Jan 30, 2013

Fear, Love, Failure, Determination


“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”- Maya Angelou

Once upon a time, this happened:


Anyone who has ever heard their song on the radio for the first time will tell you:  It's awesome.  It's the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, it's your dick stirring in your pants, it's that shit-eating grin you can't wipe from your face.  It's a slightly more subtle version of this:


There are some truths to what Elvis Duran said while talking up my song on the biggest morning show in the biggest radio market in the country.  I was working down the hallway - I was Z100 radio's Sales Promotions Manager, newly promoted after three years toiling in the station's Traffic department.  New York's #1 Hit Music Station was my 'put bread on the table' day job that allowed me to safely pursue my rock star dreams while nurturing my middle class values (and appeasing my parents).  I worked part-time jobs every summer starting at age 12.  I went to city college.  I graduated.  I bought property at age 23.  Mission accomplished, Mom and Dad.

Radio was my second passion, it's the biggest reason I wanted to go to college.  I was one of the nerds running your college radio station, discovering Radiohead and Jeff Buckley while you were doing Jager shots over at the frat house.  But at Z100, I wasn't doing anything fun.  I was on the grounds, just not in the clubhouse rubbing elbows with Ja Rule and Dave Matthews.  But that didn't mean I couldn't visit the clubhouse with my demo tapes in hand.  And when the opportunity arose, I did.  That's what you did, unless you were an idiot.  A wannabe rock star working at a radio station is like a fat chick working at Sizzler.  You've gotta take advantage of your surroundings, just don't saddle up to the salad bar too often so as to annoy management.

So I didn't ask for any favors, I just gave Elvis the 3-song EP I had been working on with my friend Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, a new electronic solo thing I had just started up after 5 years playing keyboards in a moderately successful pop/rock band.  I gave a copy to Tom Poleman, Z100's Program Director, too.  Elvis liked it, so he decided to play it.

I was 26 years old.  It was a Friday, around 7:30am.  The producers of the show - good friends of mine - called me excitedly and told me to tune in.  I was laying in my bed with my girlfriend when the song came on and I felt like I was levitating about five feet over it instead.

I was on my way.

That was June 22, 2001.

Now I work for the same morning show that aired my song, for the same man who played it nearly a dozen years ago, one of the only people in this godforsaken industry who has given me a break, given me a chance.  I'm in the clubhouse now, been in it for nearly half a decade.  And for the most part, I'm still not doing anything fun.

So did I fail?

Most anyone in my industry will tell you that having your song played on Commercial Hit Radio in Market One during a peak listening hour can only lead to one thing - Attention.  Right, Karmin?  So why have you not seen me as the musical guest on SNL?  Why don't I have 261,000 Twitter followers?  Why didn't I open up Zootopia as Elvis predicted?

Because that was the last time any Q*Ball song I ever wrote or recorded was played on Z100.  It was the last time any Q*Ball song was played on Top 40 radio, period.  I came into work on June 22, 2001 still basking in the sunshine of that 7 minutes of airtime.  As I recall it, one of my producer friends pulled me aside to tell me that Elvis had gotten a phone call while my song was playing (on the dreaded STATION HOTLINE).  The call was from a rather passionate higher-up at the station scolding Elvis for playing an unknown song during peak listening hours.  And that was that.

It's understandable.  Z100 was trying to climb back atop the Top 40 Mountain - the station was struggling when I got hired, something Z100 wasn't used to.  Z100 struggling in the ratings is like the Yankees finishing at the bottom of the American League East.  It's not acceptable for very long before you'd start to see a few heads roll.

So playing Q*Ball instead of more popular - and now legendary - acts from that same year meant risky business.  It was obvious that artists like The Calling, Willa Ford, Five For Fighting, 3LW, Alien Ant Farm, Staind, Da Buzz, Toya, Evan and Jaron, Uncle Kracker, and Eden's Crush needed more of a push than That Nice Bald Guy Working Down The Hall.

But hey, I'm not bitter.  Uncle Kracker rules.

It's good to be Uncle Kracker.  Duh.
I couldn't be bitter, I couldn't complain.  I could only say thanks.  Because they didn't owe me a goddamn thing and they still played my mediocre electronic rock party song, they still talked it up and said all those great things about me.  They still sent a few copies of the EP to their record label buddies with their seal of approval attached.  I was told that had only happened twice, to me and to Jessica Simpson.  And Jessica Simpson looks much better in shorts than I do.  Game over.

So the opportunity was also the problem.  I fucking worked there.  I had to be a good soldier, I couldn't stir the pot.  My decade and a half in radio has taught me a few things, one being if you're gonna stir the pot, you better be delicate about it and you better have a strategy. 

