Anything to feel weightless again

Music to float by

The title of this post comes from a song called “Weightless Again” by one of my favorite bands, The Handsome Family, whose brush with fame was when one of their songs was used as the opening credits music to the first season of True Detective. The Handsome Family’s music is a little tough to pin down, though Wikipedia’s description of “alternative country and Americana” is as good as any (I’ve seen the term “neo-gothic” used quite a bit as well). What they really are is an updated version of the old Appalachian “murder ballads” with more nature metaphors. Their songs are filled with all manner of cruelty, sadness, quiet beauty, and love - the human experience, in other words. This is the chorus:

This is why people OD on pills
And jump from the Golden Gate Bridge
Anything to feel weightless again

Of all the detestable things about New York City, the seemingly constant smell of marijuana tops the list. It was legalized only recently, but it was “decriminalized” years prior such that people could smoke it right in front of cops if they cared to, something I witnessed more than once. The amount of people who partake absolutely staggers me, and they come from all walks of life. Not a one of these people seems to care in the slightest that they’re among the contributors to the overall vibe of a city in decline. Washington Square Park, which should be one of the great jewels of the city, became absolutely inundated with smokers (and eventually gave way to harder drugs). Fran Lebowitz just said this the other night on one of the talk shows: “It does seem to me, since it was legalized for recreational use, it seems that it was made mandatory. The streets of New York are clouds of weed. If you don’t want to smoke marijuana…you have no choice.”

It’s a long standing dream of mine to buy an expensive wireless speaker and carry it with me so that any time I encounter someone smoking, I can stand next to them and play Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima at full volume and then, when they get duly pissed off, say with extreme sarcasm “Oh, I’m sorry, was I offending your sensibilities?” I suppose I don’t have a problem with people getting high, per se. What I have a problem with is the fact that we have the technology to get high by chewing a gummy bear or eating a brownie, thereby avoiding that God-forsaken smell, the equivalent of my wearing headphones to blast Penderecki as I please.

Honestly, though, I kind of do have a problem with people getting high. Marijuana is for checking out, avoiding, ignoring. I’ve read plenty about its effects on anxiety and pain management, and that’s all fine, though I stand by my position on gummy bears or whatever. But it’s also simply a tool for willfully ignoring the truth about existence. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche says that “the strength of a person's spirit would then be measured by how much 'truth' he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.” Weed is all that stuff at the end of the sentence.

I understand the desire to want to check out, I really do. For all the beauty and wonder in the world, there’s an equal amount of horrible bullshit that has a way of superseding the beauty and the wonder. The news, such as the divisive culture war nonsense that we see on TV and the internet can be called news, is enough to drive anyone who is paying even a modicum of attention to the therapist’s couch. We’ve disappeared into something of a tech dystopia in which we are the product being sold to corporations who monetize our feelings and sell us an ever-narrowing range of products designed to mitigate the psychological effects of the very ecosystem that they created and into which we voluntarily ceded our agency (sci-fi writers of the past seem to have thought that when human became cyborg it would involve some sort of surgical fusion of man and machine when in fact all it took was somebody handing us a little computer we could carry around). Our economy is a derailed train still somehow hurtling down the tracks at top speed just so it can derail again, people now literally making up currency and financial instruments as they go. Society doesn’t even agree on what’s real anymore.

Whether or not we should subject ourselves to facing all this without taking drugs is a fair question. I don’t know enough about how previous generations handled stuff like this, although they also weren’t ceaselessly inundated with information like we are. Maybe people during the Dust Bowl managed to get through it with marijuana.

The argument for marijuana as an aid in battling anxiety is usually how it’s better to use something that grows naturally than it is to take a bunch of Xanax. I have no idea if that’s true - a few minutes of looking around Google, JSTOR, and some medical websites doesn’t seem to have anything about the effects of smoking marijuana beyond some articles that suggest that the secondhand smoke is at least as bad and possibly worse than cigarettes - but it’s an easy position to support whether it’s true or not. Meditation or yoga are occasionally brought into this, as is exercise generally. There is no doubt that mindfulness and physical activity have a positive effect on mental health. That’s not checking out, though, that’s combat against negativity, a worthy and necessary battle but wholly separate from escape.

I happen to know a secret about how to escape the madness that doesn’t involve smoking anything or popping any pills. All you need is that pocket computer, maybe some headphones, and a dark place to lie down as comfortably as you can make yourself.

If I ran the world, I would actually try to push this as an idea for people to try in lieu of drugs, knowing full well that it would get laughed at. Unfortunately, I can’t even get friends or family to try it. No, it’s not some high that lasts a few hours, but it gets you the hell out of the nonsense of day to say living for enough time to refresh you. I’ve had many positive experiences doing it and didn’t have to destroy a little piece of everyone’s soul with that dank ass weed smell to do so.

The championship belt holder for writing music to float by is Sibelius. The last movements of the First, Third, Fifth, and the end of the Seventh Symphonies all have music that works for this. Some of Arvo Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” stuff is excellent as well, especially Spiegel im Spiegel (for an interesting counter, there is also Fratres, which gives the impression of sinking, at least to me). Alan Hovhaness has some options, by far the best of which is Fra Angelico. There are spots from some interesting one offs as well, like Rainbow Body by Christopher Theofanidis, the end of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, or the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9.

As you can tell from that sampling, there isn’t really a consistent sense of volume to any of this. There are few things quieter than Spiegel im Spiegel and few things louder than the end of Mahler 3. Music to float by generally comes in two guises: stuff with motion that conveys a feeling of moving “upward” and stuff with a general sense of stillness, particularly in the harmonies. The famous “Swan Theme” from Sibelius Symphony no. 5 is a good example of the former, Fra Angelico a perfect example of the latter.

I find the dark to be an important element of this process, inasmuch as any of us who live in cities are capable of experiencing darkness (the absence of light…we experience darkness of the soul every day). Presumably it’s as simple as allowing the imagination to run wild with the idea of being in space or, at any rate, in something boundless. Whatever it is, I recommend turning off the lights and closing your eyes. Get one of those satin things to cover your eyes like they surely used during a scene set in a bedroom on Designing Women at some point.

Meditation is hard. Clearing the mind is one of those things that sounds simple and absolutely isn’t, and the frustration that sets in seems antithetical to the whole point of why you were trying to clear your mind in the first place. The common response to that is “it gets easier the more you do it,” and that’s surely as true for meditation as it is for anything else. I myself have never been able to push past the frustration stage into the “this is working” stage, so I have nothing to offer in support of this assertion. What I will say unequivocally is that Relaxation, with a capital R that implies it’s a whole system or something, accomplishes the same goal as meditation, that being to get us to stop being so damned anxious and stressed out all the time. With Relaxation, I can feel my body releasing stress and just calming the hell down. You may float all the way into sleep, which is fine if you set an alarm. There’s no attempt to clear the mind, only an attempt to chill out to the max. And if you use music to help your cause, you can disconnect enough to remember that there is something to the human life beyond chaos and disillusionment!