On the eve of his return to the U.S., Adam takes stock.
The first time I was in Asia for an extended period, my then-girlfriend (a highly educated Filipina) teased me when I said I needed to “process” all my Asian experiences before I could really know how I felt about them (and her). “That’s such an American thing to say,” she snorted.
I took slight offense at that time, because I really did need to process it all. After a year now living in this environment, I see what she meant. Living for 12 months in Indonesia and the Philippines (and a smattering of other places) offered lots of contrast for me to think about my own life, the things I wanted, that made me happy, my own skills, my own failings. But it didn’t give me any perspective on the experience itself. When you’re in water, you’re wet. Until you dry off, there’s nothing to compare to.
Moreover, people who live here have a refreshing tendency to realize that life is something that happens to you, not something you are expected to have a complete grip on at any given moment. Southeast Asians tend to simply get on with the business of living, and evaluate it later…or perhaps not at all.
Leaving your own country and going off to live on a tropical island is a fantasy. It’s something people dream about but mostly don’t ever do. By any measure, it’s an extraordinary thing…but not to me. It’s just what I did. I got up every day and if it was a good day, I ate and drank and saw and existed and if it was a bad day I coped with the challenges. But the same as anybody else around me, it was just my life. Once you stop being a tourist, the things around you cease to be strange and your relationship to it all changes. It’s not a foreign thing any longer. It becomes part of who you are.
My feelings about going back to the United States are mixed, but at this point, they’re generally positive. I would feel differently if I didn’t have a return ticket booked, a fixed and paid for exit back out of my old life which I will shortly re-enter, seemingly unchanged in many ways. At many points in the last six weeks this sense of going backward has freaked me out. The year in Asia did seem to have reached a sort of closure without any clear direction forward, so going home with so much of my old life waiting to welcome me back did seem to be some sort of an admission of defeat psychologically. It’s been a great year, but it was never about having a long vacation. It was about building a new life.
That feeling passed, however. There was a point about ten days ago when I just let go and figured everything was going to work out. It helped that there were certain signs pointing in that direction – a decent business plan for the future and the financial foundations looking better (especially my insurance company unexpectedly and miraculously paying my hospital claim at long last), but also an acceptance that my intentions were in the air and that was likely enough. Things were probably already underway unknown to me that are going to add to the picture significantly. There are times to plan and to act, but there are other times when the smarter play is to wait and let things play out.
The general knowledge that I could let up on my own self-discipline and get back in the moment (and spend a bit more) has made the last week or two in Asia a lot more fun. I can be a bit of a tourist again (though I’ve also spent a portion of my time and money helping other people, which is something I need to do more of in the future). I’m also looking forward to picking up some of the threads of my life – especially playing with my band – for a little while. The repetition of those threads, and the fact that pulling them didn’t ever seem to lead anywhere, bored me in L.A. as time went on. Now they’ll be special again, because they will only happen in this brief window, and there’s no expectation for them to lead anywhere.
Leaving the United States brought a lot of the things that were bothering me about my own culture into very sharp relief. Although the stuff was bugging me before I left, it became so obvious once I was out of it all. Now, by going back, I can get a chance to look at my own experience here through the eyes of my own culture, of my friends, of other Americans, in terms of the stories I can tell and how they’re framed by my own culture. To the extent you see this journey of mine as something special, I will get to see it more that way too. Being able to look at these distant and exotic islands as distant and exotic, and not the reality I just wake up to every day just like you do in your place, is going to be really helpful for me.
I know people reading this blog probably expect me to write about how the experience has changed me but the fact is I simply have no idea. I can speak Indonesian kinda, and a little Tagalog, and I’ve absorbed lots of information about the cultures in this part of the world…but until I’m out of this environment, I wouldn’t even notice anything else. I found out when my friends came to Bali that I’ve become a killer negotiator at the local market – but until I was put in that position and brought to bear my new cultural, language and life skills to be that guy, I had no idea.
There’s indeed a lot to “process.” As you can imagine, I only write about a fraction of the things that happen to me here. There’s too much to whittle down to a blog, too many complicated angles of thought to sort through, and of course, I’m living within the bounds of my own ethics and the laws and mores of the places I am inhabiting, and people in the U.S. are going to bring their own frames of references to these stories without understanding those things – which invariably leads to trouble.