There are other tales of woe related to my Z100 radio career:

That Time I Got Booed Off Stage at a Station Event.
That Time I Almost Walked Out Because I Wasn't Allowed To Have An Opinion.
That Time They Passed Me Over For That Job I Wanted.
That Time They Fired Me.

And a dozen years later, I still work there.

So did I fail or am I just super determined?  Or have I just been a fucking idiot?

You'll have to ask me down the road.  Because I'm still on the tracks, I'm still rolling.  "Failure" could have meant being one of those bands I mentioned.  2001 was probably awesome for the bass player in The Calling, but how is his 2013 going?  What's Ja Rule up to now?  "Failure" could have meant not being passed over for that job I wanted and then getting hit by a bus during my new commute.  You can't gauge the success or failure of a career, of a relationship, until it's over once and for all.  Failure can be as fleeting as fame.  All you can do is accept the journey.  It is what it is.

Two months after Elvis played my song, some planes crashed into some buildings across the river from our studios.  The same morning show folks who were rooting Q*Ball on two months earlier were watching those buildings burn.  The world changed forever.

My world certainly changed, stirring up a life that has rarely remained static since 9/11/01.  I put three more Q*Ball albums out, I started my little record label, I signed three bands, I put two more albums out with Return To Earth.  The Internet showed up and decimated the two industries I work in.  Simultaneously.  And yet I still work in both.  Somehow, I'm still here.

Over the past decade, I've lived at five different addresses, I've told five different girls "I love you," I've divorced one and I don't talk to the other four.  I bought a dog and a house, I endured a hurricane.  Everything has changed.  Everything continues to change.

So did I fail?  Was it my fault?  Someone else's?  Bad luck?  Bad mojo?

I didn't deserve that success back then.  I was a hack.  I had good songwriting ideas, some cool influences, and I had the help of an amazing musician who knew how to produce my stuff and make it sound its best.  I sampled a lot of beats that didn't belong to me, but that didn't stop Diddy and Kanye from ruling the world, so I don't point to that.

I lacked confidence, and rightfully so.  Before Q*Ball, I was in bands.  Q*Ball was me in the center ring for the first time, and I didn't have the attitude - the balls - to properly pull it off.  Before Sandy washed my entire musical history away - songbooks, CDs, old demos, magazine articles, lyric sheets, banners, show flyers, keyboards, hard drives - I had a chance to sample my early performances captured on video.  And it's clear to me now what I knew then but couldn't admit to myself.  I was a clown.

When you're in a band, you can play The Clown, just as long as you can be The Prince when you get behind your instrument.  Or you can be Keith Moon and be both.  Or you can be one of a series of clowns and still get by.


But I was just a clown.  I'm not a skilled musician, I don't play any instrument proficiently.  But not everyone is Pete Towshend or Elton John.  The biggest problem was- and has always been - fear.  I wasn't confident on stage, I didn't have the look or the charisma to make up for it, and the lack of any regular performing never allowed for proper seasoning in that arena.  Most Q*Ball shows did not go well, for a myriad of reasons, but I was always one of them.

Aren't you being a little hard on yourself, Ron?

The only way you can evolve in your short time on this spinning rock is to take responsibility.  For everything.  You have to recognize who you are before you can decide who you want to be.  Being Some Girl's Dude was always part of the equation - always where I was and where I wanted to be while I carved out a career for myself.  Five years ago, I was with someone who finally wanted to go all the way.  I know that's why I married her, even tho there were more than a few reasons to be wary.  It was nice to be wanted.  But just because you're wanted doesn't mean you're with the right person.

When I got divorced, I had this idea that my music and radio careers would finally take off because the biggest obstacle - The Jealous Woman - had now been removed.  But the next two years meant more abandonment - by band mates, friends, label employees.  And the biggest obstacle was still there.  It wasn't a green-eyed monster.  It was me.

And in a lot of ways, I was okay with all that abandonment.  Because my band mates and employees were obstacles, too.  It was necessary to shed that additional skin.  I got it into my head that being Some Girl's Dude was still where I wanted to be, and if all else failed, I could live with being just that.  I believed that Love was still The Most Important Thing.  And I had a chance to do it right this time, I found someone who made me believe love was still top of the mountain.  But that didn't work out either.

So did I fail?

I don't know what's next, I really don't.  I know I'm still dealing with some obstacles, still dealing with the Sandy aftermath, with my broken dog.  But obstacles occur daily.  Since I woke up in the wake of the hurricane, I have looked inside myself honestly and taken stock of what matters.  Music still matters, just not in the way it used to.  It's still part of me, it still flows thru my veins, it still soothes me on the subway and pushes me harder when I need to do just one more mile or five more pushups.

