Influence and Persuasion

Bloggers are funny, optimistic people.  We write (among many other reasons) to share gems of wisdom we stumble upon, in the hope it helps somebody else.  We hope to persuade and to change minds.  The desire is for better perspectives and deeper insights to prevail.  I think I speak for many people when I say that when I discover a useful piece of information, or figure something out, I try to share it, so that everybody else can take the short route to its discovery and so that, in a way, the utility of the information is validated.  Blogging is about influencing.

My settled belief is that if you saturate the world with better ideas, then gradually that makes a difference and the world gets better.  When the ideas you have to choose from are better ideas, it follows that you can crowd out the stupid, destructive ones.  That’s the theory, at least.  The practice is not quite so straightforward.

Sadly, humanity has, for centuries, lived in a world of ubiquitous, stupid, divisive, destructive ideas.  We’ve all been immersed in them and have accepted them uncritically.  Better ideas are still a relative rarity.  People absorb these rotten ideas through their less analytical mode of thinking and they become embedded in the culture.  These terrible ideas are incredibly difficult to change, because they become articles of faith, defended as sacred beliefs, for no better reason than the individual happens to believe them.  There’s no basis to it, though.  The evidential foundation just isn’t there.

In fact, for sport, there are people that lead such people through a series of simple questions, with the aim of getting them to disagree with their own fervently held beliefs.  It’s surprisingly easy to do, if you have a mind to manipulate somebody into it.  What people tend to carry around in their heads, typically, is a set of self-contradictory ideas, or else beliefs that are diametrically at odds with their own true values.  Proving that the most radicalised, ardent capitalist is a true communist, by nature, is child’s play.  Those that hold the most authoritarian, statist views turn out to expect the world to permit them to exist peaceably, as private anarchists.  The incongruence of it all is quite astonishing, surpassed only by the sheer scale of the intellectual dishonesty required to sustain it all.

It follows, then, that there is absolutely no point in me writing blog posts that seek to persuade or change minds or, in fact, in you reading them.  We’re both wasting our time utterly.  Science finds that you (as an audience, or as readers) are highly unlikely to change your beliefs or even regard your own ideas as suspect, irrespective of the true facts or of alternative perspectives or hypotheses that may be more plausible.  You just won’t do it.  Most people live their lives with no awareness that what they think is highly suspect and won’t hold up to scrutiny.  We think we have it all figured out.  Our certainties are all built on trust and yet we dismiss the idea that our trust can be and often is deliberately abused, to take advantage of us.  We’re all so manipulable and yet think we’re impervious to it.  Ironically, we think it’s everybody else that is totally clueless and docile.

This blog, then, is for the tiny minority of people whose consciousness has evolved to the point where they are ready to at least entertain the possibilities I set forth herein.  Everybody else, if they read it at all, will simply get angry or indignant, or dismiss these writings as wholesale nonsense.  There is absolutely nothing I can say or write, no concrete proofs I can offer, that will change the minds of those people, who are the majority.  They’re stuck with their rotten, self-limiting, self-sabotaging ideas.

I’m far from the first to comment on this aspect of human nature.

We understand, intuitively, that different people are swayed by different sorts of arguments that appeal to their current ways of viewing the world.  An appeal to their prejudices tends to be more effective than one which confronts them.  Yet nobody likes to make an argument which appeals to the other person’s alternative (even nonsensical) world view.  People argue from the point of view they believe.  It feels manipulative, insincere and even morally wrong to momentarily take the other person’s point of view, when trying to advance an argument we already believe in.  You could say that lacks empathy, or else demonstrates great integrity.  You choose.  Empathic story telling is probably more effective, but to change a bad idea for a good one, you momentarily have to argue from the point of view of a terrible belief.  Appealing to what the listener believes, especially when it is errant nonsense, is a cringe worthy thing to have to do.

Because people’s heads carry any number of terrible ideas already, a new really terrible idea spreads like wildfire, but genuinely good ones fall into disuse and obscurity, through sheer neglect.  Everybody claims to want peace, but when the choice comes down to whether or not to bomb the enemy, a frightening number of people default to atavism and jettison the good idea (peace), in favour of a new bad idea (more violence, waste and destruction).

Their argument is that when a good idea was raised some time ago, but was not widely adopted, then the idea must have been discredited.  The idea was not discredited.  Only the people alive at the time it was first posited and since, who failed to embrace and internalise it, are discredited.

People are not taught to think critically and it is a specific technique, amenable to being learnt.  Rather, they are actively dissuaded from thinking critically, by those privileged few in power, mainly to prevent you from questioning the legitimacy of their privilege and power.  Instead, we’re expected to take on ideas from authority without question.  Obedience, under threat of violence, is by far the favoured mode of taking on and accepting new ideas.  Every idea you hold probably got into your head, at a young age, accompanied by a veiled threat of some kind of sanction, if you were honest about your recollections.

Medical professionals are a case in point.  They rarely seem to pause for thought to wonder why people on the medications they prescribe don’t get any better and stay on those medications indefinitely.  It doesn’t occur to them that, somewhere in the whole stack, somebody has engineered things so that they’re not supposed to get better.  This is an unthinkable idea, because to hold it would mean expulsion from the profession.  They’d be called quacks for the expectation that the patients they treat get better and are cured, rather than are treated indefinitely (and for somebody, profitably).

A strange argument people resort to, when cornered by the cognitive dissonance of realising their own beliefs are at odds with their own personal values, is that they proclaim it’s not that simple.  This is usually when they’re run out of anything else to say, by way of rationalising their position.  They say that there are grey areas and that you shouldn’t think that your opinion is right and that everyone else is wrong (when all you did was asked them to compare their own stated beliefs against their own values).  It is, of course, just an attempt to buy time and to muddy the waters, in order to obscure the principles that they don’t have any real response to.  They’ll say things like, “You just think that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is wrong and immoral”, or, “It’s because you’re a man and I’m a woman”.  I’m sure that most twitter abuse stems from this kind of lashing out.  Why have rational arguments, in 140 character chunks, when you can simply hurl abuse?

On the issue of violence, I have to say that I do think anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wrong and immoral.  I think every human interaction should be peaceful, non-violent, consensual and voluntary.  Anyone who is not a holder of those ideas, who disagrees with me on that point, is, by definition, in favour of violence.  This is not a false dichotomy; it’s a true dichotomy.  There really aren’t any shades of grey.  Similarly, if you proclaim you are not an anarchist (meaning you do not oppose the existence of a ruling class), then you are most definitely a statist (who advocates the necessity of a ruling class).  You can’t circumscribe the boundaries.  Either you want the government to choose your toothpaste for you, or you don’t.  You can’t want violence and control for everybody else, but demand peace, freedom and self determination in your personal life.  If you don’t like that truism, that’s your problem, not mine.  Logic won’t stop existing just so that you can feel better about what you condone.  Talking about opinions having equal validity and complaining that people are judgemental, rude or extreme for not agreeing with you will not make your position more rational or moral.  This is not a way to make true dichotomies vanish.  If you are an airhead, no amount of anybody else pretending you’re not, or politely skirting around the issue, will change the facts of the matter.

When it comes down to it, there are some really damaged people, with a hateful and distorted view of reality, gathering other people who share those views.  Entire political campaigns are run along these lines.  Gangs of twitter abusers coalesce for largely the same reasons.

I can name most of the people from whom I have received new, good ideas.   I seek good ideas out like a bower bird.  My constant surprise and delight is to discover something I assumed to be true, in the past, can’t have possibly been true and to replace those notions with better ideas, that seem to ring much truer, under harsher scrutiny.   I wonder how many people are as conscious of where their ideas come from, or who examine them for validity before accepting them trustingly, wholesale.  I’m guessing this is a minority pass time.