Part of the point of leaving was to be able to live out of the rigid realms of social expectation and “bubble knowledge” that the United States has ground itself into (being able to mix easily without social judgment or fear with all manner of age groups, religions and walks of life has been particularly thrilling to me). I’ve done nothing I’m ashamed of or illegal, but there are a lot of things I’ve observed and experienced and done that I will only ever talk about with a few people that have a similarly wide outlook on life and can see these things for what they are, and not through narrow prisms of their own culture and idealogy.
I can’t wait to be able to have that conversation. There’s much to tell, and I can’t do it here. I don’t share all that much anyway, but when I do, I am sharing with other people that are also here, living in the same environment, swimming in the same pond. I wouldn’t get the same perspective on it as I would going over the ground in my old environment, with people who came from the same place.
What Asia Is And What It Isn’t
Coming back to the United States, with the expectation that I will be returning later to Asia with a new start and focus, gives me a great opportunity to think about what I value about my life here, what’s missing that I had in the United States, how much of what’s missing is in my surroundings, and how much of that is my own bullshit.
This has been an ongoing conversation, but now I can really hone in on it. And when I come back here, I have to make some decisions about what I want to do and where I want to do it.
The biggest concern for me, equivalent to money (which I’m working out), is my health. Mentally, it’s no contest. I am far happier, by a wide margin, living in Asia. This is obvious to anybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written about the experience and to the people that have visited me here. The reasons for this haven’t really changed. It’s more stimulating, social options are way better, people are less closed off, there’s so much to discover, and I’m out of the rigid thought limitations that my culture has arbitrarily dictated for itself and that I’ve grown bored with. The things that were missing in my life in L.A. are here. Big time. The problems of loneliness and boredom that infect me and so many others in my demographic, while they do occasionally resurface, are solved here.
Physically it’s a different story. I am in better shape than when I got here, but that was after eight months of destroying my health working to leave. My weight has fluctuated but generally I’m a little heavier than I should be. I was in far better physical shape in 2016, and even in 2015, when I was very overweight, I was doing yoga 5-6 times a week and was strong as an ox (and spiritually sound as well). Part of the idea of doing this was to try to get back to that state of physical and spiritual health. That hasn’t happened.
There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that, while health care is far more accessible and affordable than it is in the U.S., it’s a much less healthy environment. You have poorer infrastructure, more pollution, bad air quality in many places. It’s just fantastically easy to injure yourself here. One of the ways I have changed is that now, even when I’m in a hurry, I’m very aware of my surroundings and the possible ways things could go wrong. Around the house I’ll always walk with my weight right over my feet because one wrong move on a slippery surface and you’ve broken your leg. We talk a lot about how much the U.S. is a “nanny state” and while there’s truth to that, it is a much safer place to be for workplace regulations and liability. We don’t have to mind our heads or feet as much. In poorer countries, you really have to watch it.
Another is diet. Things are less evolved here in terms of awareness of nutrition, problems with sugar, cholesterol, things like that. You’re going to find very few “low sodium” or “reduced sugar” options. The food in the Philippines is particularly poor in that regard – lots of very fatty meat in the diet and many processed foods in the stores. In Indonesia, there’s tons of great food, but I tend to overindulge on it, so it’s a bit of the reverse.
The common theme is it’s a bit difficult to control your diet at times. Places like a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s or vegan restaurants – they do exist, but they are far more limited in stock plus you really have to search for them, and I don’t have a car (and just like there, they’re really expensive). In the Phils, it can be difficult to find a good vegetable-oriented dish. In Indonesia, that’s less of a problem, but good luck finding a fruit drink that isn’t full of added sugar (if you ask them to hold the sugar, they’ll still put in lots of ice, so you wind up with flavored water). In Thailand, the food is delicious but it’s full of oil, which my digestive system hates. So stuff like that.
Besides food, for a lot of the other issues I am experiencing, yoga would help me a ton. Yet my yoga practice has declined over here, despite having unlimited time to put into it. I’ve thought about why this is. One issue is the same problem I have in the U.S. – it’s hard to slot a time for it. At the beginning of the day I usually feel pretty crummy and there are a lot of things I have to do to get ready to go out and do anything. It might take me one to two hours. So by that time, I’m ready to get moving. I don’t want to get on the mat and kill another half hour doing yoga. There’s also the issue that yoga is a mental discipline that calms you, and this environment is so stimulating that basically, you want to go do that and not sit around and meditate. The end of the day has always been the best time for me to do yoga, but that also tends to be the time I’m the most physically comfortable, and so that’s usually when I work, because it doesn’t hurt. By the time that’s over, it’s time for bed.