But making music has been hard.  Because I'm not a clown anymore.  I'm a man.  My songs are no longer about outer space or candle wax or dancing the funky chicken.  They're about adult stuff, about longing and regret.  I write my songs like I write this blog, and I'm tired of writing about the same broken heart, about the same girl, over and over again.  I want to write happy songs or I don't want to write at all.  And it's so easy to fall into that trap, to sit on the piano bench and D minor myself to death.  I'm tired of falling into traps.  I'm tired of being reminded of people who don't want me in their life anymore.  I'm tired of relying on the same old crutches to get me by.

Radio still matters because putting bread on the table matters more than ever now.  And I've been able to live comfortably off the loaves, more comfortably than most I know.  And because that same guy who gave my song a break in 2001 has given my life such a boost since I joined his clubhouse a few years ago, and for that I will forever be a loyal soldier, a friend, and an admirer.  I see the altruistic man, the confident power player my boss is today and I see someone I want to be. 

This company I've had such a tumultuous relationship with since I showed up in swampy Secaucus, New Jersey - a skinny 23 year-old kid who listened to electronica, Pantera and White Zombie - has stepped up to help me through this difficult time.  I want to acknowledge that I received a grant for $15,000 from my employers at Clear Channel, which absolutely blows my mind.  That makes up for that time you sorta fired me, guys.  Thank you.  Life is fucking weird.

Family Matters.
I'm not afraid of much anymore.  Because I have failed - at a lot of things.  But I'm still trying.  I'm not afraid of success, of love, of finding happiness.  I should be.  Some could argue that I should be crawled up in the fetal position somewhere, bawling.  But I run instead.  I write.  I cook.  I carve out time for the people in my life who matter.  I'm becoming the man I need to be, and it has to start with that before I can grab for the things I want, before the things I want can grab me.

The best part of all this - the most important part - is that there are no secrets anymore, no more lies or exaggerations.  There's no Manti Te'o or Lance Armstrong angle to my post-Sandy tale.  All of it is true.  My house was really destroyed by a hurricane, my dog is really crazy, I really run like an idiot and do a hundred pushups a day (125 now!) thinking of some knucklehead's face.  I'm progressing.  I'm determined.  I'm ready to rise up.

I still believe in true love even tho it has shunned me.  I still believe I'm capable of things I haven't even tried to achieve yet.  I'm bitch slapping fear and failure in the face one day at a time, and even if things don't wind up the way I want them to - even if that was my last spin on the radio, even if I stared a dazzling beauty in the face for the last time - I have to grow.  I have to keep trying, I have to keep looking for my calling in life.  I'll never quit, and even if the pieces finally start to fall into place, I'll continue to fight, continue to climb.  I'll never be complacent again.

Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

The first part of that is behind me now.  It's time to achieve.  Who's comin with me?



Jan 17, 2013

Winning and Losing


Am I winning or am I losing right now?

Everyone wants to tell me I'm winning.  That's all I've been hearing since November.  That's what everyone is supposed to tell me.  That's what all the adages, the memorable quotes - what they all point to.  Be Strong.  Move Forward.  It's all in The Official Superstorm Survivor's Handbook, y'know.  Page 87.  Make Sure Everyone Reminds You That You're Winning.  To your face, at least.  Positive reinforcement, baby.

But do you really think I'm winning?  Think about it.  I have lost a lot.  A lot.  I didn't lose a limb or my sight or my hearing.  There are plenty of folks out there who have lost such things who are winners, who are ten times the winners you or I will ever be.


I lost my house and most everything in it.  But in some ways, that feels like being obese and losing two hundred pounds.  In some ways, it feels like a good loss.  Losing the house wasn't a choice.  Losing someone I cared deeply for wasn't a choice either.  Not mine, at least.  But losing those things changed everything for me, and in ways I have to believe will ultimately be for the better.  If life is a twelve-round heavyweight boxing match and this was my Round 6, well then I just got knocked down pretty hard a couple of times in a row.  But no one called the fight, no one threw in the towel.  I got up.  Two weeks ago, I put the mouthpiece back in, slapped the gloves together and came out for Round 7.

So am I winning or am I losing?

It's too soon to tell, Ron.

Some things are already telling, tho.  The house - economically speaking - is a loss.  It will always be that.  I'm not gonna rebuild my house and light fireworks and have a big cookout and pretend that being back where I was is some victory, some accomplishment.  I won't be victorious in that house, the best I can be is complacent.  And that's no longer good enough.  "I survived."  Fuck surviving.  I want to do better than that.  I want to grow.