I also learned, in my hobby of collecting ideas, that nobody has the monopoly on wisdom.  Even people that have taught me good things have been terribly wrong or misguided on other matters.  Everybody carries at least one bad idea, myself included.  Those that make no effort whatsoever to escape their indoctrination, propagandisation, education and programming, though, are in a state of much greater bamboozlement than even I am.  It disappoints me that so few even try.

Instead, we’re told we should make ourselves happy and not worry about the prevalence of terrible ideas, in the world.  We’ve only one life to live, so we should don our rose tinted glasses and be thankful for all the good things we have, while completely ignoring the many terrible things that are inflicted on the world in the name of economics or human progress.  We should just let those rotten ideas carry on, affecting all our lives negatively, unchallenged and uncorrected, like some kind of giant doomsday machine, while we turn ourselves into self-involved, happy morons.

I’d rather keep searching for better ideas.  I hope that, in sharing them, somebody, somewhere is persuaded by them and influenced.

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How to Produce Music

Tony Visconti is the producers’ producer.  If you have heard any popular music at all, in the last four or five decades, then the chances are high that you’ve heard his work.  It was fascinating, then, to see him post this on his facebook page recently:

“Producers and Engineers: Rather than actively buying up new and vintage equipment, more plug-ins, thinking those inanimate things will make better records, you should be asking the artists you record to submit better music, better lyrics and better performances. Don’t degrade your skill and talent by resigning yourself to polishing turds. Chasing the Top 10 is a fool’s game. Give feedback, give direction. This is your responsibility to music, to our culture, to the public whom you do not want to let down.”

I think this encapsulates how to produce music very succinctly and the sentiments really resonate with me.  It is your duty, as a producer, to contribute positively to our musical culture and to give the public something good.  Doing this via the animate elements in the process might be the harder path (giving feedback and direction can be seen as confrontational and you need a great deal of tact and diplomacy to deliver it effectively), but it’s the only one that works.  Reliance on buying in the latest and greatest inanimate object won’t help you make better records, because it’s ultimately an avoidance tactic.  The real work of a music producer is to demand better music, lyrics and performances from those musicians whose records you are producing.

Tangentially, it also explains why it is so supremely difficult to produce your own music, without anybody else.  How do you demand better music of yourself?  How do you require that you write better lyrics?  Can you even tell when you aren’t writing great music and lyrics?  While trying to grapple with the technicalities of making a recording, how do you focus your mind on the performance you give?

It can be done, of course and there are artists that have.  It’s difficult, though.  Somehow, you have to hold yourself up to high standards of musicianship, while taking care of the technical aspects of capturing that lightning in a bottle.  I can’t help but think that when you have a master music producer on your side, coaching and coaxing you, mentoring you to present the best music and musical performance, it’s a lot easier to deliver.

So that’s the secret right there and you heard it from one of the undeniable greats.  Don’t waste your life trying to polish sub-standard songs and performances.  Instead, focus on helping those elements of the record be great in the first place (and then make sure you faithfully capture it all to some technical recording medium).  There is no plug-in that turns a bad piece of music into a good one.  There is no lyric-fix-o-matic programme that can take a sad song and make it better.  If your musicians, singers and players just aren’t that into delivering a vibrant, soulful, emotive, affective, exciting performance, there isn’t a post processing box available to take a dull, sloppy, sluggish take and turn it into a magical one.  The technology does not exist and even if it did, it’s the wrong approach.

Demand better music and so produce better records.  It’s that simple, really.

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Letting Go

Grief and creativity seldom sit alongside each other very comfortably, even though the latter can be the cure (or at least a genuine comfort) for the former.  Still, the thought of creating anything, of having to make aesthetic choices and of needing to express your still tattered and torn emotions, through your particular artistic medium of choice, is daunting, if not downright off-putting.  It was in this frame of mind that I attempted to make a painting, last week.  Bear in mind, this was before the horrific events in Paris, last Friday.  I’m not sure I could have approached the easel at all, with that still fresh in my mind, along with everything else.

I didn’t feel much like painting.  Lately, I haven’t felt much like doing, thinking or feeling anything.  Mourning a loss is a complex process, that’s for sure.  I wasn’t in the best of spirits.  The weather was constant drizzle – the perfect backdrop to a miserable mood.  I forgot to take my reading glasses and I couldn’t find my brush washing canister, so had to improvise with an old food container (which is the reason, I think, that I forgot to think about taking my glasses, in all the frustration of having to substitute for the right tool with an improvised second best, at the very last minute).  It has to be said that my mind hasn’t really been on painting, since my mother and then my father passed away.

I didn’t take my phone with me, to photograph the result, because I was convinced that the painting I was going to make wouldn’t be worthy of photographing.  My expectations of a getting a good result were rock bottom.  This was going to be an evening where I went through the motions, shrugged at what I made, moved on and forgot all about it.

Grief distracts you in so many ways.  It can be a creativity killer, because you just can’t focus, anymore.  So I didn’t.  I had very low expectations about painting anything of merit at all.  Consequently, I just didn’t bother trying.  I let it go.  Instead of striving to produce a good result, I just painted and let the brushes and paint do the talking.  Paint and be damned!

Oddly, surprisingly and unexpectedly, I painted one of my better portraits, even if I say so myself.  To think that I almost cried off and didn’t show up at all!  There’s a lesson in this.  By setting myself a very low expectation, turning up, letting go and just letting it happen, something inside me, somehow, managed to produce a portrait that wasn’t too bad at all.  There’s freedom in just letting your art come out, without trying too hard, or attempting to control and direct the minutiae of your output, like a micromanager.  It’s too up-tight, constrained and locked down.  Allowing the art to simply bleed out of your soul has a cathartic feel to it, but also a comforting one.  You experience genuine relief at the loss of pressure to perform.

I have a very dear friend, who I have known nearly all my life, whose mother passed away suddenly, quite recently.  She is a theatrical director and is called upon to make creative decisions and provide decisive creative direction, in order for what she produces to be a good show.  Right now, she’s in the middle of rehearsals and opening night is looming.  Feeling similar to me at her sudden loss, she expressed how she just wasn’t in a frame of mind to make all those decisions and answer the constant barrage of questions about how the show should be.  Ten minutes before her meeting with the production designer, who would want even more direction and decisions that she just wasn’t in a state to give, I made the following suggestion:

I told her to trust the professionalism and creativity of the people around her and instead of giving them the answers, to give them free rein and encourage them to make their own artistic decisions, autonomously.  Instead of fretting over details she didn’t have the thought-space to deal with, the alternative was to delegate and encourage, challenging her designer to produce something outstanding.  If I know my dear friend, I’m sure she took my advice.  I’m equally sure her creative team will rise to the challenge and produce something much better than expected.  I sure hope so.

Sometimes, instead of trying to control and perfect everything, in your artistic pursuits, it’s useful to simply take what you get.  Make the variability of your inputs an integral part of what you ultimately create.  Let it happen.  Go with the flow.  Let it go.

*Cue theme music from Disney’s “Frozen”*


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Going Through the Motions

Sometimes you show up to do your art and you’re just not into it. Your heart doesn’t sing while you create and you don’t particularly like the results you produce.  Is it worth going through the motions?

I think it is.  I think that the mere act of creating takes you closer to the joy of creation, even if you’re not feeling it, for whatever reason, right now.  Keeping your hand in is valuable to maintain your skills and abilities.  Letting it slide just makes it that much harder to restart later.

