Social Buddha


“TV Buddha” is a forty year old piece by artist Nam June Paik. Its visual — that of Buddha staring at himself on a television, as captured through a closed-circuit video camera — is striking, through my interpretation stands beyond its original meaning, slightly, given the four decades of technological indulgence that have passed since its unveiling.

Ever since signing up for Facebook in college I’ve struggled with social media, though not because of the social aspect of the interactive medium. As has been said by many of late: the Internet (simply) remembers too much… And in the case of social media, I get hung up on the sticky residue of the past, old relationships now being maintained online despite no real personal connection or the electronic permanence of digital flare, often shared in passing reflection of a moment that becomes forever tied to my “profile.” This doesn’t seem to bother most, and it’s probably not that important anyhow, but in past moments of confusion and conflict over this stuff I’ve deleted social media accounts just as I’ve thrown school yearbooks in the fireplace: letting go of relationships and memories that might only otherwise be triggered by a name or a face from the past; the latter essentially wiping the sort of IRL personal cache that social media refuses to let go of (though each action has had consequence).

The thing about “TV Buddha” that reads different today, for me, than would likely have translated in 1974, doesn’t deal with the infinite feedback loop that exists in the piece, but the reality that we are all now able to get lost in that state of constant narcissistic reflection. Buddha was never watching what was happening, currently, but was always seeing what just happened — the wholeness of reality centering around what the self of the present moment is doing (the “present moment” perpetually revealing itself with a momentary lag caused by the electronic translation between present action and televised happenings). Like Buddha, those using Facebook or Twitter or any number of sites that act similarly, are always watching not what’s happening, but what’s just happened. Except now, we’re encouraged to then participate by reflecting on the moment that’s just taken place with some sort of clarity, insight, or opinion, constantly encouraged to participate in forced nostalgia for something that’s barely finished happening. “Being present” in this sort of arena means being forever trapped in what just happened.

This instinct to “participate” is fueled by the validation of others, noticing, liking, favoriting, or commenting, further solidifying the habit of impulsive clicking to gauge personal value. We are not our Facebook pages, but our Facebook pages often reflect our character, our personalities, our senses of style, and our values… And it’s because of this that the social self, or the televised reflection of self, is so quickly and so often misinterpreted as actual self, since we’re always looking to screens for confirmation of who we are as individuals. If we allow our understanding of who we are to be dictated by an (even a momentarily delayed) electronic representation of who we are on a screen, we’re in for nothing but a load of confusion. The “we”s here are, of course, intended to be “me”s and “I”s… but you get the idea.

A few weeks ago I took a break from social media, logging out on my laptop and deleting the apps from my phone so I wouldn’t be tempted: to access the accounts would then take more than a single impulsive click. It wasn’t long before I wondered about what I was missing. Had anyone commented on something I’d posted? I had sent a Facebook message earlier that morning… “Shit,” I thought, “what if my friend is trying to reply to me?” Twenty-four hours in and I was wondering what was being shared by my “Read First” list on Twitter (which is pretty much my RSS feed in a post-Google Reader world). What are they sharing today that I’m missing? Are there messages waiting for me on Facebook? Four days into my social media hunger strike I cracked and logged back in. I had two messages (and over a dozen annoying like invitations and event invites) waiting for me. On Twitter? Nothing important. Once I logged back in though, I was renewed with the urge to click. Got a free moment? Might as well check it out. Bored? Click away. A few days later I de-activated my Facebook account. I didn’t delete it, because I need it (I actually used it that night for work, only to de-activate it once again after the task was complete) and I didn’t want to completely lose touch with friends online (as I had in the past). I just needed a break.

The result? A few friends checked in via text message to make sure I hadn’t shaved my head and joined a cult, but beyond that, not much… except… I did seem to feel better. Eventually I logged back in, but I’ve tried to be mindful about when and how long I allow myself to log on and “see what’s shaking.” Some great stuff has happened since my recent deactivation, and I’ve started to make strides in finding a more satisfying life-away-from-screens, but that’s not entirely the point here — the point is that the way I’ve misused social media (since college and all the way through the dozen-plus Facebook and Twitter accounts I’ve burned through since) is on its way out. I’m not going to “like” anything anymore, and I don’t think I’ll comment publicly very often, because playing into the system doesn’t seem to work for me. (There’s always a chance I’ll change my mind or let some exceptions slip by, but) I’m not going to post anything else to my personal account because that sorta defeats the point, too. There’s a lot more to this that’s wrapped into general “un-plugging” and “getting a life” outside the Internet topics, but that’s really another discussion for another time. One I’m happy to have in person.