I wanted out of the house before Sandy dropped by.  And in the wake of the storm, I still want out.  The insurance companies lived up to the stereotype and made my decision easier - they fucked me, just like they're fucking everyone else.  I pay nearly $3000 per year for two separate quarter-of-a-million dollar insurance policies.  My flood insurance policy paid out 75K.  My homeowner's insurance policy paid out zilch.  I'm insured for half a million dollars and I got $75,000.   

Do the math with me here. 

I'm covered for up to 500K worth of damage to my property.  So when a tropical storm shows up and destroys my home, upstairs and down - likely the most disastrous weather event we'll ever see in New York City (we hope) in this era - I'm eligible to receive up to 500K from insurance for the extensive damage resulting from this wreaked havoc.  And I'm getting 75K.  That's 15% of the possible funds I could possibly get from insurance companies that are built to protect and compensate me during tragedies exactly like these.

15%

What sort of damage do you think would need to occur to get, say, 25%?  Asteroid?  Fire and brimstone?  Radioactive fallout?  Is there a Godzilla-related clause in either of these policies? 


What a fucking joke.

So with this 75K, I have to hire a contractor, and all the estimates I've received to rebuild are way above that figure.  FEMA is a non-factor here.  Why?  Because I have insurance.  Lucky me.

Other non-factors include Eddie Vedder, Superman and Barack Obama.  None of their efforts have helped my neighbors nor I.  This isn't a simple mop-up job.  And I didn't live in a bungalow or a shack.  I had twelve rooms.  The floors, the walls, the insulation, the electric, the central air, the pipes, the hot water heater, the tile, the appliances, the heating system, the fireplace.  A home recording studio.  A home office record label.  $55,000 worth of stuff, of "content" lost that's not even part of this sad mathemagical equation.

So am I winning or am I losing?

A widespread disaster like Sandy - like Katrina, like the earthquake in Northridge - doesn't happen and ends up with the victims having beers with the insurance adjuster, clappin' him on the back like good ol' boys and swapping photos of the wife and kids.  These fuckers are paid by the insurance companies to fuck us.  They're prostitutes with clipboards and baseball caps.  Believe everything terrible you hear about insurance, for it is true. 

....no you are not.

p.s. - none of this is covered

Life is a game, it's a ride - it's a choose-your-own-adventure journey.  And every game ends with you as fertilizer.  So it's how you play the game, how you enjoy the ride that means the difference between winning and losing.  Sometimes the circumstances dictate how you play.  That's how I view my Sandy experience - it's a circumstance, but I still get to choose the next adventure.  It altered a life that needed to be altered if it's to be a great life.  Just another romantic notion, I am aware.  I am, unfortunately, extremely self-aware when it comes to my romantic notions.  I've probably seen The Princess Bride a few too many times.

The insurance numbers, the extent of the damage to my house, my romantic life, my family life, the things that did survive - all circumstances dictating how I have to play.  And right now I'm committed to playing my best game.  I'm writing and running and getting my dog better.  I'm dating and making omelets and working out like an idiot.  There's money in the bank and bread on the table.  I'm not struggling at a time where I'm supposed to be doing just that.  I have a new baby to play with.  I'm playing the piano, I'm writing music again - the "Is it worth it?" attitude still looms large, but music hasn't been the only love in my life that has made me ask myself, "Is it worth it?"  You have to keep an open mind.


But you also have to be dedicated.  And I'm doing a lot of these things the right way for the first time, with a clean slate.  (I've still got some work to do on the omelet-making)  And that makes me feel like I'm winning, even though I haven't seen the results yet.  When it comes to results I have seen - my divorce and Sandy and losing money and losing the house, part of me can only think one thought.

Good.

I keep saying it to myself.  Good.   Maybe I needed a hard spanking, not just the gentle ass paddling of an uncontested divorce.  I got to see the good in people firsthand and I will tell you that it is a good feeling.  I won't say that my faith in humanity is completely restored, but I have been blessed by the support of my family and my employers, of charitable companies and of friends.  Of complete strangers.

Compared to what matters most to me in this short life, the consequences of this storm are all just a headache, albeit a really big one. It's water under the proverbial bridge.  The storm came and I'm dealing with it.  I'll fight for more money and I'll get it.  I'll fix the house and sell it - if not now, then later.  Like my neighbors and my fellow victims, I'm being patient.  I'm being forced to be patient, and for me, that's a good lesson to learn too.