Work through the pain.  Eventually, there may be comfort in the work.  Whatever it is that troubles you, interfering with your enjoyment in making art, make art anyway.  There is no better way to bear your troubles.  It’s also a way for you to show others how you feel; through your art.

Plod if you must, but keep putting one foot in front of the other, taking one more, small step.  You don’t even have to have a direction.  Direction can come later.  Just keep moving.

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Missing Masterpieces

Imagine if Van Gogh or Mozart had lived longer.  Can you think what additional masterpieces they might have produced?  We feel the loss of those works of art that never were acutely.  Nobody ever said they wished Van Gogh had painted fewer paintings or Mozart composed fewer pieces.  We hunger for those works that they didn’t live long enough to create.  We long for them.  Their absence is like a giant gaping hole in our collective culture.  If only…

The same could be said for Nicola Tesla, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Claude Monet, Fred Astaire, Nat King Cole, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. etc.  We wish there was more of their work to enjoy, but we’re aware that, as much as they contributed and produced, it just wasn’t enough, in the end.  We could have done with so much more.  The world would be better, if only there were twice as many works by each of these people left for the rest of us to enjoy.

Of course, in their lifetimes, both Van Gogh and Mozart, my first two examples, were considered a waste of space.  People begrudged paying them.  Landlords and lenders hounded them for unpaid rents and debts.  They were thought to be unpleasant and inconvenient, in polite society.  Essentially, they didn’t fit in.

Neither of them had the trappings and wealth of society figures, nor the power and influence of somebody recognisably important, like a noble or wealthy merchant.  Both were considered to be lowly, jobbing artists, producing works that were sometimes quite offensive, in their brash novelty.  The senses were assaulted by the emotional impact of their work and most people of the day found this uncomfortable and disturbing.  They didn’t like it. They didn’t like them.  They thought their art was somewhat odious.

Remember this, next time you pass judgement on the merits and worth of some contemporary artist or other.  Ask yourself which of these artists will be sadly missed, when they’re gone.  Which of these artists will we wish had been able to gather the energy, heart, courage, resources and opportunities to make more of their art?  Which ones should we assist instead of impeding?

As an artist, next time you feel the dead weight of rejection, criticism or obstruction, in your work, remind yourself that you might be that artist who, in time, everybody wishes had been able to produce more of their work.  Rather than despairing and giving up, think of how much the work you don’t produce is going to be missed, with an ache and hunger that can never be satisfied, once you’re gone.  Let your work speak for a life well lived, as an artist.

Think of all the missing masterpieces.

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This post isn’t really about art; it’s about emotions.  If there is any connection at all between the two, it’s because emotions can create great art, but not for me; not at the moment.  I usually like to post something at least once a week, but this week I found I couldn’t write anything, on demand.  I didn’t have an idea in me.  In semi-desperation to make life go on as normal, I tried to finish a half-written post I’ve been working on for some time, which has some really good information in it (even if I do say so myself), but I couldn’t even get that done.

This has been a year in which I have lost a lot.  You have probably previously read about me losing my dream, in that I tried to make art a full time career, but didn’t earn enough to make it viable, in time.  The money simply ran out.  That wasn’t all I lost, though.  In March, my mother was taken by cancer.  This past week, my lonely father, suffering with dementure and grief, passed away too.  Within the space of seven months, some very serious changes have occurred in my life.

I’ve found that I still don’t know how to navigate grieving.  I’m no stranger to it, but I’ve never really gotten the hang of it or understood it.  To try to sum it up in a single phrase, I feel lost.  I know this is due to my grief, but I feel lost all the same.  I feel a mixture of emotions, to be truthful, not the least of which is a feeling of being disinterested, disconnected, distracted, distant, disorientated, disquieted and destabilised.  I find I am questioning the meaning and purpose of just about everything, at the moment.  I also have no idea how to express my grief in ways that others can understand.  Most of the time, I am faking a sort of “business as usual” facade, which makes people think I’m over it all, but I’m not.  The mask is just a protective shell to avoid receiving any further blows, as if that were all you had to do to avoid them.  I’m aware of it, but I can’t help it.

There are also feelings inside which are very vivid and real, but for which there are no easy and convenient labels or descriptions.  I happened upon a very human web site that attempts to make up good words, with plausible etymologies, to describe some of these less expressible emotions.  To save grappling with finding the right words to express myself, inarticulately, I’m going to borrow from some of those imaginatively created words to describe how I feel right now (and hopefully spread some of these well thought out descriptions).  I realise this may be of limited interest to a reader, but it seems very important to me, at this moment, as a writer.  With a little luck, though, maybe others who are grieving will be able to find some resonance and comfort in it.

Here is the link to the source of these creative words:

The biggest feeling I’m experiencing is a tendency to want to give up trying to talk about my experience, because I feel people I tell may be unable to relate to it.  It isn’t that they can’t, of course.  Obviously, many people can relate to losing both parents, but it’s a reluctance to discuss it, on my part, for fear that somebody might not be able to relate, so won’t express sympathy or empathy.  I can’t risk the hurt that this would cause, so I clam up.  The word that was given to this feeling is: “Exalansis” – the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.  In this case, maybe they are able to relate, but I can’t believe in that and it’s too painful to take the risk.  I find that people, in general, struggle to relate to my experiences and ideas anyway.  It is much easier to simply stop talking.

The next feeling that is present, in me (though I can’t tell in what relative proportion to all the others) is what has been christened “Nodus Tollens”.  This is the realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.  Mine doesn’t.  I can’t tell where I am going, where I ought to be going or what I want my direction to be.  This is part of the feeling of being lost.  I just don’t have any answers, at the moment.  If my life is a story, I have no idea what the next chapter looks like, or even what kind of ending I can expect.  I find myself wondering what it is all for and not coming up with tremendously good answers.  The whole project no longer makes any sense to me.

That brings me to a worldly weariness with the same old issues I’ve always had and always struggled with.  You get bored of examining your own flaws, shortcomings, anxieties and issues, after a while, especially if they have been gnawing on you for decades without any apparent resolution or even movement forward in them.  I feel stuck, yet tired of the reasons for feeling that way.  I know what’s wrong with me, what I need to do and how to move forward, but I haven’t been able to make those changes and still cannot see a way to do so, try as I might.  I’m even tired of trying.  In the dictionary of obscure sorrows, this feeling is named “Altschmerz”.

I’m currently given to bouts of obvious “ambedo”, which is described as a kind of melancholic trance, in which you become completely absorbed in small, vivid, sensory details.  I find myself watching the trees, noticing the clouds and smelling the air, but dwelling on those things in unnecessary detail and with intense focus.  I put this down to escapism, ultimately, but also a desire to experience and feel, to counter the numbness.  They say it is a way of soaking in the experience of being alive – something that takes on a certain urgency and purity, when one is confronted with mortality.

The dictionary of obscure sorrows says that a “dead reckoning” is finding yourself bothered by someone’s death more than you would have expected, as if you assumed they would always be part of the landscape, but quite clearly they are no longer.  I felt this wash over me the instant that I learned about my father’s demise, via a voicemail.  My guiding beacon, throughout life, the person I looked toward for sense and insight, was suddenly extinguished and no longer shining his illuminating and incisive mind on my situation.  In truth, he hadn’t been capable of this for some time, but this is the moment I became fully conscious of the reality.  This is when the vague denial ended.  I have one less significant landmark to navigate my life by now, so it’s no wonder I feel so lost and unable to find my bearings quite so easily.  I feel much more adrift and rudderless than before.

