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We'd Have Nothing To Hang Our Hopes On (If It Weren't For Gallows Humor)

By Scott Puckett

I was riding down the highway in a Toyota van when Shimo took my Sharpie and started writing on my hand. It was only fair - I had scrawled Xs on his hands the day before. He drew for a few moments and then asked me if I knew what the characters meant. Of course I didn't - in Japan, I'm completely illiterate. He looked at me and said it means dreamer. And it hit me like a brick between the eyes.

It seemed to sum up everything about me that needs to be said. I dream. I hope. And I don't really have any reason to do either. After all, it's been a hard few years. I won't make the absurd argument that difficult times justify the demise of optimism, but it certainly hasn't been easy to keep it alive. Yet somehow, I manage.

Since the big things that nourish optimism are few and far between, I find sustenance in daily life - everything from the birds outside my window that wake me up in the morning to the songs I hear on the radio. Life is simply too short not to find beauty in our surroundings.

I will never forget a conversation I had with Dave Quinn about this, about four years ago. He and I were standing on Kettner Boulevard near his van. The Velvet was closed for the night and we were talking, staring out over the airport. He told me about a tour he had been on in Colorado when he slept in the back of the van in sub-freezing weather, only to wake up to a sunrise in the Rockies. "Nature never lets you down," he said. He was right then. He still is.

I don't mean that life is sweetness and light. I still get savagely depressed. I still find myself tearing through my record collection at three in the morning, looking for a song that will chase the blues away. I understand on a very personal level what Robert Johnson meant when he sang "Hellhound on my Trail" - evenings like this one, it means there's something behind me, something dark, something I don't want to see. I may run as hard as I can, but sooner or later, I have to stop to rest because I'm exhausted. And it still usually feels like it's gaining on me.

I do the best I can on those nights. I read. I take baths. I turn off the lights and soak in steaming hot water. I write. I usually feel like the words bleed out of me; they must because I hurt too damn much not to be wounded. Despite the graveyard shifts when I don't sleep, I yearn for better days. I remember times when I was happy. And I understand that suffering not only builds character, it is perhaps the best catalyst for revolutionary change.

I don't enjoy these feelings and nights, no matter how productive I may be during these long hours. Typically, my mood gradually progresses from sorrow to bitterness to anger, pausing at appropriate moments to allow for the subtle emotional shadings, changes that seem to be as natural a progression as summer turning to fall, and as logical as shifting from second to third. And as Russell Banks once wrote, "Rage, for better or worse, generates a future."

But here's what really matters at times like this - it's acknowledging these conflicting emotions, reconciling them and slugging through anything in my way. It's knowing that pain is just another way to say that I have to change, and that when I wake up, the sun will still be shining through the eastern window, no matter where I decided to crash.

And that's part of what life is - a Euclidian combination of constants to provide emotional anchors and variables that math teachers couldn't begin to explain, a system of obscure theorems and corollaries written in a dead language with no Rosetta Stone in sight. And like every other asshole with a philosophical bent who wants to write about the Money Concepts, I'm getting the story wrong and leaving most of it out.

I don't think it's any secret to anyone who knows me that I'm rarely satisfied with how things are. I always want more - more volume, hotter food, faster songs, longer sets, more coffee. An ex-girlfriend of mine once told me that I crave intensity, and she's right. Life is too short and I want to burn.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008