Before my divorce and my superstorm, my life was not fulfilling.  I was in an unhappy marriage.  And I was unhappy with myself.  With my career trajectory, with the missed opportunities I'd had in my music career.  With the bad luck and the bad decisions.  Sometimes I carried a chip on my shoulder, but more often than not, I just carried it inside me and I let it burn there.  Acceptance.  Getting knocked down in the early rounds.   Sometimes you have to accept a good ass kicking before you can become victorious.

So am I winning or am I losing?

My body is sound, but my mind is not.  My soul remains lost, searching.  After my divorce, I put such a premium on love.  I was the one who chose to end my short marriage, so it was easier to make it about her, not about it - not about what it takes to be in a quality relationship, to truly honor all that 'in sickness and in health' business that I was committing to.  It doesn't just mean making your wife chicken soup when she has the flu.  Sickness comes in many forms - my ex-wife had hers.  I had mine.  Everybody's got somethin' and it will always do its damage if you let it.  It'll ruin the 'Til Death Do Us Part,' I can testify to that.

So I failed.  I didn't do my part even if she didn't do hers more.  When I saw my ex-wife after Sandy - for the first time in nearly two years - through all the good conversation and the underlying sadness of our short reunion, I sensed some recognition of that fact, some maturity on her part.  Asking my ex-wife to leave didn't make me feel like the winner.  I'm not sure if my ex reads what I've written here, but I realize I'm talking about her a lot in this space, and I hope she knows that she meant a lot to me even though we didn't work out.

I started blogging the night after Sandy.  But it was on the night that I asked for a divorce that I really started writing, even if I wasn't sharing those words with the world wide web.   It's those traumatic life-changing moments in life that always seem to bring the words.  It was the first night of three excruciating weeks living in the same house together on separate floors, the first night that my house felt like a prison cell rather than a safe haven.  I lived downstairs with my confused dog, in the basement that would soon be filled by Sandy's surge waters, while my soon-to-be ex-wife packed up her stuff a floor above me and prepared to leave forever.  It was real this time, and damn if those three weeks weren't harder than the four I spent on an air mattress after the storm.

On that first terrible night, I sat in my basement studio and wrote a long piece about my decision.  About why I was giving up.  On that night nearly two years ago, amongst a lot of other stuff, I wrote the following:

"The best gift I could ever give my wife is to tell the world that I think she's a very sweet beautiful woman and I know she will find someone that will bring her the joy she truly needs and deserves in this fucked up life she's had, a life she never asked for and never truly deserved.  I will always love her for the ways she enriched my life and for her passion, but the damage done has been too much for me to overcome.  Upon reading this, she'll probably think that all I needed to do was say or write those things while we were still together and that would have been all she needed, but she's wrong.  Some people always seem to need more.  Some people expect others to give them what they should be giving themselves.

I care deeply for this woman and I know what we had together was true when it wasn't marred by these 'irreconcilable differences'.  I'm sure there will be many lonely starry nights that I will think of her and long for her, and I already know there will be many words put to paper describing my times together with her.  I will do my best to look back at those times fondly."


There's a lot of truth to what I wrote, but one line in particular stares back at me:

Some people expect others to give them what they should be giving themselves.

I keep reading this line I wrote about my ex-wife two years ago and I realize now that I'm also writing about myself.  It's in a different context, but it's still truth.  Maybe I'm writing about you, too, or someone you know.  Someone you care about.  You can't be happy with someone else unless you're happy with yourself.  It's pretty simple.  And even after that, you won't necessarily be happy.  Because people let you down.  People like me.  People like my ex-wife.  People like the people in your own lives that start with an 'ex-'.  People like the insurance adjusters.

Letdowns happen all the time.  We're all guilty.  Your government lets you down, your kids, your co-workers, your favorite sports team.  Technology.  Humanity.  It's happening right now, a letdown somewhere.  Everywhere.  So the only way you can set forth towards victory is to make sure you don't let yourself down.  Be your best, but don't forget to be your best you, not the best whatever-someone-else-wants-you-to-be.  It's a delicate balance.  It is only until you find that balance that you can elevate the lives of the people around you.


So am I winning or am I losing?

It wasn't until I left that damaged relationship that I could start taking steps towards winning.  But I didn't do enough.  I was complacent.  I wasn't hungry for greatness.  I wasn't interested in thriving, only surviving.  There were fleeting moments, and for most of last year, there was the running.  It remains a yet-to-be-fulfilled destiny, crossing the finish line in Central Park - just another circumstance that allows me to play a stronger game.  I was taking care of my body thanks to all those miles on a Staten Island boardwalk that no longer exists.  But I was just getting started.  Now I'm raising my game.  I take my high to the pavement, I take my runner's high into the weight room, I rest and I repeat.