Doorways


A restless mind of late has called for sleeping aids, but despite the deep slumber a knock at the door woke me at three. It couldn't have been my door, I thought. What if it had been? Who could have been knocking at my door? Is it really three? Maybe it was the old lady who calls on my neighbor for the occasional nightcap. That must have been it. It probably wasn't my door. Then, another knock.

My body wasn't ready to get out of bed and acted accordingly when slinking through the doorway of my bedroom out into the hallway. I gently measured my steps so as not to make a noise, and squinted as my face edged closer to the peephole. Sure enough, someone was there. As I thought about whether or not I should say anything the words, "What can I do to help you?" came out of my mouth.

"Sorry, wrong door."

I didn't say anything else and returned to bed. My heart wasn't racing, but it wasn't still either. It took a while to fall back asleep despite never being fully awake. The what-ifs crept in: What if they were testing to see if I was home to break in?; what if they were seeing if I were awake to steal the car?; what if they came back, what did they want? It's the invisible, the unknown, what's on the other side of the door that can't be seen, that is always the most intimidating.

I Hate This Job

I’m sitting at a desk with my headset on and the caller is asking me if this is what we do. I’m sorry, what we do? Yeah, he says, work like this. He asks why I shipped him something in a bucket, suggesting that the lack of packaging damaged the product, and I tell him I’ve never seen products shipped in buckets here, sir, feeling sarcastic but reeling it in. I ask him if he has a purchase order number or something else like that so I can look this up because I’m still not understanding, and he reads something off and I try searching for it. First time through, nothing. I try again and think I find an account. In determining that the problem exists in the system I fear that the problem has now become mine. I can’t hear what he’s saying to me. I can’t read the screen. I hate this job.

More Words on the Screen

I don’t remember when, exactly, but a few weeks ago I woke up in a funk, rolled over, grabbed my computer, opened it, and began typing. “I feel like I’ve reached the end of the tape. This is where I’m supposed to hit eject, turn it over, close the lid, and hit play again — only to go back over a magnetic strip that’s been played out already.”

There's a troubling angle of writing that I've been wrestling with for the past year or so, and it's been my inability to make sense of, digest, sort out, and empower written thoughts and feelings without making them public. So, if making words and thoughts public, on a blog or whatever, helps, then do it — what's the problem? Because, in the past, making personal thoughts public has opened the door for me to carry them into an arena they're not necessarily meant for — the world of social media.

I started my first blog in late-2004, where I dabbled with trying to sort out my feelings, who I was, and what I was struggling with. (I can't remember why I wanted to do that through a public website, or whose writing might have inspired it.) Within months I began writing about music instead of myself, and before long I stopped writing about "personal stuff" altogether. In January 2012 I started writing about Me again, and did so with the intention of using the platform as a way to hold myself accountable for pursuing personal goals. Issues didn't spring from sharing information in public, or using a blog to hold myself accountable... problems came from me taking that thing — whatever Me-blogging was — and trying to force it through the social web. Subconsciously I began weighing success on pageviews, tweets, and likes, and not on whether the writing was actually helping me.

Taking my limited understanding of The Rules of writing-in-public into account, I tried promoting these personal blog entries through Facebook and Twitter as though they were share-worthy, condensed gems of insight meant to actually be interesting to anyone but me. I had started writing as an exercise to keep my mind busy and myself on track, but had allowed that to warp into some kind of twisted content schedule, wrapped around my emotions and struggles, marketed as some sort of "personal brand." This then began dictating the form of the writing. I thought I wanted to be a professional writer, and this felt like a necessary step toward gaining "an audience." Things just got out of control.

