A Really Tall Palm Tree
My phone shivers itself awake in the crevice next to my bed. The alarm fulfills it’s destiny and wakes me up at the time I told it to last night – 7:30. I almost never let “Super Rich Kids” play past the intro with the drums and I don’t remember the last time I heard Frank sing the opening line. Outside is already bright and noisy with neighbors leaving for work and feral cats wrapping up their nocturnal territory wars. If my windows were open, the sounds would get louder and I could probably smell the bright floral scent from the grapefruit tree in my front yard.
I pull on grey pajama pants and fit my feet into flip flops, placed conveniently, neurotically at the side of my bed.
I twist a white knob until I hear the clicks of the gas stove attempting to cough itself awake. One burner for the kettle and a broil setting on the oven with two pieces of toast laid inside, side by side, in lieu of a toaster. It’s all done deliberately, in a particular order; every step methodically thought out for utmost efficiency. Once these elements are set in motion, I head to the bathroom to relieve my overactive bladder and take out my retainers. It’s reflexive and it’s pre-ordained. The lack of thought is a blessing, a well-defined morning absent of questions.
The coffee beans get ground, the hot water gets poured in the too-small French press and the eggs are started. A breakfast meant only to foreshadow a laborious day. The fuel necessary to lift, carry, cut, glue, and most importantly to scrape away the haze that accompanies habitual less-than-adequate sleep.
I sit down with the closest things I have to a friend at that moment - two eggs over medium, two pieces of toast (peanut buttered and jammed) and a cup of black coffee. I swallow massive forkfulls over pages of Old Testament prophets.
Repetitive visions of the earth ablaze offer no comfort, just words. Something to read, something someone believes.
I will make thee a terror, and thou shalt be no more: though thou be sought for, yet shalt thou never be found again
Adequately caffeinated and terrified I head to the sink to scrub the smeared runny egg remains off my plate and find myself looking out the window.
There’s a really tall palm tree outside of my house. It stands all by itself in front of a house across the street. It’s taller than that house and my house and both combined if you could stack them on top of each other. It’s gangly and thin and leans in and out of it’s own shape, like some whimsical flora in a Dr. Suess book. I can see it from my kitchen window and that’s exactly where I notice it. Right now. I’ve been living in Los Angeles, in this house, for a year and five months and this is the first time I’ve noticed it.
I guess it’s easy to miss things when you’re not paying attention. When you’ve fashioned your own blinders, absorbed mostly by what’s behind your eyes instead of what’s in front of them. It’s easy for me to get lost like this, sometimes for months at a time, realizing it only as that significant expanse of time wanes and only drip drops of memories have made it through my chastity belt of thought. I justify this process of ignoring reality by making it an inseparable part of my self-narrated hero’s journey. It’s an unhealthy practice that American culture conveniently packages and sells as “hustling.”
A certain amount of plastic pride swells up in me in those moments - a feeling that, through pain, I will earn my eventual nirvana.
I brush my teeth and splash water on my face, pulling on jeans with smears of dirt and loosely clinging brown dust. I asphyxiate my bleached, unkempt hair with a black trucker hat that reads “Bohnhoff Lumber” on the front.
I’m leaving five minutes late. I fail to sidestep a grapefruit lying helplessly on the ground and squash it into the dirt; bleeding citrus guts displayed for the human that so carelessly brought it’s storyline to an end. A half dozen stray cats huddle together at the curb to bid me adieu. They’ve found refuge and a communal litter box in our front yard and I mumble a resentful auf wiedersehen as I take off on my bike.
I carefully weave my way through cars stopped in traffic and whiz by aloof pedestrians. The streets are plagued with people. Bloodied, militant figures in disarray going from somewhere to nowhere amongst warehouses, forklifts, piles of trash, holes in the asphalt, horns blaring, and palm trees.
A song I’ve been working on plays itself on repeat in my head. The track, lazy and dreamy, oddly spotlights the juxtaposition that Los Angeles holds internally, within the fabric of itself. Palm trees coexist with tent cities. The perfectly mild weather is paired beautifully with smears of red brake lights. This is paradise soured. People rushing and shouting under a permanently blue sky. Humans can ruin the best things.
I pedal as fast as I can, attempting to outrun the tsunami of cars building behind me like Dennis Quaid or The Rock or some other movie star that can outrun tsunamis. The streets in the Fashion District aren’t suited for bicycles and I try my best to stick to the sidewalk when I can, avoiding box trucks and buses that rumble their way over uneven pavement and unused railroad tracks.
I see a woman attempting to fix a freshly dyed pink wig to her head – the afterbirth of neon dust explosively frozen like a photograph on the grey asphalt.
I keep pedaling.
Five minutes to get to work. I narrowly avoid a semi truck backing into a loading zone. A left, a right, another left; past a taco stand that taunts me every morning and an open faced building selling wholesale fruit. In the home stretch, leaning in and out of glass, a dirty bra, and other garbage.
I have arrived.
I unlock the metal grate and my boss is sitting there waiting. We exchange obligatory pleasantries before I head into the shop to do some last minute waxing on some pieces we’re installing today.
I hook up my phone to the speakers and put on Third Eye Blind.
I kind of get the feeling like I'm being used
And now I realize you never heard
One goddamned thing I ever said
Losing a whole year
We load up the truck, ratchet-strapping a tall oak bookshelf and a matching credenza to the flat bed.