As I mentioned above, I have a bad case of what the dictionary of obscure sorrows refers to as “rigor samsa”, which it says is a kind of psychological exoskeleton, or emotional armour, that can protect you from pain and contain your anxieties and sorrows.  The problem is that it can crack under pressure or be hollowed out by time, but it keeps growing back, every time, until you find a way to develop a more sophisticated emotional defence.  Resilience is the antidote.  Building flexible defences, akin to tree houses, is preferable to building something rigid and brittle, like a fortress.  The cracks don’t show so readily in a more supple shell, too.

Do you ever have that feeling that you got to this point in your life not through a series of definite, decisive, significant steps, but that events, which seemed innocuous at the time, ended up marking a diversion into an unfamiliar new era of your life?  If you feel that your current course was set in motion not by a series of discontinuous epiphanies, but instead by tiny imperceptible differences between one ordinary day and the next, as I do, then you are experiencing what has been dubbed “keyframing”.  This is the feeling that entire years of your memory can be compressed into a handful of indelible images – key frames.  The rest of your life is the in-betweening that junior animators draw in, to make the motion between key frames seem continuous.  So much of my current life feels like a blur of routine, unremarkable days, each almost the same as the last, which somehow led me to here.  It doesn’t feel planned or purposeful.  I feel as if I have been more reactive than proactive, responding to events as they panned out, rather than executing on some grand plan.  I don’t feel I have controlled my destiny, but rather more like life has controlled me.

This leads to a co-related feeling, called “Olēka” – the awareness of how few days are genuinely memorable.  Instead, most days form a grey, ambient background to one’s life.  Entire weeks slide by, without anything to mark them as memorable.  Few days are really outstanding, in my memory.  Most of them were commuter days, to go and sit at uncomfortable, cheap furniture, in an industrial unit, where I pushed a mouse around a desk, connected to a shitty laptop and therefore, these days are largely forgettable.  They form the overwhelming majority of my experience, however.  Nothing much out of the ordinary happened.  Even the truly significant events seem dulled, because the days surrounding them were so procedural, predictable and mundane.

When I think of my parents, brothers and friends, I find myself backmasking a lot.  “Backmasking” is defined as the instinctive tendency to see someone as you knew them in their (or your) youth.  I can’t see people in my mind’s eye as they are today, but only as they were.  The signs of age, while real and noticeable, somehow don’t impinge on the picture I have of them, when I imagine them or call them to mind.  They’re forever young and in their prime, in my memory, yet I am painfully aware that this is not reality.  I feel regret that they are, in reality, no longer as young as I imagine them to be.  It feels like youth has been lost and needs to be reclaimed somehow, though it’s a practical impossibility that defies the laws of nature.

That desire to go back and put my deceased parents back into a youthful context extends to a feeling that has been named “anemoia”.  This is nostalgia for a time you have never known.  I often imagine myself stepping into the world of my parents and grandparents; a world that existed long before I was even born.  I think it’s fuelled by old photographs and redolent tales of their youth that they used to tell me, often with a knowing grin and a glint in their eyes.  Can you reminisce for a time you have only ever known vicariously?  Lately, I have a strong desire to experience the world of the early 1940s and 1950s.  I know it was a chaotic, turbulent time, in world affairs and that these catastrophes directly touched the lives of my forebears, but I can’t help feeling I want to be there, with my family members still vigorous, young and hopeful, with the rest of their lives to look forward to.

For me, I find the process of grieving serves to dull my experience of the present moment.  I’m not fully present.  I can’t feel all there is to feel, as it happens, right now.  I feel inured to the headlines and world events.  Discussions are dispassionate, as if I no longer care (but I really do).  The desire to feel intensely again, to experience the world in its fulsome, vivid intensity, is called “Yu Yi”.  I long to be able to feel the joy of living again, with the same verve and enthusiasm that I once had.  It would be nice to not feel like an emotional zombie.  Grieving turns you into a walking automaton, to some degree; disinterested and disconnected.

To suddenly find oneself thrust into the role of patriarch of my immediate family, as I have been, feels uncomfortable.  I’m not ready.  I don’t feel I have earned it, or accomplished anything that would justify me wearing the mantle, being the sage repository of our family wisdom and experience.  As a patriarch, I feel like an imposter.  I don’t have the judgement or answers that the rest of my family will look to me to provide.  I also feel I’m too young to be the oldest family member, even though I now indisputably am.  I’m more inclined to defer to my wiser, older aunts and cousins, somehow, but I know this only works in an extended family sense.  Otherwise, in my immediate family, I’m it.

So grief has brought me a huge melange of strange, new and unfamiliar feelings and emotions, many of which I was not and am not equipped to confront or handle.  There are so many conflicting emotions, that I am never sure what to feel.  I don’t know if I am projecting the “right” emotions, as expected of somebody that has suffered a loss.  How are you supposed to feel when you grieve?  How are you supposed to appear to feel?  Is it ok to laugh, if only to stem the tears?  Nobody can really tell you and I suppose it’s different for everyone that experiences it.

This tsunami of new feelings and emotions would be hard enough to cope with on their own, but they’re overlaid on top of a different kind of grieving that I was already feeling, related to my self-realisation and things that had gone wrong, in that sphere of my endeavours.

When I leapt and fell, face planting into pavement, I was already feeling a strong sense of what has been called “Zielschmerz”.  This is the exhilarating dread of finally pursuing a lifelong dream, which requires you to put your true abilities to the test, in front of everybody, no longer protected by the cocoon of pure possibilities, where your hopes and delusions shield you from discovering whether or not you really can cut it.  I didn’t make it. I came crashing down, instead of soaring.

In discovering my true calling and beginning to understand my true self, I felt a strong sense of “Lutalica”.  This is the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into existing categories.  I was already feeling like somewhat of a misfit and an oddball.  Realising that there are very few, if any, people quite like you is both exciting, because you feel you have something unique to offer, but also incredibly lonely, as you realise that you lie outside of the majority of humanity and that your experiences and ideas are probably unlike most peoples’ and alien to them.  That can be excrutiatingly isolating.  Being uncategorisable is both a dream come true and a living nightmare.

When that period of my life, where I was a full time artist, came to an end, I experienced “the meantime”.  This is that moment of realisation that your quintessential future self isn’t ever going to materialise and manifest.  This realisation forces you to fall back to plan B, the inner understudy, who is the clumsy kid, for whom nothing is easy, who spent years rehearsing for the main role while standing in the wings.  Having been thrust into the glaring limelight and fluffed his lines, well into life’s second act, all there is to do is to go back to being the artist in waiting.  That might be the full extent of it.

Along with that failure to reach a paying audience was the feeling of “catoptric tristesse” – the sadness that I’ll never know what other people think of me, whether good, bad or at all.  The image reflected back to me by other people is softened and distorted, not crisp and sharp.  My art caused only gentle reactions, when it caused reactions at all, so I can’t tell if I and my art are good, bad or indifferent.  Maybe I can, but I don’t want to acknowledge it.

It left me with a profound sense of “alimento mori”, the insomniac, sudden jolt of awareness that I will die and that these passing years are not the dress rehearsal; they’re the show.  You can see your own footprints being washed away by the lapping waves on the shore.  This might be just another chapter in your life story, but how many chapters are there to go?  Am I reaching the end of the narrative?  Will there be enough time to say my lines?  Can I bring the arc of the story around to a satisfactory conclusion, with appropriate dénouement?

Trying and failing also leaves you with a feeling of “pâro” – the feeling that no matter what you do, it is always somehow inexplicably wrong.  You feel like any attempt to make your way through the world, in relative comfort and security, will only end up crossing some invisible line that leads to failure.  Part of you wants to believe that the way forward is obvious to everyone else and ought to be to you, but you just can’t grasp it.  It’s as if you’re playing “blind man’s bluff” and blindfolded, you clumsily move one way and then another, never finding the target.  Meanwhile, the rest of humanity keeps shouting at you that you’re getting colder, not warmer, as the target tantalisingly moves beyond your reach, every time you lunge toward it.

