Won’t You Ring The Alarm?

I have started to hear phantom alarms. This is not a metaphor, although it is most assuredly probably not a good thing.

It started maybe a week ago; I woke up too early in the morning, and the sun was still rising. I laid in bed, with the window open — thank God that Portland is finally getting warm after a long winter from Hell — and listened to the sound of birds chirping, and people starting early morning walks to work. It was very relaxing, until I noticed the alarm in the distance.

More than anything, it sounded like a burglar alarm or a fire alarm at a building some distance away. It wasn’t loud, just the opposite; my first thought was that it sort of faded in and out on the wind, and was almost relaxing in its insistence. It was just present, and constant in its tone when it did appear.

Over the next few days, I’d hear it again. Not always, and never loud. In the back of my head, I thought, Wow, someone needs to get their alarm fixed. It was only when I mentioned this to someone else that I realized something was up; they couldn’t hear anything.

Now, maybe they have bad hearing and I’m the one in the right. But isn’t it more likely that, instead of an alarm going off at random times during the day over and over again, always in the distance, that fades in and out that only I can hear, that I’m imagining it for some reason?

I’m sure this has some meaning, and I’m equally sure it’s not a good one. But, yes; I’ve started to hear phantom alarms, and it’s not a metaphor.

It Must Be Morning, Again

The best mornings are the ones where I wake up and can’t quite believe that it’s so light outside just yet. I’ve accidentally developed the knack for waking up early across the years, and sometimes that’s a thing that means that I wake up too early; at a point that even I have to admit is still technically night.

I remember someone telling me, ten or so years ago, that as they got older, their sleep cycle got ruined. They woke up in the middle of the night, or they’d be unable to fall asleep in the first place, or they’d start waking up at 4 in the morning. All of this was said in the tone of, One day this horror will befall you too. I scoffed, as you do. The same person also told me that, after 50, I’d start to piss myself, so I was used to aging body horror stories from them.

I don’t know if they were right, at least in regards to sleep, but I feel like my waking up creeps ever earlier over time. It’s definitely not what was advertised; I’m still falling asleep with an ease that has irritated many, and it’s rare that I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep soon enough. But still. (Thankfully, I’m not pissing myself yet, but then again, I’m not 50 yet.)

Right now, I’m waking anywhere between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning, most days. It’s something that’s frustrating, more than anything else — I wake up too early and I get mad because, well, who wants to be awake before six? — but it’s part of whatever routine by body has created for itself. I wake up, check Twitter and email and the news, and wait for the rest of the world to start for the day.

But it’s better when the sun is out, telling me I won’t have to wait too long.

Returning To The Scene Of The Crime

There has to be a word for something that isn’t quite nostalgia, but is nonetheless the feeling of being overwhelmed by your past.

I visited an area of Portland yesterday where I hadn’t been since a particularly emotionally turbulent time, and as soon as I started seeing familiar landmarks from that period — stores I’d walk past often, crosswalks that became signposts to certain locations — I found myself not just remembering that time, but reliving it surprisingly, uncomfortably, clearly. The emotions of the time were in my head again, the difficult and unpleasant feelings of shame, guilt and certainty that I was disappointing and upsetting people. Out of nowhere, bam: All flashed back, purely because of my physical location.

Even stranger: I was momentarily disoriented and had a second of thinking I should be somewhere else, somewhere I haven’t lived since even before that time. I knew it wasn’t true, I knew that I shouldn’t actually be there, but there was this… pull of guilt, almost, that I wasn’t there. It’s difficult to explain.

Is this PTSD? It sounds ridiculous to ask, but that was how it felt at the time, suddenly and surprisingly reliving a bad part of my past. If it’s not that, then it has to be something else. There has to be a word.

And If It’s Morning, It Must Be Morning Again

I hadn’t realized how important my morning routine was until it changed. In recent months, I’ve taken to a schedule of purposefully not working until 9am, if I could possibly help it — this really translates to “Not writing,” because I almost always use the time before then to read and do research for future things I will write, including making notes and sending myself links and the like. But I’ve come to consider everything pre-9 as, say, research time as well as breakfast time. A quiet, understated start to the day.