But I think the biggest issue is that I’m not taking classes. There’s just something about having a good teacher and being able to come back to class having made progress that really keeps you on track. I have looked at some classes here, but they haven’t really worked out for me. The classes I took in L.A. were really specific to my skill level and interests and don’t really translate well to the type of people that are going to a yoga class in southeast Asia. In Bali, those people are hardcore. I don’t care about that, I don’t want to twist myself into a pretzel. I’ve always been into what I’d call “advanced beginner yoga.” Really doing the basics well and getting into them. That takes a certain type of teacher and class that’s hard to find here. And of course, yoga classes are expensive. So I haven’t worked very hard to make it happen.
I also thought I’d get much deeper into certain aspects of music. I’ve done a little better at this, but in the last few months I’ve barely played at all. The fact is, I became a really good musician because it was my job and I had to do it every day. I do enjoy playing for pleasure, but I still need to make a living, and there are other things I want to do with my free time than sitting around playing guitar. So it’s analagous to the yoga thing. Sure, I can sit around and just play guitar and meditate. That looks great on paper. But it’s kind of lonely, and boring. And what was it that drove me out of L.A. in the first place? Right. So that’s why those things haven’t happened.
The other thing that’s been somewhat unsatisfactory here is that I really haven’t had enough nature. Living in the San Fernando Valley, I had easy access (by car) to an amazing variety of hiking places. In recent weeks I’ve really come to understand how much I’ve missed this. There’s great hiking in these countries too, but those spots are difficult to get to and transport is expensive (and I still haven’t reconciled myself to driving or riding a motorcycle — too much could go wrong). I walk a lot, but it’s largely in urban environments. That’s a lot of fun, but man, when I was up in central Luzon and saw those wide spaces and mountains – I’ve been missing that, though I hadn’t realized it. That sense of there being a vastness that you can explore – that’s something about the American Southwest that I always loved and still do.
I could go on and make a pretty long list like this, but really, as I take stock, these are the parts of my life I haven’t really brought on line and need to.
Which gets me back to one of the things that is really amazing about this experience. Most of how we live our lives is a combination of reacting to our surroundings and what’s innate within us. We usually have a very incomplete consciousness of what these things are, how they affect us, and how they parse out. I never realized how much I value hot showers until I got here and had to sometimes go without them, for example. It’s just something that we take for granted. It’s a great part of our day we don’t even notice.
By being totally out of my own culture and also having to change lodgings frequently, I’ve really started to see to what extent I’m affected by the places I live – what kind of areas, and rooms, I like to live in, and what they bring out of me, how they affect my scheduling of the day, my productivity, etc. A lot of the things that had surrounded me in the U.S. that were affecting me negatively are gone – so with that out of the way I can see in much clearer relief the ways I sabotage myself or character traits that, if I want to change patterns, I need to either change or rechannel (and if I can’t do that, stop pretending that I’m going to change patterns). Most of us never get that opportunity. We take all those guardrails of our lives for granted, the physical environment and other surroundings, but they’re actually very fluid and changeable things that influence us profoundly without us realizing it.
Surroundings also play a huge role in motivating us to do stuff. If I have a big-ass living room, I’m going to want to do yoga. If it’s a tiny place like the one I’m in now, no way. If I’m living on a busy street I’m that much closer to a vibrant regular social circle I can be a part of – but there’s not going to be much privacy. If there’s a really nice guitar lying around I’m going to want to pick it up and play it. On a macro scale, every single place I’ve been – including the United States – has advantages and disadvantages. The food’s better in Indonesia. The health care is better in the Philippines. It’s so much easier to have steady work in the United States. And yeah, I can bounce around to each if I want, but one gives up something that way too.
My mom – one of the most astute people I ever met – once said two things about me that were spot on. One was an observation, and the other was advice borne of that observation. The first was that whenever I faced a decision in my life, I would always choose the path that preserved the most options.