I was feeling excluded from the “silience”, which is the kind of unnoticed excellence that carries on around me, every day, unremarkably, as an ambient background of other people’s achievements.  The hidden talents of friends and acquaintances, the brilliance of underground station buskers, the eloquence of random tweeters, the unseen portfolios of aspiring artists with talent to burn, all seem to be there and I feel I am not a part of it.  All of these people would be renowned as masters and their works recognised as masterpieces, if only they’d been appraised by the arbiters of popular taste, who assume and assert that brilliance is a rare and precious gift, rather than abundant.  It’s as if these buried jewels are overlooked.  Although they might not be flawless, they are still somehow perfect and human.  Do I dare include my own art amongst these buried treasures?  Does it make the grade?

I have a pretty active social life, though nothing extraordinary.  I like people and like to be with them, but sometimes I feel as though I have very few exceptionally close friends in near proximity.  There are some excellent people, but maybe not the kind who I can drop my happy face in front of entirely, who take me exactly as I am and who I can feel I can share my deepest concerns with.  Somehow, I feel the need to keep up a brave front and a positive, smiling face, despite the difficulties and challenges.  This acute form of social malnutrition is named “mal de coucou” and it’s what happens when you feel you can devour an entire evening of idle chitchat, but still feel pangs of hunger for a deeper connection.  I feel this often.  There are very few people I feel I can trust enough to let my guard fully down.  I don’t know anybody, as a friend, that I can discuss absolutely anything with.  There are always self-imposed boundaries.  I realise that this is me, not them.

Hungering for deeper connections, especially with people that know my story and what I have gone through, especially lately, I often find myself on social media, but that’s a place where the “conversation” is pretty unidirectional.  Mostly, everyone is talking, but nobody is listening.  The format of most of social media makes it highly improbable that a deep conversation could ever take place anyway and it’s all very public, shared with who knows who.  There are things that you might want to say that you never will say.  The potential reprisals and arguments just aren’t worth it, even if what you say is worthwhile, authentic or truthful.  This feeling is named “anecdoche” and twitter is a veritable maelstrom of anecdoche.  It’s like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing fragments of other people’s anecdotes, to increase their own score, but in reality people run out of things to say, or more correctly, things they are willing to say openly.  There are fascinating people on social media I suspect I would really find a meeting of minds with, if I knew them in reality, but I fear that will never happen.  They’ll forever be sketches of real people, in 140 character fragments, playing a public part, hiding their deepest thoughts.

This unbridgeable distance between me and other people makes me fear that my connections with people are ultimately quite shallow.  They call this “apomakrysmenophobia” and like all phobias, it has an element of irrationality about it.  Although my relationships are mostly congenial, at all times, an audit of my life, in retrospect, would produce a series of emotional safety deposit boxes, containing low-interest holdings and uninvested windfall profits.  These safe little compartments are indicative of a life lived without the risk of unalloyed joy, sacrifice or loss, even though I claim I have experienced a great deal of loss and made some large sacrifices.  It also hasn’t been entirely joyless.  All the same, I feel that too many of my connections are not deep enough to feel satisfying and nourishing.  Good, but they could be great.

How you are perceived by other people is frequently radically different to how you see yourself.  I feel the frustration of knowing how easily I must fit into lazy stereotypes.  Of course I never intended to, because stereotypes oversimplify and often quite unfairly, but I have the inkling that people think a different thing about who I am and what I am all about, compared to what I really am.  There’s no doubt that part of the reason for this is the need to maintain a public face, especially on social media.  We all wind up wearing a safe and predictable costume, masking our real selves, because we grow tired of answering the question, “What are you supposed to be?”  I have a fair idea of what I am supposed to be and I tried to bring that into focus, by taking a year out to pursue my art, but explaining it repeatedly is tiresome in the extreme, especially when the project to manifest and demonstrate it, making it tangible and observable, unarguably failed.  People either get you, or they don’t.  I’m not sure anybody does.  This feeling is called “mimeomia”.

As a consequence of all these feelings, which amount to different species of alienation, I have to admit that I feel “monachopsis”.  This is the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, in the wrong time, maladapted to my surroundings and my peer group.  I feel like a lumbering, clumsy, lumpen, easily distracted misfit, huddled in the company of other misfits, cool kids and ordinary people.  I don’t ever seem to find my tribe in any significant numbers, or discover an ambient environment in which I feel fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly and comfortably at ease and at home.  Perhaps when I am playing guitar comes closest.  I frequently find myself thinking, “I don’t belong here”.  Very rarely do I feel essential, losing that stress of being a fish out of water.  Mostly, I feel like I should make my excuses and leave everybody else to their thing.  I’m not adding anything.

My inclination is to avoid dramas and to eschew the mainstream news.  The reason is that I feel “anthrodynia” – a state of exhaustion with how awful people can be to each other.  I can’t stand the abuse people dish out to each other.  Social media has a distinct abuse problem.  It’s everywhere and extreme.  Something else about the modern world that deeply hurts and exhausts me is that our leaders are so hell bent on destruction, unashamed of their lies and inclined to degrade whole sections of society, especially minorities.  Perhaps having suffered a humiliation and a lot of loss, I feel hypersensitive to the ill treatment of others, but it has to be said that there is an awful lot of it about.  I find myself expressing a preference to be encouraging and uplifting, with affection for things that are sincere, not judgemental.  I seek joyful things or things that just are.  I’m not very interested in domination, conquest, victory, gloating, competition, savagery or even sporting contests.  We’ve had enough violence and I have had my fill of bearing witness to it.

The actual feeling of having tried to fly and finding myself unable to do so is called “mahpiohanzia”.  The disappointment of being unable to fly, unable to stretch my wings and soar, free from the constraints of a less authentic life, having finally shrugged off the ballast of expectations and the fears that held me back, weighs heavily on me still.  I lit the blue touch paper beneath the fuel tank of unfulfilled desires, wishes and ambitions, which I have been storing up for most of my life, but they just fizzled.  The rocket didn’t ignite and burn brightly.  Ok, I’m creating mixed metaphors here and stretching them to breaking point, but you get the gist.

As a consequence, I find myself identifying more strongly with the life stories of other heroic failures, or people that were far ahead of their time and only really appreciated after they were gone.  They call this feeling “moledro”.  It’s the feeling of a resonant connection with an author or artist I’ll never meet, who lived perhaps centuries ago, or miles away.  They get inside my head and leave behind morsels of their experience, marking some sort of hidden path through unfamiliar territory.  Nicola Tesla, Vincent Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro, Albert Parsons, William Morris, Henry George, Edward Bellamy – these artists all resonate with me strongly.   I’m not the first to have tried to do something good or something worthwhile, but which was ignored or rejected by humanity at large.  There have been plenty of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The problem I found with instant, rapid immersion into the life of a full time artist is that I suffered what they refer to as “the bends”.  Borrowed from diving, it’s a metaphorical description of a set of feelings I certainly felt, as I tried to make my music and commercialise my art.  I felt quite some frustration at not enjoying the experience as much as I thought I would, mostly because I could never quite dispel the money worries and the feelings of obligation to support my family.  Those stayed at the front of mind, arguably appropriately, even as I was trying to create my best works.  I had worked very hard, for years, to make the break and get my chance, but the elation that should have accompanied being off the leash at last simply didn’t materialise.  The whole enterprise was far more serious than that and the stakes seemed very high.  Relaxing into painting and recording, or composing and writing, just didn’t happen.  I could never find my groove and get into my flow.