This sort of thing went on for about a year. It's not my proudest period, but I don't feel embarrassed enough about the writing to keep the work hidden... despite the gross angle of sharing my struggles (and presumed forthcoming triumphs) as "content," used to accumulate fans or engage readers. What makes my stomach churn isn't the public naval-gazing, but that — like the drift toward "social" — many times I blogged with phantom readers or search engines in mind... hoping, for example, that properly meta-tagged pictures accompanying the articles (even if their connection was tenuous, or whether or not I had the rights to use them) would bring in stray readers through Google Image Search, as if someone looking for a Seinfeld screen-cap would be interested in a blog post about the consciousness of ego. (Because that makes sense.) Dollar store psychology and hacky motivational writing aside, it all still represents a reflection of who I was at the time. Despite a flawed understanding of personal branding, and what I wanted to gain from the process, there remains meaning in it and there is value in looking back and recognizing that it's something that can be left in the past without being forgotten.

The thing I've most gained since going back and reclaiming those deleted blog posts (from archived and cached versions of past blogs) is an understanding of what's needed to move forward. I can't keep going to the Internet to feel important. I can't come here, to this page, and add words, thinking that doing so in-and-of-itself accomplishes something. Ultimately my writing is a seclusive exercise, and sharing thoughts publicly so as to potentially find someone the words connect with (online) does not give the process credibility. (This means something. After all: just look at the words! I'm trying!) But someone might read them, or click on the blog, and more is better, and more clicks validates the words... Throwing ideas online as an act of connecting with others, and believing then that I’ve made progress, is insane. What makes the words important isn't if people read them — or shares them, or likes them, or tweets them — it's whether they encourage change. There's far less resistance concerning myself with social metrics than confronting and challenging personal complacency.

Why do any of this in public then? I don't know. It's a lie to say writing publicly holds me entirely accountable. If that were true I wouldn't have used the first week of a (self-imposed) 103 day challenge to isolate, eat junk food, and rebel against the self I've publicly proclaimed I want to become. And if all this writing is only for me, why do I bother referencing and linking my own ideas to one another? Why write in a tone meant for other people? Why edit? The what-ifs, I guess. Maybe the why-nots? Maybe just to document, writing to myself and no one at all in particular, simply for the sake of doing so. I don't know. I really don't.

Whatever the reason, I'm coming to accept that it's alright for me to do this, so long as I recognize the extent of its value. Writing is not the end. It needs to be the kick in the ass that leads to something greater. Right now I'm searching for closure with parts of my identity that I'd like to leave in my past. Looking back, reading these words I've written just now, it feels good. It feels like I've made progress. I'm starting to learn something. Maybe I have learned something. But the real progress comes with accepting that the moment has already passed and now I have to act. The end goal here is personal change, not words on a screen.

What Would a Stronger Me Do?

The mind is focused. The weight goes down. The mind turns sour. The weight goes up. Forever it's felt as though the cycle harms only myself, but now there's another, who my blips of self-collapse become issue for. This is something new, something real. The choice, then, is to continue allowing for slips in judgement, and allowing for inconsistent behavior and self-destructive action... Or, don't. As the saying goes: If you change nothing, nothing changes. The matter of change only matters if it's what I want. History says yes. History says I'm changing, but it's a slow process by myself. Maybe I can do things differently if I respect that I'm not alone. I am a source of emotional safety for someone else, but not myself? Why? Why am I protective of those I care about, but so eager to dismiss my own safety? Why is it so easy for me to throw incremental personal progress away? If I were to read this, what I've just written, without knowing what I'm thinking, it would probably seem too vague, or purposefully ambiguous to a point of uselessness. The problem is that that's my life. That's how I've lived: neglecting to share the director's commentary that's running in my head, affecting my action, rather than being open and working through the obstacles together with those I care for — with those who care for me. What would a Stronger Me do? Maybe that's the version of myself who should be directing traffic. There is no "or don't." Right now it feels like the only alternative is to do better.

Landscapes

"I had a book with me I stole from a Hollywood stall, 'Le Grand Meaulnes' by Alain Fournier, but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along." —Jack Kerouac, On the Road
So much of it has passed through me, barely contemplated and quickly forgotten: The Landscape. How many trips have there been where I was looking out into nothing, when I should have been seeing something? A proper voyeur would lay claim to insight, but instead the experience is simply forgotten. Staring at the page, pretending like the words have any effect, the eyes only motioning from side to side because that's what a reader's eyes are supposed to do. With time the landscapes are all forgotten, if they were even considered in the first place.