This hasn’t been necessarily a bad thing, but like the main character in High Fidelity, you do get to the point where committing to nothing prevents you from moving forward in your life. Now, as I’ve already said, caution is prudent in this part of the world. I’m not going to rush into a relationship, or a job, or a place, without being darn sure it’s where I want to be or what I want to do. But as my wise mom once said to me (#2), “Adam, at some point, you are going to have to pick.” I have so many choices available to me, and by coming to Asia, I’ve transformed a lot of really shitty choices into some pretty awesome choices. And my old life to some extent is still available, too. So choosing is kinda hard. Many good options.
So it comes down to: Adam, what kind of life do you want? Because it’s just like mom said. At some point, I have to pick. Or if I don’t pick, to quote Rush, “I still have made a choice.” While I’m home, I need to give this question a lot of thought – because the surroundings I place myself in on my return are going to push myself very much in certain directions and thwart others.
What The United States Is And Isn’t
Only a few people knew this, but some time back I had a life plan that basically involved importing a younger bride and after a certain length of time moving up to the Sierras to start a family and live like rustic hippies. Unlike so many life plans I’d tried out mentally, this one seemed pretty engaging and like something I’d stick to. This didn’t wind up happening for various reasons, but even looking back on it from several years’ distance and experience, it still seems like a pretty good plan. I’d dig that.
Except a lot has changed in the last few years, and it’s just as well that this did not wind up happening. I’d probably still be into this idea in a hypothetical future United States and a future financially stable me and of course a suitable partner and other things of that nature. But at the moment, it would be foolhardy.
Set aside for a moment my basic impatience with my own culture which makes me a tiresome nag to other Americans. Regardless of how you feel about Trump, his ascendance has taken my own personal path to back to American life off the table in a couple of ways. The rising wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and increasingly wide-ranging and Draconian enforcement of immigration laws means that many of those folks are leaving, and it would be that much more difficult to bring someone new in…and for various lifestyle and cultural reasons that I needn’t get into here but go way beyond the stereotypical “me love you long time”, that has proven to be the best potential pool of life partnership for me…and life as a single man in the U.S. doesn’t interest me at all any more.
Take that away though and you’ve still got the mess that is the American health care system, and also the recent changes to Obamacare that are going to many of those problems even worse and hit people of my own age bracket particularly hard. It also would make it that much more expensive to try and raise and sustain a family in the U.S. Having seen how it is elsewhere, I can say that the way we have things set up in the United States is flat insane, and because any change that might be made is going to offend someone’s idealogical biases (and/or challenge people with very deep pockets that like things this way), I don’t see this problem being resolved any more than we will ever deal with the gun issue.
There are things about my life in America that, if I could synthesize them with my life in Asia (as I’d thought about doing with my old plan), would make my life in America very satisfactory and interesting to me. But with the current direction of the country – and regardless of who wins in November we are headed for a serious period of turmoil – that’s really a pipe dream.
Things are going to get worse before they get better. And my resources of time, health and especially money are finite and limited. When I do the math and ballpark a return to the U.S., I always wind up in the same place – broke, probably alone in many ways, and at the mercy of a health care system that plays us all for suckers. Being stuck in an American hospice for an extended period of time is my worst nightmare.
When I look at the future here, provided I can work out the income angle, things look a lot rosier. Yes, there are risks – substantial ones. But it’s so much easier to imagine a pleasant old age here than it is in the U.S. I can hope for a return one day when that picture changes, and there’s always the possibility of coming back periodically to kickstart work to bring back and chew over here. That’s what I’m going to do this time, and we’ll see if that’s what the work demands. But I can’t bank on that reorganized and cost-effective U.S. happening and hoping it will happen soon is foolish. The future lies elsewhere. For me, and perhaps the world. That’s how I see it. Time will tell if I am right.
So…even though it’s tempting to think about, I can’t really bring the best parts of my life in Asia back to the U.S. and merge them with the best parts of my life there. Maybe if we had a different outcome back in 2016, or if all this had happened 10 years ago, it could have been thus. Maybe in the future when we’ve resolved our cultural differences and re-established a functional society, it could happen. But now? No. I need to be realistic. That’s not where our country is at. It’s like I said. Your environment matters. You can swim upstream for awhile, but the wave will always drown you. For me, at this stage of my life, with the resources I have, and knowing the things I need to prosper and be happy, the U.S. is a spectacularly bad bet.
