The Question of Empathy

And so we come to this issue.

You’ll hear the meme that autistics don’t feel empathy throughout literature. I’ve heard it over and over certainly. The idea is that we’re completely incapable of thinking outside ourselves. We struggle with knowing how to put ourselves in another’s shoes. We’re supposedly cold people who can react to hearing about the death of another’s family member with “so?” We only cry when we’re hurt and usually over petty things. You can go throughout the media and see this depiction over and over.

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Self Esteem

There are few topics I’ve covered that are more likely to incite discomfort in the reader than this one. In this culture we preach a constant gospel of self love. We learn that it’s almost an evil thing to hate yourself, to feel anger at yourself. It’s even infected our school systems!

But here’s a very hard truth: some of us can’t and don’t have high self esteem.

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My 25 Favorite Songs

Why look at my favorite songs here? The topic is relatively ephemeral compared to some of the more serious topics I’ve covered. The answer is simple: the music we love winds up being a profoundly autobiographical thing. Themes that speak to us reveal so much about who we are. So, why not?

This is not in any order. Just a list of the tracks that have stayed with me as they come to my head. It could change like the wind but for this moment, it fits.

1. Landed-Ben Folds. Folds’ career is a strange one. The vast majority of his singles are sober, poignant studies of serious subjects while much of his music tends towards the wittier, upbeat side. He even played piano on Weird Al’s parody of his style! Well, it’s because like most comedians, he’s so damn good at being serious. Landed is a poetic look at the end of an emotionally abusive relationship. At least that’s what it’s literally about. As a depression sufferer, I’ve always found it fits the sensation of rising up from a depressive episode rather well. The song is driven by Folds’ trademark piano work which starts gently before rising to a powerful crescendo at the finale. This song is 10 years old, every bit as powerful.

2. Hook-Blues Traveler. Consider this the musical equivalent of what Charlie Kaufman did with Adaptation. A deconstruction of the pop song in the form of a classic pop song. Using the chord structure of one of the most popular songs ever, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the song explains at every word how the listener is being manipulated into feeling something. And it works! I hadn’t really noticed this until many years after it was a favorite. Experiments in meta rarely pay off this well.

3. Second Chance-Shinedown. This will be the newest song on the list though I have one a few months earlier on the list. Songs about taking risks in life are usually bland, sugary, American Idol style pap. Nobody really deals with the idea that even going after the things we desperately want is scary as hell because of the risks. That facing the unknown is a challenge and a bit unnerving. That’s why I love this song. It’s a darker look at the fears we face and doing it anyway. The awareness that to storm the world might mean losing our family and friends. Life is tough but it’s worth it.

4. Times Like These-Foo Fighters. It should be hard to pick my favorite song by this group since so many songs could go here but nope, this one was easy. This is an anthem for getting through challenges. (Not coincidentally, Shinedown covered it and did it very well.) It’s a loud, uptempo track too. You listen to this, you start to feel better! It’s a rare case I’m recommending a live version over an album version too. The Live at Wembley version explodes with joy.

5. Lost?-Coldplay. Note the ? There are two versions of this song. ! is a big bold version of the tune while ? is a quiet, simple version with just Chris Martin and a piano and frankly it fits the tone of the lyrics better. The song is about being in a bad place in your life and realizing you can move on from it. This song was one I listened to at the end of my “gap year” and it felt right. (1)

6. Politik-Coldplay. Staying with the band, Coldplay is often mock as a mainstream Radiohead, which I kind of agree with  in that there are clear similarities and don’t in that what they do like that group, they do well. Politik is a prime example. Th song starts with a thundering piano before shifting to quiet, then loud again. The result is an unnerving sonic experience backed with lyrics that serve as a cry for understanding. It’s a powerful song that pulsates with emotion and is every bit as good as anything Radiohead as ever done. But since I mentioned them…

7. Idioteque-Radiohead. Where to start with this one? This is one of the most unsettlingly beautiful songs you’ll ever hear. With its apocalyptic imagery and staccato rhythm, Idioteque is the soundtrack to the end of the world. Not loud screaming but a semblance of maintaining order as things fall apart. Cold, icy, beautiful. The Vitamin String Quartet version is great too.

8. Calling Baton Rouge-Garth Brooks. OK, I can see several people going WHAT. This, if I’m honest, is my favorite Garth Brooks song. And I love a hell of a lot of his work. He’s easily a favorite of mine. But…this track is so GD good. It’s quick, fast, strong, and works so well. The song was written by Dennis Linde, another favorite and one who hasn’t really been acknowledged as the great he is. There’s really not much more to sat than that I love this damn thing.