That prompted me to plug in other thought combinations to try to feel something other than static emotional blankness, in response to my heart having been seemingly demagnetised by the sudden surge of expectations about how my life as an artist would be.  It was a very confusing and unsettling time, not entirely conducive to doing one’s best and most creative work.  It should have been the happiest time of my life, but instead it was actually quite stressful and felt more like shock, followed by desperation.  I think that inhibited me and ultimately acted as a handicap.  It may have been decisive in drawing my time as a full time artist to an early close.

These emotions and feelings are all varieties of sorrow, in the end, as the dictionary of obscure sorrows suggests, but it comforts me that the experience is common enough, throughout humanity, that somebody tried to give these feelings unique labels.  Naming them gives me comfort.  Identifying with other unfortunates makes it somehow less personal.  My feelings are not so unusual after all, it seems.

When you come to sum it all up, a typical life consists of quite a lot of loss and grieving.  Looking at my own life, there was the loss of my two close teenage friends, who lost their lives in separate misadventures, while not yet twenty.  That was the first sudden taste of my own mortality that really hit me hard.  Nobody my own age had lost their lives, so young, before.  I’d previously lost my dearly beloved grandfather to a sudden heart attack and the loss was amplified, because of the distance he lived away from us and the fact that he had encouraged me in film and audio at a very early age – his two passions and vocational areas where I would eventually work professionally, for a decade or more.  He died in the United States, while we lived in Australia.  Both of my grandmothers eventually passed on, too.  I miss them both dearly, as they were loving and doting grandmothers, demonstrably so.  As my maternal grandmother’s first grandchild, I held a special place in her affections.  My paternal grandmother always made sure I was indulged and treated.  The loss of that love is still felt acutely.

I read an article, recently, which resonated with me on the matter of loss and grieving.  It was this one:

In that article, the author said that “grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve.  When opportunities are shattered, you grieve.  When dreams die, you grieve.  When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.”  There is a lot of truth to those words.

There was a lot of loneliness in my young life, both from being quite misunderstood and different to my peers, but also due to pure rejection.  Relationships that were important to me fell apart utterly, sometimes with great suddenness, brutality and alarmingly, in ways I felt I was unable to do anything to prevent or stop.  These relationships were swept away in a ways that certainly were not expected or wanted by me.  I was dumped multiply.  The ghosting that followed only served to redouble the hurt and loss.

As a young engineer with a passion for innovation and invention, I felt the change in government policy toward manufacturing in Australia acutely.  There were politicians that, in an effort to ingratiate themselves to Japan and the US, were actively and purposefully dismantling the field I had studied so hard to be a part of, before my very eyes.  The research and development jobs simply began to evaporate and world leading electronics and computer software manufacturing firms began to struggle and close.  While I was lucky enough to work with some of the finest engineers that there ever were, in a very innovative and imaginative company, I could see that coming to an end, because of political choices made by people who lacked vision, courage or a spine.  By happenstance and through meeting a wonderful partner, I moved to the UK, where I saw the whole thing play out, the same way, once again, for the same reasons, driven by the same craven, short-sighted and self-interested kinds of politicians.  It was like watching a bad horror movie twice, but the film lasted the best part of a decade and a half.  The research and development climate in the UK chilled and perished almost as fast as it had in Australia.

The personal consequences of the loss of research and development labs that actually made something the world wanted to buy, because of governmental choices to “open markets” to foreign partners they feared, is that my dreams of working in this field and being able to secure a comfortable life became very difficult.  We scrimped and saved, as those jobs were first squeezed out of existence.  Wages were low and stayed that way, as the firms I worked for struggled and failed.  That meant not owning a house or a car, spending a lot of dead money on rent and having to wait a very long time to start a family.  Our first attempt ended in miscarriage, which was also something that caused us to grieve for many years, at first.  We’ve never owned a big enough house to comfortably raise a family, to this very day.  Instead, we’ve crammed our lives into the tiny places we could afford on the now severely eroded earnings of an engineer.

Moving countries also involves the loss of contact with friends and family, who you’ve known all your life, as you try to eke out new friendships and make new relationships with people you’ve never met before.  The loss of being able to turn up at your parents’ house, the family home, on a whim, just to see how they were or being able to visit your brothers, whenever you wished, was hard to bear, but a price I happily paid, to be with my wife.  Nevertheless, there was a silent form of grieving involved at the loss, in any case.  It would have been weird if there hadn’t been.  That’s the reality of living in a different country to your parents, as my own mother well knew.  All of her family moved to the US, while she remained with her husband, his extended family and us kids, in Australia.  She never complained, but I came to understand the gentle longing and ever-present guilt of not being with them.  As happy as your own family life might be, that distance never quite leaves you alone.

Throughout my working life, there have been many roles that ended unhappily or unsatisfactorily.  I suppose that could be said of many people.  You don’t leave a job if everything is going well, after all.  Many times, it was due to the failure of the companies to thrive.  In so many cases, the success I had dreamed of achieving, in my field, as an innovator, was simply not accomplished.  I never had a chance.  There wasn’t adequate support.  It ended in loss and regret.

At one point, I started my own company and finally felt I had better control over the outcomes, but we were brought down by the failure of our main client, at a point in our growth where we were highly vulnerable to such a thing.  That cost us our house, in the end.  The scented garden I had created, nurtured and raised, originally so that I could enjoy the garden in the dark, with the garden lighting on, after long commutes from my place of work in London, was sold with the house.  The new owner tore it all out, to make space for lawn.  Finding that out, from old neighbours, really hurt.

A succession of rented houses and our eventual need to buy something of our own (albeit something too small) led to the loss of a workshop space.  To somebody that prided himself on working with his hands, in wood, metal and electronics, as I was taught to do by my father, this has been a difficult loss to bear.  My tools lay idle.  Things I wanted to make couldn’t be made, for want of a bench and a place to make a mess.  Projects that had been started were stalled for decades.  This situation persists.

The friendships I thought I had made, most of which were with people I met through work, slowly drifted away as difficulties beset us.  We just weren’t in a fiscal position to keep the socialising up and it’s a funny thing that when people see you going under, they want to create distance between you and them, so that they don’t have to witness the disaster at close quarters, don’t get embroiled in having to help and don’t want to catch the same difficulties, as if it were some kind of a contagion.  Also, their own lives presented them with their own challenges.  I’m not bitter, but saddened at the loss of friendships I made and which I valued.  Maybe I wasn’t good enough at telling them so.

I’ve had brief bouts of less than ideal health, as has my wife.  The struggles take their toll on you, physically.  Fortunately, they’ve all been manageable and survivable incidences, but the loss of health, even temporarily, causes you to grieve.  You never quite feel as well as you were, before the illness, no matter how completely you recover.  Something of the loss of vigour stays in your memory.  I find that a strange thing, but it’s an observable fact.  Once you lose part of your health once, you are forever worried that it may happen again, or that something worse may befall you, even if you regain your health fully.  I think we grieve the loss of the seeming indestructibility and robustness of youth.

That brings me up to the present year, where I lost my dream of making music and art for a living, followed rapidly by the loss of both of my parents.  I also apparently had a small kidney stone pass through, for good measure, just to lay me low before last Christmas.  That was just the cherry on the top, really.

In my own case, when I look back on it all, there have been only brief periods of time, in my life, that were not touched by grief and loss.  I find that sad.