Therefore, that integration needs to happen with me (mostly) here. I have amazing friends now all over the world, with talents and needs of their own, and I’m smack in the middle of all of them. I can help them, I can connect them, and I can help myself too, if I am resourceful enough. And happily, I think I’ve hit on a pretty good idea.
What Comes Next
I’ve enjoyed doing this blog, but it’s pretty clear after four months it’s not generating enough financially to justify the time I put into it (though you can feel free to subscribe/contribute here). Now, that’s not an unexpected outcome nor is that a criticism. It just is what it is. It takes a lot to get people to pay for something they don’t have to pay for, and it’s not like anyone’s dying for another blog. I don’t know if I’d pay for it if it was me. I guess it would depend on how much I read it.
That said, I want to keep doing the blog. For one thing, when I come back to Asia in the fall, I’m determined to see more of it. I’m not sure quite how I will do this, but probably dump a lot of my possessions here in the Philippines for the purposes of music work, and then strap on a backpack and check out some other places. Australia, Cambodia, Japan. Who knows. If I do that there will be a lot more to take pictures of and write about.
Looking further ahead into 2019, I’ve thought about expanding my reach. If I can find places to crash, I can manage just about anywhere. There’s parts of Europe I want to see. Friends have even suggested trying to find summer gigs in Alaska, which is an intriguing possibility. Though I’ve enjoyed finding something of a home in Bali, I’m ready to see some new things for a bit…and I don’t want to try to force any one thing or place to “be” what I’m looking for. I always felt like when I was touring one day I would find what I was looking for, and then I’d stop. That actually did happen once. Except I couldn’t stop. I had another gig to go to. That won’t be the case this time, hopefully. I can always stop, when I find something I want to stick around for, or if I simply get tired and am ready to root myself again.
On a practical level, I think the blog is going to prove its value over time and also, as I look things over financially, the model – having recurrent income every month that I don’t have to think about – is really good; it’s just not nearly enough. I’m going to need flexibility for reasons of health (because of my neck problems, I need to stay out of workplaces that force me to be behind a computer for extended periods) and to allow me to take advantage of opportunities that might come my way –people have inquired about me being a health tourism guide, an export buyer, a language tutor, being in a band in a few countries, a matchmaker, etc. I’ve done none of these things yet but I want to stay open to everything in the future. If it makes sense, and it’s worth doing, I’ll do it. Just ask.
I also don’t want to abandon doing music but, as I’ve said already, I think my people-connection skills may be just as valuable nowadays as my musical skills. It’s one thing to be able to produce a great record, to come up with the right arrangement, etc. I’m really good at that, but so is Rich McCulley or Steve Refling or Fernando Perdomo or Earle Mankey or Mark Doten or any number of other people I could name. Each of us does our own thing and mine is unique to itself but it’s not like people don’t have lots of good producers to choose from.
However, none of the people I just mentioned do very much to find an audience for the people once they’ve done that record. It’s not part of the job description. Even if they wanted to, they don’t have time and when I was in L.A., though I did do some stuff like that, I didn’t have as much time as I wanted, either.
I’ve got a lot more time over here, though…and not nearly as much recording work. Hmm.
“Music is a people connector,” Carl Wilson once said. Well, it was. It still is a little, but it’s become such a fragmented and specialized field that like everything else in our culture, it’s more often something that isolates us (closed off in our little earbuds and our specialized Spotify feeds) rather than links us. Speaking more broadly, our culture has devalued everything that allows us to think beyond our own needs and wants to things greater than ourselves – I don’t just mean how we demean civics and service, but how music and the arts are now just things on a McDonald’s menu. The idea that you should aspire beyond that, that music is more than some Karaoke machine to suit your mood, that it can connect you to the infinite – that’s not part of our conversation anymore. It’s “elitist.”
So, what do I want to do?
Well, I’m not going to roll it all out right now. But conceptually, what I want to do is merge I Just Disappear and Karma Frog, and establish a subscription service that doesn’t just invite people to kick me a few bucks to write entertaining bullshit, but to be able to access on demand a subset of music that will connect and move people along certain musical lines. It would be centered around Karma Frog music (much of which has not seen general release – Cockeyed Ghost for example isn’t online at all), but include a lot of other music too — like-minded labels, bands, and such.