And then, for multiple reasons, that went to hell for the last four days. Deadlines and other things conspired so that, as soon as I was awake, I was writing — I had to be immediately on — and it utterly wrecked me in ways that were genuinely surprising. Without the slow ramp up to it, the checking in on the world through email, Twitter and news sites, the chance for my brain to engage at its own rate, my mood was worse, my anxiety greater. I felt more short-tempered, more behind the curve and needy to catch up.

What made this such a surprise is that, until very recently, that was how I started my day for years. I’d wake up and immediately get up and consider myself in work mode and ready to go. I’d wake up and get to my office straight away. That’s not to say I’d always be writing as soon as I woke up, but I told myself I was ready. Eating happened after 9, and I’d always try to have something accomplished by that point.

It’s only now, having tried this other thing, that I realize how much expectation I was placing on myself, and how much stress I was choosing to put myself under without knowing it. It’s only now that I realize there are better ways to start the day.

Who Knows Where I Came From

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of identifying artists being responsible for my visual sense. The idea came from a talk that Lucasfilm Creative Director Doug Chiang gave at Star Wars Celebration, in which he made an offhand reference to Ralph McQuarrie being the man singlehandedly responsible for his visual sense. It’s likely a simplification that just so happens to play into the Star Wars of it all — McQuarrie being the artist behind the iconic concept paintings that every fan of a particular generation is all-too-familiar with — but the idea has stuck with me, and left me wondering who my visual artists would be. Where does my sense of visual information come from?

I go to obvious personal touchstones, instinctively: Julian House and Rian Hughes as graphic designers (Chip Kidd, too, but I often overlook him for some reason); Dave McKean, Kent Williams, Gustav Klimt and Mark Rothko as illustrators or visual artists. Martin Parr’s photographs. Eddie Campbell’s comics.

But all of those ideas feel too late — I discovered most, if not all, of those people when I was in my 20s. Who and what was essential to me before then? The answers are almost entirely comic-based, unsurprisingly, and the answers are for the most part faintly embarrassing to me now: John Byrne was the comic artist to me through, at least, me being 14 or 15. I remember his Superman and his Legends as being as if I was seeing those characters for the first time, and although I was too young to have read his X-Men when it was coming out, Classic X-Men felt iconic and “right” when it reprinted that stuff for my generation. He has to be recognized as being a core part of my visual sense to some degree, even if I feel a level of embarrassment approaching shame to think of it now.

Other early options are more obscure, if no less fundamental. Jose Ortiz’s work appeared in all kinds of British comics that I read, and his casually grimy work felt real in a way that few other things I saw did, or even could. Slightly later, and post-Byrne, Steve Yeowell’s Zenith felt like a revelation with each new series through the third — to this day, I still thrill at the memory of his brushwork, or his seeming unerring ability to know when to use tight, controlled linework instead of something messier and more expressive.

It feels to me as if there’s a hidden component in there, but I couldn’t tell you what it is, or even where it would be. I’m sure it’s going to be something I’ll keep picking at for some time. Once you start retracing your steps like this, it becomes a preoccupation that’s hard to undo.

Preferably With Less Of A Fetish For The Fall

I think about John Peel too much for someone who rarely listened to his show, way back when. (I did, however, listen to a lot of Home Truths, his Radio 4 show  about families and, well, life; it was filled with his gentle humor and understatedness, and it was a way of connecting to my mother across the Atlantic, who listened to it, too.) But the Peel myth looms large in my head — a man who became famous, if not beloved, because he stayed true to his own taste and rarely compromised it, instead introducing new music and new ideas to people continuously, including himself.

I often find myself wondering who the John Peel of [Insert Media Here] is, looking to find someone who could be trusted as a tastemaker in the same way in different fields, but the older I get, the more I realize that any true John Peel of today wouldn’t look anything like John Peel. It’s that whole contradictory thing, again; what we’re looking for doesn’t look like what we expected. Instead, they’re out there — a gender neutral term because, let’s be honest, the likelihood of a new John Peel being male is very small indeed — looking like themselves and doing their own thing, waiting to find their audience, or for their audience to find them.