And then there is this.  The writing.  My Stupid Blog.  What is the point of all this?

My parents suggested I get a diary (hi Mom).  They read this, a lot of my co-workers do, too.  Strangers do.  People I love do.  I'm not gonna say I don't think about that, about what people must think of me after reading this stuff.  But I've been a musician for more than half my life, and this is no different.  It's just not as melodic.  I've been cheered and I've also been booed off stage.  Some of you reading are probably rooting for me - it's not impossible to think that a few of you might not be.  I've seen my share of indifference before, too.  That's the life of an aspiring artist.  And even now, I still have my aspirations.

I'm not trying to win a Pulitzer here.  I write to heal my heart, to cleanse my soul.  I write to learn more about myself.  You can listen to my songs or you can listen to Lady Gaga's.  Statistics show you've chosen the latter, and that's fine.  You can read my words or you can read the fucking Twilight saga.  I don't need validation but I appreciate the praise I've gotten, and from some unlikely sources.  It fuels me, to have fans, to have support, to know that I may have moved someone or made them think twice.  Even if my words aren't necessarily for everyone, just as my music isn't, I'm creating.  And it has never come from a more honest place than it is now.  Knowing you're good at something makes you feel like a winner.  Being honest with yourself makes you feel like a champion.

So no diaries.  I'm not some 16 year-old girl writing about my crush on the captain of the football team.  This blogging I just do, there's no strategy to it.  I share what I want to share, no more no less.  It's an exercise, it's therapy.  I read each piece over twice - once for grammar, once for content.  I add my pictures and my bold highlights and then I press 'Publish'.  I lament that it's too long and too self-effacing.  Then I try not to think too much about if after that.

Take my words for whatever they're worth to you.   You're reading this shit, and I'm grateful for your attention - a little surprised, in fact.  Twelve hundred of you dummies read my first post-Sandy blog, and while those numbers have tapered off, just as the storm's impact has, a lot of you are still paying attention.  I'm not sure why, but I hope you're enjoying it, I hope you're learning something.

I know I am.  I'm learning how to win.


Jan 7, 2013

Sign O' The Times


On November 30, 2012, I parked my car across the street from my house on Staten Island.  I was about to oversee the house's demolition and move into a new apartment all in the same day.  It was Buttons' birthday.  My traumatized Westie dog would spend the first day of his 4th year on this planet locked up all day in a cage back in Bensonhurst, where we had spent the last month after Sandy had made life on Staten Island no longer liveable.

I stepped out of my car - my 1997 Honda Civic, one of the few possessions I retained after Superstorm Sandy washed herself into my world - and I saw this:


Never Give Up.

Someone had nailed it there, probably someone on my block whose house had also filled up like a fish tank full of salty filth water, whose life had been turned upside down.  Someone who had lost a lot in the blink of an eye.  Someone with more hope than me.  Four weeks earlier, I had placed an orange ROUGH ROAD AHEAD construction sign in my front window for all to see amongst the dumpsters, the dozers and the debris.  My neighbors got a kick out of that sign and told me so.  It spoke the truth.  And we were feeling that truth together - the road ahead would surely be rough for all of us, it still is.

I had swiped that ROUGH ROAD AHEAD sign from the very same telephone pole a few years earlier, soon after my ex-wife and I moved into the house that was now only mine.  I hung it innocently in my basement music studio, thinking it looked cool in there amongst all the musical instruments, my records and tapes - the place I wrote and made music, the place I recorded in and created in.  Because before the hurricane, my creative ventures were the rough road.  My music career was languishing, my record label was barely afloat, my road in the radio industry was long and winding and filled with more than a few dead ends.  There were unfulfilled destinies in that studio, in the home office of Bald Freak Music.  And then it was underwater - all of it.  The studio, the records and tapes, the gear, the office, the merchandise, the microphones and computers.  My old demos.  Every lyric I had ever written in a notebook or on a piece of paper.  All garbage now.

And that's the way it's supposed to be.  That's the way it happened, so that's the way it's supposed to be.  There was no saving any of my stuff short of airlifting my entire house to a mountaintop.  There are no 'What If?'s related to my experience with Stupidstorm Sandy.  It's the most certain thing in my life right now.  It happened.

A month later, on that same telephone pole, I saw the Never Give Up sign.  I snorted at it.  Then I demolished my two-story twelve-room house and moved all my surviving stuff and my traumatized birthday dog to a one-bedroom Park Slope apartment.  November 30th was the day I un-paused my life after 30 days in the Post-Sandy Twilight Zone.

