This is one of the favorite things I lost. One of the things that aren't supposed to matter because, hey, I'm still alive. But things matter. They matter because of what they represent.
This is a limited-edition framed print of the Nine Inch Nails Broken EP, signed by Trent Reznor, himself, #963 of 999. Now there are only 998. This one's in a landfill. This one's in pieces just like everything else. Turns out framed prints, paintings and posters don't take kindly to ferocious dirty ocean water. Who knew.
This print was hanging in the middle of my subterranean home music studio when the floods came. When I built the studio down in my basement, I went with an orange-and-black color scheme on the walls to match the colors of this print. It was a keystone item amongst my possessions, just as Nine Inch Nails has been a keystone act, and just as Reznor has always been an inspiration and an idol ever since I first heard Pretty Hate Machine back in high school. Ever since I bought my first analog sequencing keyboard (that keyboard, incidentally, is one of the few musical devices to have survived the hurricane) and ever since I committed myself to being an independent minded musician and a DIY artist.
Broken is also one of my favorite all-time pieces of recorded music. It's Trent at his most anti-establishment, his most punk rock - doing battle with his record label, turning the bile into a masterpiece of beautiful anger and angst. Breaking the chains. I had never heard anything like it before.
When training for the NYC Marathon, Broken was the album I would put on when I needed to take things up a notch, to start running like a well-oiled machine. I ran angry with Broken on, I ran confident. I related. Doing 22 miles is a lot easier with "Gave Up" and "Happiness In Slavery" pounding through your skull.
This print is irreplaceable. A lot of things in the house were. A lot of things in a lot of houses were. There's a quote at the bottom of the print that always spoke to me, and speaks to me even more now in light of my current situation. It says:
"The slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains."
I went and met with FEMA today, with a contractor too. Most of my neighbors' houses are already gutted, soon mine will be too. New walls, new floors, new pipes, new paint, new wiring, new siding. All my clinging-to-life furniture upstairs has to go. My couch, my bed. They got wet. Mold mold mold. New everything. I talk to my neighbors whenever I go back to the house. We exchange hugs and sometimes tears. They know I'm ripe to leave, to sell, to move on with my life. They know what I've been through. I'm the young guy on the block, the one with the least history there, the least connection. But they're already trying to convince me to stay, my parents are too.
I like my neighbors. They could have handled my post-divorce life in that neighborhood differently. My wife moved out, the dog and I stayed behind. No one knew the details. But people talk. Rumors surely spread. And no one on that block treated me any differently - if anything, they were even better neighbors after that. They saw me running up and down that block day after day with the dog by my side, they saw new girls come in and out of that house, they saw a man trying to rebuild his life. They parlayed with me. They made me manicotti.
"The slave thinks he is released from bondage only to find a stronger set of chains."
That makes so much sense to me now. The marriage became my prison and I cut myself loose. I was unhappy, now I was growing, I was recovering. I was free. And then I got hurt again. Then Sandy came and demolished my house, imprisoning me further.
But I don't think that's what the quote really means. I think it could mean that the bondage is inside of each of us, that it's our flaws and bad choices and our weaknesses that hold us back, and that every time a bad relationship or a hurricane comes along, the chains that come with it lie within ourselves. Giving up on life is easy, giving up on yourself is easy. People do it all the time, hurricane or not.
Sometimes it's all the shit we wanna throw away that we can't.
I'm not talking about your junk, your trinkets, your keepsakes, your memorabilia. You should probably throw a lot of that away too. Unless you have space for it. Once you start running out of space, that's a good sign to stop amassing things. Stuff. George Carlin does a great bit on "Stuff."
But it's all the stuff we wanna throw away that we can't.
It's what's inside us, the stuff we hate about ourselves. What makes us imperfect - those little things we do, those bad habits, those weak moments, those impulsive addictions, compulsive disorders. Our quirks, our dysfunctions. Our social awkwardness. Our fear. Our guilt.
These are all the things I've wanted to throw away since I can remember. My shyness around women, around people. My fear of heights. My cynicism. There are so many more. I am human. I get by knowing that I'll never be perfect, maybe I'll never even be great. But I have to live a better life. All the shit I just threw away ain't comin' back. But I've gotta live with me - and so do some of you - for the rest of my life.
I've been telling the people close to me that I've endured two hurricanes this past year. The first one is the one that took away all the shit in my Staten Island house. In my neck of the woods, that doesn't make me unique. What makes me unique is that I got divorced the year before this happened. And in ending that relationship, and in starting new ones, I endured a second hurricane. But unlike Sandy, this figurative storm didn't take away my shit. Rather, it made me want to part with the poison inside me and become a better man. It made me want to break the chains. It made me want to be less broken. Love always has that effect, even if it blows into your life and back out again.
I've been in love a few times. I loved my wife. I was certainly a little worried about the marriage lasting - as were others - so I asked for a pre-nup. I had all the dough, and not enough to just laugh it off if things went sour. But she talked me out of it. I'll never forget when she did and neither will she, but she did.