Not a huge orbit of stuff to sort through like on Spotify, and not a personal-tailored playlist that will give you more of the same thing you’ve always had. Something more like a deliberately low-tech recreation of those old record catalogs – long before we had YouTube, where you’d look down some cheap typewritten list and go “holy shit! It’s a Happy Mondays 7″ that was only released in Belgium!” and then see some ad for some guy in Madagascar who’s got some crazy radio station. Something that is focused enough to offer you a good chance to get that buzz again, but sprawling enough to give you so many rabbit holes to go down that stir your imagination.
How does that connect people? Soo many ways. First, I will need to make sure I have a wide enough subscription base (and it has to be inexpensive enough on its base rate to make it attractive for everyone – the first tier will start at $1.75/month, up to $20/month) to support the time I put into it and so to guarantee a certain amount of traffic.
That means me reaching out personally to lots and lots of people. I figure 100 subscribers is a good goal, and that’s going to take a lot of effort to put together, but it’ll be worth it. As I’ve seen in the past, the more people see a gathering place that speaks to their own needs, the more people will actually gather – and I also want to find ways to allow people to feel a part of it so that they can turn other people on to it, too – some kind of share of the subscription for referrals, perhaps. There will need to be some kind of message board, as well. I love what Steve Hoffman has done with his board, for example (though I know a lot of people reading this don’t agree!).
Once that’s done: subscribers means an actual audience for musicians struggling to find one. It means the ability to offer inexpensive advertising that will be really useful and fun to read. It means a platform to find other like-minded musicians, labels, and fans. It will dovetail well with promotional services I will offer to so many bands that are looking for an inexpensive way to reach listeners, writers, and radio stations. (And remember: it also means the blog gets to continue.)
It also means the opportunity to record a lot more, because instead of just being a studio, I’m now a content creator. I have to add to my channel. It will provide a way to finish projects at KF that have languished for lack of budget. It means being able to go back to everybody who ever recorded with me and give them a new opportunity to be heard. It means being able to make special deals with people to do recording work for them that can’t do it under the current rubrick. It means being able to do more, not less, Karma Frog music…and to lift the boats of our friends and other similar labels and entities that we’d partner with.
And it gives me a chance to connect Asia to America. There are so many ways I see synergies that can happen between people I know all over the world with common interests and needs, most of which I haven’t acted on yet. Obviously, if I’ve got money coming in, it gives me opportunity to kick work down to some local people here and over time, to facilitate personal connections and music connections between them. Only yesterday I ran into a couple that run a studio and do music for some of the Philippines’ top artists – but they have no access to U.S. listeners. There could be a foreign artists section of the website where people could explore those kinds of things – I could pick out the songs most appropriate to the site, folks could download them, and if they liked them, explore elsewhere. Win-win.
I know it’s all a lot to take in and anybody reading this probably is going “what in the heck is Adam talking about? And how is this different from 1,000,000 other people who have done online music ventures that no one cares about?” Well, that’s why I’m not rolling it out yet. I need to work out some bugs and focus the concept.
But I’m pretty sure, provided I can get enough of a subscriber base and tailor the offerings properly, it will work. The main issues are technical, and also making sure that I can whittle it down to something where I can maintain and grow it without overextending myself, while still bringing in enough money to justify the time. But it looks like I will have several months to work it out, and it appears that there will be enough Karma Frog work plus my insurance settlement to keep the wolves at bay while I do.
So, once again, I guess I’ve made the choice that offers the most options. But…it’s also a choice that brings the most people into my life, and places me at the center of that whirlwind. It’s something that I’m uniquely positioned to do….and that can succeed and grow in any number of ways. Hell, maybe the blog will unexpectedly take off, or I’ll rediscover a career as a performer. Whatever works, I don’t care. If I do this right, it will still preserve time for me to do any number of other things people might throw at me, and also expand my traveling and writing for the blog. That’s the kind of plan I like. If someone makes me a better offer, maybe I’ll do that instead…or I can do both. But in the meantime, I need a better base plan to work from, and this is it.
What do you think? Are you in? Think about it. I’ll give you some time.
And now, to pack. If you’re in the U.S., see you soon. If you’re in Asia, ditto.