The houses in Highland Park are perfect. Ten minutes outside of downtown and it looks like we’re in the country. The house we pull up to is a horrible cottage looking thing on the outside and a beautiful, modern log cabin on the inside.
We’re here before the couple is home from work and let ourselves in. We blast techno through a bluetooth speaker and get to work drilling, lifting, polishing pieces of handmade furniture neither of us could afford to buy.
The couple comes home and it’s a wonderful performance including such hits as:
“It’s beeooootifull” and “OH. MY. GOD.”
The husband says nothing. He sits on a grey couch, in direct eye-line of the newly assembled credenza and says nothing. We spent fourteen weeks turning raw lumber into furniture his great-grandchildren will be able to use and this motherfucker can’t muster up a single word.
We slither our way back down I-5 to the shop. I get to play crossing guard and stop traffic with a big red sign while my boss reverses the truck back into it’s resting place.
I like being in my work clothes and going to my blue-collar job. I like feeling like a working man. Like I’m tied to something. Like I’m paying my dues. Like in a very physical way, my sweat is converted into money. It’s noble. It makes me feel that way at least. I romanticize it in a way only an upper-middle class kid from the suburbs can. Last year, I would occasionally get off work and smoke a cigarette like a real tough guy/moron. Standing under the grapefruit tree, in my sawdust-covered, grease-stained clothes, something about it felt right.
I’ve purged myself of that fantasy and simultaneously the inherent dramatized nobility of this job has dulled for me. Sometimes I think that’s what life is - killing dreams. Having a dream and killing it. Wretching things from your head and birthing them into light, air, and matter. From the endless spaces of your mind to a strangled physicality. Taking ideas and images that look one way in your head, pursuing them, and realizing the version in your head was actually much more divine. Things tend to look pristine from a distance. Only when you get up close do you start to notice blemishes.
It’s a positive thing, ultimately. Finding the true nature of something. The golden sheen of some distant finish line in your head isn’t real. It looks perfect, but it’s two dimensional. True beauty always contains depth. Depth can’t exist without flaws. Like dark shading in a drawing, the shadows amplify the lighter hues.
I’ve felt it with music, with drumming specifically. I’ve toured for so long and played enough shows that the glamour has melted away. I’ve seen it’s beauty and it’s ugliness and I have a deep love for it. It’s a welcome, dusty familiarity.
I spend the remaining four hours at work sanding. I use a motorized, orbital sander to move first across the wood’s grain and then in the direction of the grain. Always ending with the grain.
Maybe I’m meant to live like this forever. Maybe I’ll never move past working a manual labor job during the day and writing music no one will hear at night. There’s a very real possibility that’s the case. What do I do about that? A better question may be - Am I ok with that?
What a sad ending to an ambitious boy. A movie that makes it through the training montage, complete with streams of sweat and dramatic grimaces and then just stops.
Falls flat. Stops short.
No redeeming third act. An unwanted piece of punctuation drops itself violently into the second third of the story. No reward. No reaping, just sowing. Sowing bunk seeds, tilling infertile soil. An oblivious man maniacally mutilating the same plot of earth, expecting something new to happen.
Nothing. Nothing will grow here.
But simultaneously, that would be the most comical outcome possible. To take this furrow-browed human, a self-proclaimed serious man and diligent hard worker and tell him in the end that he didn’t get it quite right. Better luck next time.
We are all belligerent with the inability to know; know without even the faintest certainty in which direction our decisions and actions will take us. And the thing sitting on the backseat of that tandem bicycle: the huge amount of energy spent by our brains on convincing ourselves of the exact opposite. That in fact, I am in control. I am heading in a linear direction of gained traction. Up and up. One foot in front of the other.
It’s a necessary myth. Life is more tolerable when it’s explained; even if that explanation is ultimately false. Conviction is important, even if it’s wrong. We all suffer from delusion. Choose your own. Or use someone else’s template. It doesn’t really matter.
What if I am just a speck, not meant to be noticed, dreams left unfulfilled.
I will make thee a terror, and thou shalt be no more…
The older I get, the more I realize this is a very real possibility. Everything I envisioned for myself may not actually come true. The longer I’m alive the more my headstrong delusion seems to evaporate. My convictions and personalized absolute truths have been challenged and disproven many times in the last several years.
I know now that I know nothing. I’ve never known less in my entire life.
I’ve learned that any possible outcome is equally plausible, that hard work does not directly correlate with success, and instead of life being a slow, laborious, upward climb to some pinnacle of goal-squashing and fulfillment, it’s actually a mangled collage of nonsense coupled with hundreds of millions of anatomical, chemical misfirings – like a poorly drawn Etch A Sketch and just as lasting.
By the time I get home, it’s dark. I shower, reheat some chicken, brussel sprouts, and potatoes, and allow myself to sit, absent of obligation, for a few minutes.
I’m finally at the age where I understand the heavy sigh I’d hear my grandfather let out every time he bent his knees and forced the couch cushions to give to his body weight. Sitting feels good. It’s enough.
The dust is out of my hair and down the drain and my belly is full. It’s time to get to work on these songs. I’m not sure why. My brain, crippled by a dependency on logic, may never be able to explain why I do this, in spite of being aware of the futility. Maybe why is the wrong question to be asking.
I sit down in front of my computer, pull out my keyboard and journal, and start to write a song.
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I'm a touring drummer. I live in hotels and venues to be on stage for one hour a day. That hour is why I do this and the only part people see. This is a documentation of the other 23 hours.