Well meaning people have told me that it was all to teach me something important about myself, to make me stronger, for a grand, mystic, cosmic reason known only to God, or that I somehow manifested this reality by wishing it upon myself, or by not concentrating on manifesting a different set of circumstances by focusing on being unconditionally happy.  Please.  No.  This is nothing other than shaming the sufferer.  It debases the grieving and the grief.  I was not the author of many of these losses (though in some cases, I definitely was, faced with the choice of one loss, or the other).  Pretending to be happy, when I had good reason not to be, would have been perverse and inappropriate, bordering on psychotic, whether or not you believe it causes bad manifestations.

Some things that happen to you in life come completely out of the blue, for no rational reason (or even for any reason that can be rationalised, after the fact).  They aren’t your “fault”, you didn’t “deserve” them and they can’t be reversed or put right, through some kind of voluntary recompense.  There are some things in life, as the above quoted article says, that cannot be fixed.  They can only be carried.  You can bear them, withstand them and carry on, despite them, but you cannot erase them.  In these cases, there is loss and it is loss that cannot be regained.  Permanent.  Irreversible.

The article goes on to say, “Although devastation can lead to growth, it often doesn’t.  The reality is that it often destroys lives.  And the real calamity is that this happens precisely because we’ve replaced grieving with advice.  With platitudes.  With our absence.”  People come and tell you what you should have done, what you should do now, why the loss has occurred to you, but these are platitudes.  When you are grieving, rather than sharing that pain with you, in a genuinely sympathetic or empathic way, they absent themselves, leaving you alone to bear your loss, but adding to it the burden of having to listen to insulting platitudes.

When I posted a brief message saying my father had died, I was genuinely touched by the number of people that reached out to me with love and understanding.  It was exactly what I needed most, at that moment and I am deeply, sincerely and boundlessly grateful for their love.  This is what makes the loss bearable.

Loss often hardens you.  If anything good comes of it at all, it’s due to you drawing down on your resilience reserves, but those reserves are finite and exhaustible.  In some cases, you start with depleted reserves of resilience.  It’s hard to pick yourself up and to carry on, when you’ve already been trying to do so, just as the next blow befalls you.  It’s as if you’ve gotten back up onto your knees, from being knocked to the floor, only to have the next hammer blow rain down on you, before you have had a chance to stand back up.

I think, as the author of the article does, that all the platitudes, glib explanations, quick fixes, posturing and emotional distance are very dangerous to people that are grieving their loss.  In unleashing them upon those with limited capacity to withstand them, who we claim to love, we deny them their right to grieve, to work through the myriad strange and conflicting feelings that accompany loss and to find a way to allow their own resilience to bear the loss and carry it.

When somebody loves me, in their silence, showing a willingness to suffer with me, holding my hand, alongside me and through me, that gives me the chance to feel and to heal.  It is their quiet solidarity and support, rather than their judgementalism, their cold distance or their psychobabble, which gives me strength to dig more deeply into my resilience.  Expressing their love through their desire to be as uncomfortable, destroyed, distraught and upset as I was, if only for a week, or an hour, or a few minutes, or even in a tweet, is what helps most.  It’s the acknowledgment of the loss and the grief, accompanied by their sympathy and empathy, which makes the difference.

“Grief is woven into the fabric of the human experience.  If it is not permitted to occur, its absence pillages everything that remains: the fragile, vulnerable shell you might become in the face of catastrophe.”

When we deny a person the time and space to grieve, we deny them the right to be human and to participate fully in the human experience.  It robs them of a small part of their freedom, at the precise moment they’re standing at the crossroads of their greatest fragility, need and despair.

I have no idea how any of this helps a starving artist, but writing it helped one of us.  Thank you for indulging me and for your understanding.  Thank you most of all for your love.

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Genetic Memory, Epigenetics and Artistry

This is the central question of today’s post:  Are we artists because we just are (more or less by our own free choice), or because we’re wired, genetically, to be artists, in the same way that our ancestors were?  Further, did the experiences of our ancestors come to define how subsequent generations of their progeny (including us) would be wired to experience and interact with the world?  Do our experiences come to influence how our grandchildren will be, via some kind of genetic inheritance mechanism?  Does what happens to us change how they will think and what their approach to interacting with other people and the world will evolve to be?  Are our distant successors destined to be, statistically speaking, more likely to be artists and think like artists, if we spend a lifetime as artists?

I think these are very interesting questions and they were motivated, for me, because of some strange coincidences and happenstances that left me wondering.

Let me start out by stating clearly that I don’t know if any of this has any basis in scientific, objective fact.  This is, rather, a set of impressions, intuitions, inexplicable but spooky feelings and a description of my experiences, all of which I can provide no satisfactory explanation for.  As such, much of this article will be in the realm of pure speculation and asking questions that I feel need answers, but the answers are not accessible to me.  I don’t know if genetic memory and epigenetics are proven facts, or still in the realm of investigative speculation.  I suspect the latter.

This all started with a lark.  I happened upon an ad for which claimed that it could unlock the secrets of my family tree, just be typing my surname into their search engine.  I was, of course, quite sceptical about this, because our family history consists of fleeing from persecution as refugees, migrations to the far corners of the earth, of cloudy, obscure family stories, of a wall of silence (or perhaps ignorance or incuriosity) about our deep heritage, of burned out and bombed official records and a sense that all was lost to history.  My surname also happens to be a common noun, which tends to confound every search engine known to man.  It’s also not a very common family name.  For years, I would open up every phone book in every hotel I stayed in, to see if there were any locals listed with the same surname.  Invariably, there weren’t.  I was certain the search engine would return junk data, so I put my surname in, just for the satisfaction of watching millions of dollars worth of technology prostrate itself, uselessly, in front of my very eyes.

As so often happens when you expect one result, you get another, surprising result.

The thing about my family name is that because it isn’t very common, if you get meaningful search results at all, there is a very good chance that the people it returns are distant blood relatives.  We’re just not that numerous, as a clan.  Imagine my surprise, then, when in addition to the search results that recorded people from approximately the same area as my grandfather was known to have originated, there were older birthdates for people with our surname, who came from somewhere a little further away, but not impossibly distant – approximately 600 miles, to be (in)exact.  Not exactly the other end of the earth, to be sure.

It turns out we had multiple long-lost relations from an area of the world that has since come to lend its name to a people that, descended from Celts, became renowned for their unconventional lifestyles, beliefs and ideas.  Rather than being content to do as the authorities told them to do, my ancestors were, it seems, quite rebellious, in a generally peaceable way and they valued their freedom of movement and freedom from rule quite highly.  My distant ancestors, it seems, hailed from Bohemia.  They were true Bohemians.

In the UK, there is a television programme called “Who Do You Think You Are?” which traces the genealogy of minor celebrities and films their voyage of discovery, as they learn the details of the lives of their ancestors.  The remarkable thing about the programme is that you frequently see how and why a celebrity has gained certain personality traits, or has been drawn to one field of endeavour or another.  How the celebrity thinks and acts seems to be eerily echoed in the recorded deeds and life histories (scant though the details may be) of the lives of their many times great grandfathers and grandmothers.  Suddenly, many of the things that mark me out as different to my peers came into sharp relief.

I, perhaps for the first time in my life and quite unexpectedly, understood why I hold certain values dear and why I pursue certain projects and hold particular beliefs.  It’s not just that my thoughts and values were shaped by my parents, especially my father.  It’s that his were shaped by his father and my grandfather’s by his father, in turn.  The kind of people we are, temperamentally, owes something to the outlook and values passed down from father to son, over the course of several generations.  There is more than a little of the Bohemian outlook in me, in terms of being unconventional and proud of it, fiercely protective of my autonomy and of my freedom of action.  I had my own, personal “Who Do You Think You Are?” moment.  But there was more…

Some of the search results detailed ancestors that had perished in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.  Contemporaries of my father and grandfather, with our surname, had presumably been rounded up by the authorities and imprisoned – more than half a dozen of them, according to the search engine.  It is a historical fact that so called Gypsies, the label often given to the unconventional and those less than eager to bow to totalitarian authority, were rounded up because of their perceived trouble-making tendencies and conveniently exterminated.  My grandfather had come from a large family, but nobody knew what had become of my father’s uncles and cousins, or indeed of his great uncles and extended family.  The grim reality of their probable fates presented itself to me, in my browser.  This discovery hit me hard.