There’s something very reassuring about that thought, to me.

That Background Ache

I have been massively overworked, lately; I went from saying yes to too many jobs to preparing for a trip — a work trip, of course, I haven’t done a non-work trip in lord knows how long — and at some point, the obvious happened: My body decided it was done.

It started as an ache in my legs after a long walk, which didn’t fade beyond a certain point. A day or so later, I realized that I was still feeling this dull ache, as if I was recovering from a gym session that had never actually happened. I felt consistently, constantly, exhausted. Not sick, per se; just always tired. I’d go to sleep tired. I’d wake up after seven or eight hours, tired. I’d go to work tired. I’d finish work tired. No matter what, tired.

My solution, such as it was, was to just cut back as much as possible. Take care of the things that had to be done, but let everything else fall away, whether it was being social or pushing deadlines out further. To try and create spaces where absolutely nothing was expected of me, and all I could do was marathon Project Runway or whatever. To eat better, too. (Although my love for Twix bars remains.) And, most importantly, to stop myself feeling bad about feeling tired or rundown.

That last part has been the hardest, but arguably the most effective. There’s something to be said for just… stopping. I still ache, I’m still tired. But when that happens, I just stop for a bit and try to prevent myself from nagging me back into action. Turns out, I just need a rest, now and then.

A Rose By Any Other Etc.

I was sitting in the airport when an announcement came over the speaker system, asking for Jack Cross to go to some gate or another. I heard it and thought, Jack Cross, what sort of a name is that? That’s not a real person, that’s a spy in a really bad thriller, and then I suddenly had this wave of empathy that was entirely unexpected.

Imagine, for a second, that your name was Jack Cross. Can you imagine the pressure you’d feel to live up to the images such a name conjures up? You’d feel as if it was your responsibility to at least have some kind of adventure on a regular basis, and preferably one that involved at least one person bleeding or at least sweating heavily at the end of it.

I’m only slightly exaggerating. “Jack Cross,” or a name like it, has a weird set of preconceptions built into it when you hear it. You hear it, or read it, and your brain starts to fill in blanks in a manner that very likely has nothing to do with whoever actually has that name. It’s not a bad thing, we all do it — but imagine being Jack Cross (or whoever), and knowing that. How would you feel if even you felt disappointed by the person you were, knowing that your name left everyone expecting more than you could deliver?

Moleskine Dreams

I always wanted to be someone with a moleskin notebook who sat in cafes and wrote deathless prose and brief snippets of beautiful poetry about the people around me. It’s not who I am, of course — I can barely string together sentences that make sense, and poetry is far beyond me — but there’s something about the idea that remains appealing.

For a couple of years at the end of the 20th century (And how weird it is to write that sentence and think, That’s right, I lived through the end of a century as if it was nothing special, Damon Albarn’s own poetry aside), I kept notebooks filled with writing. I wrote what was a diary, I guess, although I’m sure I thought of it as “a journal,” as if that was somehow more artistic and meaningful. In my defense, I had just finished art school and was still teaching there, so pretension was a comfortable second language.

Those notebooks were filled with everything internal in a way that I soon lost the ability to express. I remember very clearly a point in the early 2000s, when I was newly in San Francisco, taking public transport to work and feeling embarrassed about the intimacy and sincerity I displayed in those early notebooks, convinced that the knowing irony and unearned self-confidence I was wearing publicly as a writer at that point was inherently superior. I was finding success as a writer for the first time and in a world where I felt (secretly, quietly, not even daring admit it to myself) like a fraud who didn’t deserve to be read by anyone; the protective shell of irony felt like the only way to move forward. Anything else was not only too dangerous, it was naive and foolish.

Now, of course, I long for the ease of revelation of those notebooks, the fearlessness of just saying everything without shame or anxiety. The me that I was 20 years ago may not have been any more likely to write the poetry or documentary in notebooks and cafes than who I am today, but I feel certain that he’d be far less nervous about trying.