Mr. Dirty
I haven't been back to the house since then.  I don't ever want to go back.  My divorce happened, the hurricane happened.  Other things happened that I would rather forget.  So why would I ever want to go back?  When someone we care about - someone we love dies - what do we say?  "I feel like part of me died."  It's not an outrageous thing to say, nor to feel.  I've felt that way before and you probably have too.  And you probably will again.

When the hurricane destroyed my house, part of me died.  Not only did a lot of my history die, but part of me - part of what's inside me even if I wasn't inside the house when all hell broke loose - drowned.  And I want that part to stay dead.  I need it to.  Because that Never Give Up sign speaks its own truths.

I can't give up.  Ever.

Because there is no solution for me now but to stay hungry.  After the walls came down and I had to decide my next move, I made a tough choice to accept a favor.  I explained that choice to my people: "I don't want to survive this.  I want to defeat it."  The storm is over.  There was no way to defeat that.  But every tragedy - every disaster - has its aftermath.  And that aftermath exists within myself - it's not a battle with an insurance company or with another dude or with a fire-breathing dragon.  It's an internal battle.  I have to be tough.  I told my people this, as well: "The only way I'm going to make this right is to be awesome now."

Because the house is just a soggy bad investment that needs to be sold off.  It's already a lost cause and it needs to be someone else's house now.  If not now, then eventually.  It's a stock that went sour.  It's Marvin Gardens on the Monopoly board, it's nothing more than that to me.  It doesn't carry any sweet memories.  Most of the memories inside were ruined, lost forever.  The love I shared within those walls is tainted, the filth and the mold merely added another layer of muck.  It's time to cash out.

But Ron, it sounds like you're giving up.

I've learned recently that "giving up" means many things.  And often, giving up is the best thing you can possibly do for yourself.  It just depends on what it is you're giving up.  Giving up doughnuts if you're diabetic, for example.  Doughnuts have never been my problem.  I wish it was that simple.  For me, it has always been much more.  And the events that transpired in my life in 2012 - all of them - have led me to giving up on the things I need to in order to get better.  In order to be awesome.

Being in my new apartment was the start.  I needed a launching pad, and I have it.  I am very fortunate, very lucky in that regard.  I am where I want to be right now, where I can properly heal.  I didn't want to run away, I didn't want to hunker down in some basement apartment in the fetal position waiting to move back into the past.  I don't envy those that have to.  I want to thrive, not just survive.  I want to feel powerful.

And I feel that here in Park Slope.  I was already my own island on Staten Island, and in many ways, I still am.  Because the closest people to me in my world are wrapped up in their own lives.  That was the way it was when I got divorced, and I felt very alone.  My partner was gone, and most everyone else was still partnered up.  I still believed in love, still craved it, pursued it - but it didn't stick.

On Staten Island, I was already healing.  I started dating and I started running.  The former only made me feel more lost while I found myself embracing the latter.  Here, I've fully embraced both.  I run around Prospect Park with and without my dog and I feel empowered.  There is a big running culture here, a big dog culture.  It's nice.  I am still getting used to apartment living, it's been nearly a decade since I've lived alone in an apartment - since I remembered that if you saute baby bok choy in your apartment kitchen - (a) the smoke alarm will go off; (b) your entire apartment will smell like baby bok choy; (c) the entire hallway will smell like baby bok choy.

Happier Times (?)
Buttons is having a harder time.  My dog has full-on separation anxiety now, and I've resorted to doggie daycare.  On December 31st, he wouldn't let me leave the apartment.  I was going on a date - just a cup of coffee in the new neighborhood - and he wouldn't let me leave, wouldn't stop barking up a storm from inside his crate.  I left in spite of his protests and waited in the stairwell by the elevator bank to see if he would stop.  I had a little breakdown in that stairwell, hearing my dog wail from down the hall for 15 minutes straight, hearing one of my neighbors come out and ring my bell.  I slumped to the floor, already 20 minutes late for my date, and I started crying, pleading with a dog who couldn't hear me to please just please stop barking.

So now Buttons has a full-time babysitter.  He no longer sleeps in the bed with me.  He runs 5 miles with me twice a week in all sorts of weather.  I sprinkle Valerian Root into his dinner.  A new friend recommended Comfort Zone, a pheromone-releasing plugin that reduces anxiety in dogs, and I'm trying that, too.