9. Glorious-Andreas Johnson. To this point, if the songs weren’t familiar, the artists were. This is an exception and why I’m not sure. The song is a simple one: a man expressing love for a woman that improves him. Like much of the pop from Europe in the late 90s/early ’00s, there’s a really interesting techno sound to it. It’s admittedly a very propulsive number, which I have a weakness for. This is what being in love and being happy about it feels like.

10. Kashmir-Led Zepplin. I stress this list isn’t in order. Here is a song that if feels impossible to add anything more to the conversation about its greatness. It’s there greatest rock song ever in my eyes. The 2007 live performance by the band is one of the great miracles in rock history because it sounded better than ever with Robert Plant nailing every note and Jimmy Page in peak form. If I have a favorite cover, it’s Ofra Haza’s eerie, Middle Eastern infused take.

11. Smashing Young Man-Collective Soul. I love Collective Soul so much. (2) I think Dosage is a brilliant CD and Disciplined Breakdown a wildly underrated sophomore disc. I could go with their best known track “The World I Know,” which is a perfect study of life in transition. “Run” is right there for me too. Nah, my favorite track by them is a diss track against Billy Corgan. Smashing Young Man is one of those songs that drips with a polite rage towards the obnoxious assholes of the world. Ross Childress’ guitar work, which was always deeply underrated, was never better than his riff here.

12. Higher-Creed. Everytime I admit to being a Creed fan, I get pretty hard laughter and mockery. Time to deconstruct that with glee. Creed has long been mocked for being very intense, over dramatic jock rock and dammit I love that! Yeah, Scott Stapp goes over the top in his vocals, but he sells it! Furthermore, Mark Tremonti’s guitar work is really incredible. I really love album tracks like Is This The End and Who’s Got My Back, which use their cultural influences to create really incredible aural landscapes. As for this choice though? Look, you know what it is. Great lyrics, Stapp at his best, and Tremonti killing it.

13. Hammer to Fall-Queen. Queen is my favorite group, if I have to name one. I mean, every part of the band was first rate. One of the great songwriting collectives of all time. They were unabashedly, unashamedly operatic and glorious. This isn’t one of their best known songs but it’s one of their hardest rocking tracks. Here is a song that makes you feel energized and alive…about the fact that you’re destined to die. It just fires you up!

14. Tubthumping- Chumbawamba. So I don’t need to explain what this is or why it’s here. It’s Tubthumping. It’s the ultimate anthem to drinking with friends after a bad day. I can say this: it was one I blasted a lot in the winter of 1998, a period where I was extremely depressed. This song felt like a rallying cry for me. It still does.

15. Lucky Man-The Verve. Yes, I listed a song that isn’t Bittersweet Symphony. Relax. I love the hell out of that song. But if Tubthumping was what I loved during my episode in 1998, this is the song that reflects the rebuilding I went through. Everything about this song feels right. Richard Ashcroft was easily up there with the best vocalists of British rock in that era. Beautiful lyrics. Simple but lovely.

16. Under Pressure-Queen with David Bowie. I was a kid of the 90s so of course I initially associated this bass line with Ice Ice Baby. But hearing the real deal wiped that out. This is like Kashmir. There’s nothing to add. The song is just perfect. It’s Queen and David Bowie at their peak. Overplayed/overused? Meh. It’s a classic for a reason.

17. Consume Me-DC Talk. DC Talk were incredible in their day. I realize putting a Christian pop song on my list might be baffling, but this is an incredible love song with potent imagery, a haunting tone, and stellar vocals. This is a song that explodes with the energy of being in love. That it’s spiritual rather than romantic honestly gives it an unexpected power. I’m not getting into religion here, but the depth of emotion expressed towards such a mysterious concept is rather intense.

18. The Way-Fastball. Here is the definitive 1998 song. Probably the key reason this is on this list. It is of a single moment in time that could never happen before or since. There’s a Texas sound mixed with vague alien references and even a second of Jewel in there! I love what a bizarre, funky song this is.

19. Down to My Last-Alter Bridge. 3/4 of this band popped up earlier under the name Creed. Alter Bridge made some really amazing music with Mark Tremonti taking more of an active role in the song writing and creative direction. Their first album was every bit as good as anything they did as Creed. It helps that Myles Kennedy is admittedly a much better vocalist than Stapp. This is their Higher and it belongs here. Rather than being about visions of impossible greatness, it’s, well, a guy sat the end of his rope, but not giving up. Really brilliant.

20. Time To Pretend-MGMT. Here’s the moment this song entered my life: New group of friends, new car, established at my job. “I’m feeling rough. I’m feeling raw. I’m in the prime of my life.” Of course that struck a chord. The song is a brilliant piece of production all around. Very percussion heavy, very dreamlike in a way rarely captured in music. If being in your mid-20s has a soundtrack, it sounds like this.