The Fear


As soon as the words came out of my mouth I regretted saying them. A few times a week there's a police cruiser or private security making a visit to my strip of apartments. But did I really feel like I was beginning to paintbrush all my neighbors as trash, because some refuse to clean up after themselves? I felt resolved to defeat. The situation isn't great, but it's all I've got. Whether aimless venting or honest anger, the words had to come from somewhere.

A few days prior I had received a call from my neighbor across the hall. He told me the lights were out and it was pitch black in our hallway. I was in a restaurant having dinner with friends and couldn't hear that well, but I did catch a reference to him being safe because he had his gun. Humor doesn't always translate over the phone, but either way I was sure he was actually armed.

Yesterday I was sitting at my desk when a loud knock came across the hall. Our doors let a lot of sound in, and someone was pounding on my neighbor's door. It was an old lady, at least in her fifties who looked at least in her sixties. She was drunk. This wasn't her first visit of the day. My neighbor wasn't interested in answering the door so she shouted at him.

After she left I readied my things for the gym, and when I was leaving my neighbor asked how my friend was, the one he'd met. He hadn't seen her in a while and wanted to make sure she was alright. It was a kind gesture. Then he noticed that I didn't have a light bulb in the fixture outside of my door. He went inside his apartment and got a bulb as he'd been given extras following the "blackout." He joked again about having his gun to protect him.

When I left children were laying on my car, with who looked to be parents and another man also hovering over it. My neighbor was talking to another old man with a grey beard and as I walked past him I thanked him and he patted me on the shoulder. He was nice today, but my mind was now in paintbrush-mode. I stood for a second in front of the car before I motioned and said I had to get in. The men walked slowly, making me wait. The woman barked orders for her kids to get off the car. At that moment I wished they were all gone. Not dead, just gone.

I drove away and when I was at the gym I grew concerned that my neighbor had seen me leave. He knew I was going to the gym, because he had asked if I was working nights and I'd told him, but now he knew my apartment was empty. Who had he been speaking to? Who else was around? What if they broke in? My gut reaction was fear.

I don't have many things though, I thought, peddling away on the stationary bike. And I don't. My computer is about all I have, though I have a camera and television that would probably also disappear in a robbery. Beyond that, all I have of value is me. And no one had threatened me. And no one had harmed me. And while the group with the kids had made me feel uncomfortable, they were there, doing that regardless of whether I was around. The kids just happened to be putting their greasy hands on my car, though it could have been anyone's car. Now it's coming to me that I was getting in their way of life, and not the other way around.

It's not that I don't belong here, it's that I'm different. I don't understand. My neighbor from across the hall has a loud alarm that starts going off every time he opens his door. Our doors let a lot of sound in. I wanted to file a complaint the day the alarm went off over 20 times. A friend talked me off of the idea. Who do you think he's going to think made the complaint?, she said. My gut reaction is to see the kid hitting rocks with a baseball bat in the parking lot and call security. My gut reaction is to see the clumps of hair trimmings in the hallway and make a complaint. I'm still new here.

Taking it Slow



"It was a big blessing in disguise." Early in 2012, six songs that had been recorded for Penicillin Baby’s debut LP were mistakenly deleted. Someone got ahead of themselves at the studio and in an attempt to clear up some hard drive space, wiped the session without double-checking to make sure it'd been backed up. "I guarantee you, if we would have released those songs," says singer Jon Tyler Conant, "they wouldn't have had an impact like the other ones did, and they wouldn't have sounded as good either." Discussing the album in his home studio, distance and time have lent the incident a bit of humor. Laughing a little, he continues, "Bands probably shouldn't just go record a record right after playing one show, and think it's gonna be great. I know that now: You gotta play songs quite a bit before they're perfect."

Chalking it up to fate, the group took its misfortune in stride and embraced a slower pace in finding its sound. In July of 2012 Penicillin Baby released the Jams: Volume I EP, which was followed by a split cassette release with Megajoos in October, Volume II in December, and Volume III the following March. All told, a dozen tracks were recorded over the four compact releases, each of which helped the band take baby steps musically while Conant honed his technique behind the board at his home studio (which he only began assembling components for after the group's first album went missing). The process worked as something of a continuation of the slow-growth model of playing and recording that Conant first picked up in grade school, growing up in Oklahoma.