Later that night, on New Year's Eve - the last waning hours of the shittiest year of my life -  I tried to go out again, to a small house party, and Buttons was having none of it.  I was back in the stairwell, hopeless, desperate and alone.  There was no way I was staying home on New Year's Eve, a damaged hurricane victim with his damaged hurricane victim dog.  Not after what I've been through.  I couldn't bear it.  I called a drummer friend who was going to the same party and asked him if I could store my looney dog in his basement studio a few blocks away.  He obliged me and it worked out, a temporary fix for my poor, crazy furry friend.  I can't give up on him, not before I try everything.

Gym That Allows Dogs = Win + More Leg Lifts

I spent my first few hours of 2013 kissing a girl.  Buttons and I returned to my apartment a little while later and as I entered, a bug crawled out from under my heating vent.  I squashed it without hesitation.  2012 is over, but there are still signs everywhere.  It could have been the worst New Year's Eve of my life, but I knew it wouldn't be.  I wasn't around anyone I was super close with and that somehow felt right, being distant from normalcy, from the normalcy I thought I knew.  It was time to put all this shit behind me, time to forge some new relationships.  It was time to turn the aftermath from something terrible and taxing into something amazing and stimulating.

And it doesn't happen overnight.  But I see the signs, I still believe that they're real.  I still believe that awesomeness awaits, just as long as I do my part.  And I'm doing it now - all that bullshit I went through pushed me, set me straight.  I run with a passion - running has made me tough, it has invigorated me.  It's made me more appealing to others and more appealing to myself.  I have confidence, and I'm finally learning to accept compliments even if they seem a foreign thing.  I'm finally learning to use all the anger and disappointment I feel to fuel me instead of turning me into someone I'm not.  I do a hundred pushups a day thinking of some knucklehead tough guy's face.  I make lemons out of knucklehead lemonade.

And I still have the desire to create.  That's who I am, who I've always been.  I went to Staples last week to start rebuilding my business and I got depressed.  Walking down each aisle, I was reminded of the record label I created that was now a waterlogged memory.  The business that prompted this blog and all this writing, I reminded myself that it still exists, it's just different now.  It was tiny and modest and it lacked in many ways, but damn if it wasn't a fully functional facility before Sandy fucked it up.

But I have my workplace to continue that passion, that desire.  I have my piano.  I stay late at work sometimes and just play, just write.  I'm getting the blood flowing.  It feels good to not rush out of the one place that oddly embraced me through these tough times - my job - to be closer to it now.  To feel grateful for being there, to be making a great living working in the industry I always dreamed I would work in.  To feel obliged to my boss and to the people that have helped dig me out of this hole, to want to kick ass and conquer all this because of the help they've afforded me.  Kicking ass is the first step towards being able to give it all back - to them, to myself, to others.

I'm in a hotbed of New York City culture surrounded by fellow bohemian idiots with beards and big dreams.  I go to the Farmer's Market every Sunday morning and stock up on aromatic baby bok choy.  I buy wine and hot cider.  I grill steak and veggies on my terrace.  I socialize.  I smile at people who smile at my dog.  We go on long walks to beautiful Prospect Park.  I have prospects even if I don't quite have peace of mind yet.

I feel determined.  I feel good, I feel free.  There's a monkey off my back, and for the first time in awhile, I feel like it will stay off forever.  I still have work to do in other areas of my life, but it had to start with that damn dirty ape.  It always had to but I was always too weak.  Even if I still feel a little lost, even if I still feel disappointment in the way things have gone, I don't feel weak anymore.  I no longer engage in destructive behavior.

I see all the signs now but I don't read into them too much, even if they're interesting to me.  Because ultimately, I'm in control.  I still believe in karma, in destiny.  I still believe that you have to fight for what you want before you can get what you want, that nothing is ever truly presented to you for no good reason.  I'm merely 7 days in to this new year and I've been getting unexpected offers in all walks of my life and I have the power to accept or reject them, whether occupational or creative or romantic.  My time is my own and I'm finally spending it wisely.  I'm being patient, I'm not rushing into anything.  I'm breathing.  Whatever happens happens - all I can do is my best and do it all of the time, and I'm resigned to that.

Never Give Up.

I recognize that these are tough times, but it's tough times that either make you dead or make you tough.  And I'm living, man.  This is the way it has to be for me to be awesome, I realized that before the storms came, before my heart broke again.  I just needed a push.  We all need a push sometimes.  And pushes come in all shapes and sizes, in all forms.

This is my push.  It could get worse, and I don't take that for granted anymore, either.  But not now.  Life is a series of peaks and valleys, and I just bottomed out.  Now I just have to decide how high I'm willing to climb, and most important of all, what I'm climbing towards.  Whatever it is, I still have a feeling it will be something great.  You just have to be tough, you have to be ready for anything.

You have to stop looking for signs and start making your own.