21. Real-Plumb. If you were to hear this song, you might not quite get even remotely why this song is on here. It’s about the emptiness of presenting an from a distinctly female perspective. But dammit that speaks to me. You don’t live with judgment your whole life and not get sick of what passes for “socially acceptable.” This is a simple, poetic, lift;e song and it belongs here.

22. The Unlucky Ones-Admiral Twin. The fun of this exercise has been that I haven’t thought too much about choosing these songs. At the end of the day, this is simply the ideal mix tape for me. This one is an odd little outlier that I’ve always really loved and which sounds amazing played loud. An anthem for outcasts that lacks the irritating self pity of many of these songs. Great wordplay too. Quite under heard.

23. Signs of Love-Moby. If I have a favorite album of all time, it’s Play by Moby. And not one of its songs is on this list. I realize that makes no sense but hear me out: it works as a unit. American Idiot by Green Day is also a favorite and is unrepresented. They’re complete units. But, this is unique among his canon. It’s a pristine, amazing moment from a gifted artist. This song is so pure and warm and beautiful. It’s so transcendent.

24. Staralfur-Sigur Ros. This song is literally nonsense, a made-up language used as an instrument. And it works. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean but listening to it feels like hearing the morning hours in one song. Describing it is impossible.

25. Circle of Life-Elton John and Tim Rice. For those taking score, this is my only film related entry. A few of these are on soundtracks but this is the only one explicitly from a soundtrack. It’s here for a simple reason: after 20 years, I still get chills listening to it. This one grabs you and refuses to let you go. Even removed from the images–and face it, Disney animators never trumped this moment–it still works. Everything about this song, from the chanting to that final beat creates a powerful crescendo of life. If the goal was to capture the magnitude and awe of existence, well this is as valiant an effort as any I could imagine.

So, that is my list. Could it change? Yes. In many cases you could sub one song out for another. But these are the songs I feel most secure about.

(1) The Gap Year is my next project.

(2) Let me be clear: when original guitarist Childress left, a lot of that fandom died. Their followups to Dosage were the OK Blender, their last with Childress which shows, and the pretty weak Youth. Then I quit buying their discs.

In Recovery

Consider this just a brief, honest note about how I’m feeling of late.

Recovery from an incident of depression can be as complex as being deep in the pit of it. The emotions, much like depression, aren’t as simple as the emotion at the core. In this case, it is happiness but there are other emotions. Some are even the same ones as in depression such as anxiety and fatigue. I’ve had very vivid dreams much as in my depressive incidents for example. They’re just happier.

The general sensation of recovery is best expressed like this: you’re starting a new day after a difficult incident. You’re still carrying the emotions of the time before but they’re fading back and they’re more intellectual than anything else. You’re starting to look at the future. After a long time of not making plans, there are a few made a bit further out than you could make in the time before. You’re trying again.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve slowly begun to enjoy my life again as I used to. Some of this came from drastic steps such as taking a day to flea market and I’ve definitely been making sure to spend my weekends as boldly as I could. I’ve also taken small steps such as trying to read as many comics as I can get my hands on. I went to the movies for the first time to see a new movie since all of this started. I’ve recorded a new ep of my podcast.

These are all the small steps that lead us to rebuild ourselves. I think the most unnerving part of depression is how we lose all passion for the things we love. Even the things we “like” in don’t feel that good. I haven’t really enjoyed alcohol as much as I had before the episode. Finding out a jalapeño pineapple mead tasted good was nice last week. My comics have had a nice kick lately too. Really loved Avengers & X-Men: Axis last week. Good stuff. I’ve even begun enjoying food again in ways I hadn’t in the pit.

I’ve also been writing a lot more. My script is going great! I really think I have something interesting and that helps. Productivity always helps. I admit I’ve started and abandoned several drafts for this blog but nothing felt right or honest. I’ll finish a few of them, I’m sure.

What’s really helped has been not being alone. Amanda of course has been the single most vital part of my life as always. She’s been a tremendous aid and I love her so. I also have my friends, who I can’t express enough love for. That includes just as equally my friends online as off. I’ve not been quiet and they’ve helped. Then there is of course my family who I love dearly. I saw my mother, sister, and brother-in-law last week. I’ve seen my dad several times.

Ultimately the greatest help is time. The phrase “the new normal” has a powerful meaning. After a long enough time, the reality of the situation becomes normal. Then it stops being fresh. It still hurts. I’ve wanted so badly to call Lauren to discuss Gone Girl with her. I sometimes even think I see her. I thought that was a made-up thing but nope! The pain is there but it becomes part of the lens of how I see the world. That’s when I start to work with it.

I make no secret of my love of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I might not get every reference in it but I love the imagery. As I see it, right now I’m climbing out of the pit. I’m in Purgatory. I’m still fighting but I now know things all get better. With every day I’m here they do. I haven’t given up yet.