While I had no direct knowledge of these people that shared my surname, there were very many from the vicinity where my grandfather had been a young man and again, presumably descended from the Bohemians that shared our family name.  Due to the machinations and conquests of the Habsburg Empire, my grandfather had always identified as an Austrian, though both Bohemia and Bosnia sandwich Austria.  You have to go through Austria to go from one to the other.  It was just too much of a concentration for these people not to have been my distant relatives.

The tell tale sign was that, apart from those that evidently later emigrated to the United States and to the United Kingdom, everybody else, especially the earlier people with our name, were all from this same area.  The miracle, to me, was that my immediate extended family had all survived the first and second world wars and had found a safe haven, as refugees, in Australia.  But for a series of lucky decisions, it could have been my direct family members that were in those concentration camps.  It gives you pause for thought.

I’m not a big believer in anything supernatural.  I believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Having said that, what really spooked me was a series of distinct and memorable feelings I had had in the past, inexplicable at the time, which now knowing a little of my likely ancestry, took on a different complexion.  I did warn you that a lot of this post would be speculative and defy straightforward, rational explanation.

In the mid 1990s, my wife and I took a summer holiday break in Austria.  We rented a car and could go anywhere we chose.  Without any concrete plan, we stopped off anywhere we thought might be interesting.  We went to visit Baden.  I clearly remember eating an ice cream in the town square.  It felt homely, to me.  I liked that town square.  Only long after the tour, when we were telling my father about our journey, he revealed that he, too, had passed through Baden as a young man.  I was unaware of this, prior to discussing it.  Of course, I shrugged off the feeling I remember experiencing, in that square.

For reasons not wholly explicable, we also passed through Linz.  There, the atmosphere was very different.  Disquieting.  There was something uneasy about being in Linz.  I put it down, at the time, to the fact that it was Adolph Hitler’s birthplace.  Now, I was aware that a contemporary of my father, with our surname, had perished in Mathausen concentration camp, 20km from Linz.  ?  Was I drawn to visit the town to feel that discomfort and unease?  Or was it mere coincidence that I should have felt that chill uneasiness?  Very probably.

I started to research the Bohemians and where they had ended up.  Not just those with our surname, but Bohemians in general.  To where had they fled?  I started seeing records about people with our surname that had moved to places in the UK and the US.  I also saw cities that had once been home to significant Bohemian émigré communities.  I had been to many of these places and the strangest thing is that they were all places I had liked being, where I felt an affinity for the place.  Those feelings were strong.  Some other places and cities, in those same countries, I really disliked being in, but these places always made me feel at peace and happy.  Of course, there are many places one can feel at home and at ease, but I distinctly recall having a preference for these places, without necessarily having a compelling reason to do so.  Knowing, now, that my people very likely had lived there, it seemed like those feelings were no longer quite so mysterious and yet still wholly inexplicable.  Is it coincidence that I felt at home in places where my forebears or their people had settled?  Again, very probably.

Last week, I read that one’s musical tastes solidify when one is about fourteen years old.  The song or artist that makes the biggest impression on you, at that age, tends to define your musical preferences for the rest of your life.  It seems like a plausible idea.  I was fourteen when a song was released that was so different to anything that I had ever heard before, I was instantly enraptured and enthralled by it.  Yes, that song has influenced my musical tastes strongly, since that time.  It’s true.  What was the song?  “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  Another tangential coincidence, of course, rationalised in hindsight.

What was the thing that you read about, as an adult, which caused you the most visceral revulsion and adverse reaction?  I can clearly identify that.  For me, it was reading about Bohemian Grove.  The alleged activities that took place at that site filled me with a sense of indignation at the fact that the ideals of Bohemianism had been purloined and perverted in such a twisted way.  Of course, this was before I suspected I had any connection to Bohemianism, but it seemed to me that the rituals and ideals described, if true, were the complete antithesis of the spirit and ethos of true Bohemianism.  It had been co-opted and turned into something that was the complete opposite of what the earlier Bohemians stood for.  I reacted strongly against that.

It makes a good story, doesn’t it?  Is it true?  I don’t know.  I sincerely doubt it.  Yet, I undoubtedly think and feel a certain way.  Is it a Bohemian thing?  Would I have believed so, if I hadn’t performed that search on  I have no real way of knowing.  Maybe not, but perhaps.  All I can tell you is that to my mind, some loose ends suddenly seemed to connect and make sense.

Does experience change the DNA you pass down and does that, in turn, wire you as being predisposed to certain ideas, habits, traits, characteristics, etc?  Is this what we think of as instinctual?  Of course, I don’t know.  I have no idea.  Nobody knows.  I doubt it strongly, yet I have these inexplicable feelings that, after the fact, make more sense to me, when you consider my likely heritage.  Is that just me being irrational and superstitious?  I think that’s the most likely explanation, yet I can’t dismiss it all out of hand, definitively.  I am learning to trust my intuition more, because life has taught me that it has been a reliable guide, which I have frequently and mistakenly discounted and ignored.  I was wrong to not listen to it.  My intuition, right now, is telling me that there is more to this Bohemian connection and my feelings than meets the eye, but I can offer no extraordinary proof for this extraordinary claim.  That, to me, is quite frustrating.  I can’t prove it, yet I am reluctant to dismiss it.

There are other times I have had strong reactions to a place, which have been very memorable and for which I had no explanation, at the time.  For example, the first time I visited the area I now live in, on the way to somewhere else, one grey and rainy day, I had a very strong and sudden feeling that my recording studio was somewhere here.  I remember that feeling very well and I remember trying to find recording studios, as we drove through.  We didn’t move into this area, until some twenty years later.  Did I move here, attracted by the fact that I had once had that feeling here, long ago, or did I have that feeling because I somehow knew I would spend more than a decade living here?  I can’t answer that question.  I don’t know.  I can tell you what the rational answer is, but it doesn’t feel very satisfactory.

The only other place that evokes such a noticeable and strong reaction in me, strangely, is Wiltshire, where I feel spooked and creeped-out, every time I visit.  I still don’t understand what that’s all about, but I have to go through that county to get to Devon, a place I like to be, where there were once ancestors of mine, it seems.  It’s all very strange, inexplicable and spooky.  Maybe it’s just a story I retell myself, every time I am there and so that’s why the feeling persists and grows.  Who knows?  This might very well be my early Halloween tale.

Confirmation bias is real.  To tell a story counter to these seeming coincidences, I have never felt drawn in any way to the region around Bergen-Belsen, where at least four of my distant relations apparently perished.  I’ve never been there and never felt any desire to be there, unlike those other magnetic places.  This might be the counter example that disproves all the other post-rationalisations.  I’m prepared to believe so.

I don’t know what this all means, if anything.  Perhaps nothing.  More than likely nothing.  The connections are tenuous at best, but the intuitive feelings are real enough.  I really don’t know what to make of it.  All I can say is that all of this speculation came as a surprise, as the result of a mere lark.  I’ve shared this unusual story for your entertainment.  I hope you have at least found it interesting, in the sense of it being pure fiction, if not compelling.

Or is it?

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