 different ways.

So I used a template... that's just how it goes. But then I got to one site and it just didn't work any more. It was the one site I couldn't just post anything and have it read, because the person whose site it was won't ever be able to read it. It's more for their friends, who see the site, to read, and a template just wouldn't work. It would have been totally insensitive, caustic, and wrong.

So I wrote a personal message, the most personal of all, half to this person, and half to the community of people this person has brought together. I think the life and spirit of this person can best be served by sharing those thoughts with you all here.

If you don't know who Josh is go here

Josh's passing was very significant to me for many reasons. One of them was that towards the end of my living in DC (I moved out for good in August 2007) I was very depressed there. I had no social life and didn't relate to any of the scenes or my neighbors and I just wanted out. So for all of 2007 I worked really crazy hours in a fine dining restaurant for rich and powerful people that I also didn't relate to at all so I could save up and move. And while that let me save and travel a lot (I crossed the country 4 times in the last 7 months- twice for myself, and twice with a band on tour), it made me even more miserable because I was so physically tired I never had time for a social life (and hardly for a political life). Adam's Morgan at 2 am when I got off didn't really do it for me (though a quiet Jerk Chicken and Popcorn Shrimp on a stool at the Diner was one consolation).

I was actually writing a song about suicide in my band right before Josh died. Afterwards I re-wrote it to sound a bit less trivializing and to sound a bit more serious, and to actually try and analyze why life appears hopelessness sometimes- to acknowledge the self-destructive impulse but simultaneously to critique it. The final track I think got a bit crushed in mastering but you can hear it here

Anyways, it really freaked me out that I was so interested in these ideas... so I decided I'd never again live anywhere that I felt the environment made me unhappy, or where I felt I couldn't relate to the people.

At the beginning of this past month I packed up for the last time and moved to Denver, CO. I really really really love it here. People are incredibly nice, there's plenty of open space, all the things I love about the outdoors are at my doorstep, and life isn't too expensive. There's actually time for life and people seem to care about each other and strangers a little bit more.

In a bizarre way, I sort of have Josh to thank for motivating me so strongly to change my life and take those steps to do what I had to do to deal with the negative influences in my life. Since then I've never looked back and I've never been happier in my life.

Another thing I wanted to share with you all is that while I've been expressing myself a lot with music, that can be a bit hard to promote and certainly more than a bit frustrating with so much financial investment that never gets paid back. Anyways, as I've been moving around and seeing the country and the world and really getting to know it, I've been thinking a lot more about life and definitely experiencing it a lot more. Crazy experiences... all the extremes... and of course the benign as well.

Now I'm writing about all this, the world, life, stories, politics, and music, in a blog I'm starting. It's a different medium, but really the same thing I've been doing all along. It's probably long over due, but being homeless with all the music gear in storage certainly makes this an opportune time to try it out!

The name sounds a little absurd but it has a meaningful symbolic value. When I was working in that restaurant in DC, most of our shifts were doubles, which meant 15-16 hours a day. On many busy days we would not sit down once in that entire shift, and some days we wouldn't have anything to eat except a little bread here and there... the mental capacities of everyone who worked there were challenged farther than they had been prepared for. But the money was good and kept us coming back.

A lot of my coworkers were immigrants from other countries- legal and otherwise. Some were my peers, but many were older than me. I learned pidgin Spanish there on the shop floor in order to communicate and get the job done. As strange as it sounds, for me those people really became more of a family than any other scene I was a part of in DC- if nothing other than for the simple fact that we were forced to spend 50-60 hours a week next to each other!

Anyways, we'd joke a lot to pass the time. The best jokers were Chilean, where in that country being able to tell great jokes is sort of like being undefeated in arm wrestling in the US. Jokes were often funny in at least 2 or 3 dimensions because translations would produce phrases with double and triple entendres- often sexual, morbid, or some combination of the two, and usually in reference to a particularly interesting, obnoxious, or attractive customer.

There was of course a lot of stress and pain in it all- some physical, and some emotional. One female coworker of mine has not seen her two daughters in 5 years. When asked by her over the phone if they'd like her savings to go towards building them a room extension, or allowing their mother to travel home to visit them- they picked the home improvements. Their mother is a total stranger they have no love association with at all.

Another friend has lived in DC for over five years waiting tables downtown for elite politicians. She's been sending her money back to Chile to pay for her son's education. When this son who she hadn't seen in years tried and visit her he was stopped in Atlanta and deported.

A lot of these people had things tougher than me, but we were all sweating it out together and all trying to hustle these big spenders to pay our bills. And we drew this funny comparison to the fishes we were serving- Tilapia, Ahi Tuna, Lobster, Salmon, and Sea Bass: We'd say when someone was weeded, "Laugh Fucker! Laugh or you're gonna die like a Sea Bass!" This could also be shortened to, "Laugh like a Fish!" This decontextualization did make the meaning more ambiguous for the uninitiated, but it sharpened the mental picture. The contrast of cold, wet, dead, and slimy fish with the idea of laughing was one that hit home hard. We were all constantly in danger of becoming lifeless and cold, losing our humanity and any personal identity in this stress and hell of stupid rules, class subservience, and never ending shifts...

But if we could still laugh... at least that set us apart as something other than those commodities dead and being eaten!

It was a very crude and unintellectual way of making a point that existential philosophers decades and centuries ago had expanded in great detail: the liberating potential of a confrontation with death. Also, something that alpine mountain climbers, rescue teams, and other high risk professionals take well to heart: That the most important tool anyone has to survive in a difficult situation is their brain, and the most important skill: a sense of humor.

Time and again it's been proven that people stranded without water on a desert island- or victims of crashed plane- have been able to survive because a sense of humor has prevented stress, desperation, and wasted expenditure of precious calories and water.

I named the blog after that to try and showcase that value: That sometimes, when the world just seems so horrible, so absurd, so upside down and the odds you are facing seem so totally impossible: If you can step back for a minute and laugh at the irony of it all, you might still have a chance.

Some posts are serious and some are not, some are fiction, some are journalistic, some are music scene oriented, others are more overtly political.

But through all my bitter sarcasm, escapism, sense of humor, and the shields I put up around me to deal, I think there's a bit of something I've taken from Josh, which I'll always have with me. I can't do it as well or all the time but I have some of it and I've learned what it looks like and how it should be. I don't have a word for it, but maybe that's because it's too important and words can't fit it right. What do you call it, when even in the most socially trying circumstances a person can still look another in eye and meet them like an equal- assuming absolutely nothing about them- and despite whatever stereotype or fear or prejudice we're taught by society, this person can extend to any stranger a completely unreserved and unqualified respect?

I don't now. Maybe it's Solidarity. But it's something that's felt. And if man really was sculpted out by God almighty... by the time he got around to running off a line of Joshes... I know clay must've been 86'd. The guy was a 100% guaranteed, walking, talking, hunk of this stuff. "One in a million" doesn't even come close...

So here's to him. I wish I could laugh with you too, buddy.

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