Because I'm a romantic. I wanted to believe that I would find a way to make it work. Because I did love her. In spite of all her flaws, I did. And that would be enough to steer the ship straight. I was naive. A year into the marriage, I was already dropping the 'D' word. My shrink tells me I had what's called "magical thinking" - that you think you can change someone, that you can fix everything just because you can visualize how it can happen. It's the other person that needs to figure it out, tho - not you. It's up to them. That's why I was destined for divorce.
The same applies to the hurricane.
|One block north of my house the morning after Sandy. This was as close as I could get.|
Would I have drowned? People who left did. Would I have died? People who stayed did.
I don't have survivor's guilt. I evacuated. I left my house to drown. I did the right thing. There was nothing saveable, only the waves. When I came back to my house the next morning, 7 hours after the surge, there was still a river where my street once lived. Manholes had erupted like geysers, their thick metal covers no match for the might of Sandy. Cars were on top of cars.
I don't have divorce guilt either. I did the right thing. For both of us, even if it cost her the life she knew and it cost me the same, plus a considerable amount of my savings. My ex-wife and I have been back in touch because of what Sandy did to the house we bought together. I reached out to her again yesterday only to find out that one of her good friends had killed himself without warning. There are all kinds of loss in this world, but there is no greater loss, no amount of junk discarded, that compares to losing someone you care about once and for all. Remember that when you see the people who care about you the most this holiday weekend.
Which brings me back to what has become a common theme in my post-Sandy scripture. Us. You and me, you and your family, you and your friends, you and the love of your life. Life is all about Us.
For me, no amount of hurricanes, no amount of failed relationships can change my mind about how I'm built. I need "Us". The divorce didn't change that, it didn't damage my opinion of what "Us" means, not beyond repair. It just set me back a bit. And so did this hurricane. But I have no doubt that I will emerge stronger and wiser. And when I can say "Us" again instead of "Me," that's when I'll know all the lights are back on. I haven't given up on that either.
In the meantime, I have to get better. More focused. More aggressive. More charitable. More friendly. Maybe I need to become less dependent on some things, some ideals that existed in my pre-Sandy life, practical or otherwise. Maybe I'll be worthy of someone's love again whether I get better at these things or not. But I have to try to throw all the shit away inside me that makes me weak, no matter what.
When you're alone, you can be selfish. It's the law. You don't owe anything to anyone, you don't follow someone else's schedule or have to worry about anyone else's needs or deal with their problems. On paper, for a guy especially, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal. But for me, it has rarely been sweet, and I have always been weak for a companion.
I tried "the single life" about 8 years ago - I had just dumped a really sweet and cool girl after two years together. We moved in together too soon and I got claustrophobic. I was dealing with addiction. The sexual chemistry wasn't electric. And I was far from over my previous girlfriend, who I had spent over 6 years with. It was my fault. I wanted to be with someone sweet and cool but I didn't want to settle either. I was damaged goods, and I justified the breakup in my mind by telling myself this sweet and cool girl didn't deserve me. In the end, I handled it like a bit of a coward. A selfish coward.
But it was true, she didn't deserve me. She deserved better. She loved me and I couldn't compromise my dysfunctions to make it work. So I gave her up. It was really hard. It has always been hard ending things. Hurricanes exist in the heart and in the mind too, and lots of things get damaged on the way out the door.
You don't get a lot of chances. A lot of good chances. When I asked for a divorce, I saw it as maybe one last opportunity to find someone that could make me whole again without settling, without compromising who I was, without having to change or asking someone else to. But that hasn't happened, or at least it hasn't stuck.
By the end of last year, I was feeling better about life. I was recovering. Financially and emotionally. I went on bad dates, I had bad days just like anyone else, but I was turning the corner. I was getting ready for an even-better 2012 and I told myself I would be at or close to the mountaintop by the end of this year. You have to set goals. Even when hurricanes show up and fuck your shit up, you have to.
Most of all, I was getting comfortable being alone, just the pooch and I, taking care of him myself, running with him, training for the Marathon, cooking, making the house my own. A shitty day at the office could still be remedied by a relaxing evening at home even if I wasn't coming home to anything that didn't have thick white hair all over its body. I was keeping my head above water and finding myself while I did.
My head is still above water, but my house was not four weeks ago, and now it's about to be demolished, and rebuilt. In a lot of ways, so am I. Practically everything inside that home will need to be replaced. A lot of things inside me need to be, too. There is so much broken in my life right now because of this storm, because of the mistakes I've made with women, because of this whole fucked-up two years of my life.
But I am finding ways to mend, I am leaning on my people to help me keep it together. Writing these stories about my life make me feel good, make me feel accomplished. Sometimes I even learn something. I am thankful for so much even after I have lost so much. I'm sure you'll be hearing a lot of stories like that, a lot of attitudes like mine, this holiday season. Especially here in New York. It seems a birthright here, to struggle and to survive. People will be suffering in various ways all over this city, all over the world. Suffering is a part of life and it will always be a part of it. But you have to be brave, and you can't be afraid to rely on other people to help you dig your way out of that hole. That's part of "Us," too. As Trent Reznor once screamed, "You and me, we're in this together now."
Some things break and they stay broken. Others can mend. I am one of those things. I was a slave who was emancipated and then enslaved again by this storm. But my will is no longer weak. There are no chains strong enough to hold me back. Life will be good again. Life will be better.