"My family’s super musical," he says, going all the way back to his first interactions with music. "My dad’s a pastor. I come from a very Christian family, and my family was the church band. So, everybody in my family plays an instrument: I always had a piano, a drum set, a guitar at the house, from the time I was born." Laughing at the obvious, he adds, "Pretty much, my dad taught me to play instruments so he could put me to work in the church band." No matter the reason for his introduction, music stuck with him and as Conant grew his music continued to develop. "When I was in high school I played in four church bands. I was traveling, playing somewhere every night. I was just learning how to learn songs really fast, learning how to work with people, you know? It’s good practice. Once I got out of high school I started tinkering with my own recording, making my own music outside of church, obviously, and that’s when I kind of decided I was going to come out here. I really like this recording thing, I like this music thing, and Nashville seemed like the best option."

Starting in 2006, Conant began recording and releasing music online, slowly developing his direction as he grew into himself. "Favorite Face was actually a name for a project I had when I was still in Oklahoma that never played shows, I just made music at my house and put it up on Myspace." This experimentation continued for the next three years. "Really, I was doing a lot of partying and drugs during that time. I was like 18, 19, didn’t give a fuck about anything, you know? So, I did a lot of that and a lot of learning how to record, learning how to write songs. It’s definitely a process. It pretty much took me three years to be like, ‘OK, I think I’m good enough at this to where I need to move somewhere else to try it.’” In 2009 he landed in Murfreesboro where he began attending school at MTSU.

The musical web that developed once Conant arrived in Tennessee was tightly knit, with a core group of friends weaving in and out of each other's bands for the next few years. It was just as well that fate intervened and wiped the first Penicillin Baby album from the record, because up until last year the group had yet to find a firm lineup. When the band first formed in 2011 it included Conant and drummer Anuj Pandeya, who had both been playing together in Magic Veteran, along with guitarist Charlie Davis and bassist Zack Bowden, who had been playing together in the Dirty Truth. After Bowden left the band he was followed by Brennan Walsh, later of Deep Machine and Thief, who now plays in Shy Guy. After a brief stint in the group, Walsh was replaced by Taylor Lowrance, who Conant first connected with when they played together in Electric Teeth. (Lowrance also plays in Shy Guy, whose debut album, Dreams was produced by Conant.) By 2013 things had gotten rocky with Pandeya and he was replaced by Wesley Mitchell (who remains one-half of Megajoos). Says Conant, "I was talking to a mutual friend and I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we might be looking for a new drummer soon, I’m not sure.’ And somehow it got back to Wes and [he] texted me and was like, ‘Hey, are you guys looking for a drummer?’ And I was like, ‘Not really, but if you’re wanting to be the drummer then: Yes, we are looking for a new drummer.’”

As Mitchell says, he first sat in at "the official 'signing celebration' show with Jeffery Drag Records. I was pretty stoked and also terrified. It technically was my first time playing both as a 'signed' artist and with Penicillin Baby. Kind of killed two birds with one stone." "I had noticed them for a year or so," adds Jeffery Drag founder and Bad Cop frontman Adam Moult, "and after I watched 'em live a few times, my entire band got really into them. We were even jamming their songs at practice, so I reached out to Jon about August 2013, and that's when this all began." Before the end of the year the label gathered the Jams EPs into a single collection for iTunes and Spotify, and as turnover leveled off the group began to receive some positive press, including nods from Pepsi's Pulse blog (calling Penicillin Baby one of the "Top 5 Nashville Bands Right Now") and KCRW (where they were included as one of the "Hottest Bands Breaking Out Of Nashville in 2013").

Earlier this year Jeffery Drag released the single and music video for "Private School Kids," which was produced by Lincoln Parish (formerly of Cage the Elephant) and mastered by Bad Cop's Kevin "Danger" Kilpatrick. Most recently the same team helped produced "Not Getting Any Younger," which Jeffery Drag released in April as a 7" single. (The accompanying music video recently premiered on PureVolume.) This month they will begin to record their proper full-length debut at Conant's studio, with "Danger" helping produce, eyeing an October release date, which will coincide with an anticipated outing to New York where they'll play CMJ. "I honestly see the band blowing up," continues Moult, "becoming a DIIV or a Beach Fossils." A Daytrotter session was just released, and in addition to recording, the band will tour to continue expanding their reach beyond Nashville's city limits. What happens next — who knows. But after a few years of lessons learned: wisely, they're in no rush getting there.