punk rock did not save my life

It happens often. I’m sitting on my bike or eating a sandwich and a feeling of complete awe falls over me like a god damn seizure. “How the hell did I end up here?” I look around at the wagon, at the dumpstered carrot in my hand, the couch from the trash across the street, and the drafts of my book taped to the walls. Then I grin. And I write things like this.

Punk rock did not save my life.  Maybe it saved yours, maybe it didn’t, but it seems like it’s been pretty key for the authors of the books and zines that I’ve been reading lately.  Whereas most of the activists in my current community came to activism through punk rock, I came to activism through books, and from there eventually arrived at punk rock.  Some people might say this makes me a geek, but as long as we’re throwing around useless labels, let’s say it makes me a book punk and celebrate.

There are a lot of ways to tell the story, and this version is paved with books. So far I’d say it’s been like a good run at Chutes and Ladders, with the end of civilization as the end goal.  (Note to self: get an old copy of that game and re-invent it as an endgame scenario.  Rejoice; play all winter while hiding inside from the cold.) 

It probably started with The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin.  I’d read and loved her Earthsea Trilogy when I was 10 or 11, which lead me to more of her books (she does a lot of interesting social critique type science fiction/fantasy, I’d recommend checking out The Left Hand of Darkness as well, if you like that sort of thing), which led me to The Dispossessed. It is a story about anarchists who have taken up residence on the moon that revolves around a physicist who gets the chance to visit earth (the anarchists and the earthlings have little to no contact) and talks a lot about capitalism and anarchism and the pros and cons of how each is run in these two fictional societies.  I haven’t read it since, but at the time it was fascinating, eye-opening, and had passages that left me with that warm magical feeling of having discovered something in black and white on paper that I had felt budding inside of me for years, but had never articulated.  That feeling that the author had managed to perfectly articulate my very own thoughts, and that I was not alone.  Nikki, meet anarchism; anarchism, Nikki.

From there I jumped into The Alexander Berkman Reader (which was alright) and Living My Life by Emma Goldman (which was fantastic and inspirational).  Again and again I discovered thoughts and feelings on paper that felt as if they’d been bubbling inside of me for years, unspoken, unsown.  Now here were others thinking them, describing them, praising them, analyzing them, and reading their words helped me to clarify my own thoughts, and slowly I began to speak, the seed that had long lain dormant sprouting up and up, toward the bright light of the sun.
Then I got a copy of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and my fucking head just exploded.  There are probably still pieces of it on the wall behind my bed.  I was excited and read Quinn’s Story of B (for many a book more digestible as it’s narrator is not a talking gorilla, as in Ishmael) in a storm.

It was the same year that I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser whose last chapter so poignantly declared, hey, if what you read here bothers you, then do something, stop buying this shit, we have to start somewhere and individuals can make a difference.  The day I finished that book I stopped eating meat.  That was important.  Not the fact that I sworn off meat, but the fact that despite having spent most of my life feeling too small and helpless to change the world’s big bad problems, this book had convinced me in a few paragraphs that I too had leverage power.  That was all in one year, round about 2003.

That’s how I came to anarchism, to food activism, and to the tip of the anti-civ iceberg.  When I started reading Quinn I couldn’t believe that friends of mine had actually read it without freaking out and/or drastically changing their lives.  (Actually, I still sometimes wonder how this is possible.)  But despite the fires Quinn had lit in my brain, after that year I still landed myself a “chute” instead of a “ladder” and signed myself up for a corporate desk job.  There were college loans to be paid off, and I could start two weeks after graduation.  What I really wanted to do was travel, but in the end I took the safe route, paid off the loans, and let corporate life gradually destroy all the bits of my creativity and spontaneity that college hadn’t already gotten.

I was still reading about anarchism and activism, but besides working that was pretty much all I was doing.  Corporate Desk Work Steals Human Soul (I’d like to see that in the headlines), ho hum, everybody knows the story and mine isn’t any different, except that after a year I ran screaming, brashly decided to move to Germany after being offered a job taking care of some rich people’s children, and a whole new era began.

My reading had left so many questions, and I tried to work them out.  So civilization was crap, but what now?  I sure as hell didn’t have a clue.  Even Quinn’s Beyond Civilization didn’t really clear this up.  What about the pacifism versus violence issue?  At the time I actually wrote an essay about why pacifism was a decent idea and that violent things like guns were kind of stupid.  How embarrassing to look back at, like an awkward pubescent yearbook photo.  Lucky for me I never ended up publishing the zine I had written it for.

I also started to get interested in spreading ideas through alternative mediums like graffiti and urban art.  I read Days of War, Nights of Love and Evasion, and my head exploded again in ecstasy/intellectual harmony/inspiration once again.  Every day I was changing little things about my life.  The seed I had found in my reading that last year of college had sprouted into an enormous vine, still climbing. 

I slobbered over books by Howard Zinn and the Situationalists.  I participated in Food Not Bombs.  The little things in my life that I was changing started to become big things.  I took six months off work to work on some writing projects and never really managed to convince myself to come back.  I moved into a little dwelling in a squatted community and left my job for good.  I became a scavenger and more or less stopped buying things, stopped buying into them.  Fuck the job I didn’t really like, fuck the health insurance salesperson making money at my expense while denying coverage for things I needed, fuck pretending like money really meant anything and could be traded for things as precious as food, water and shelter.  I started dedicating my life to things that felt important deep in my gut, instead of those things I’d been socialized to understand as important.

When my cousin got her hands on As the World Burns by Derrick Jensen and excitedly sent it on to me, its message totally blew everything we’d read up until then out of the water and articulated so many points we’d still been a bit tongue-tied about up to that point  in a clear, logical way that helped us both to further untangle our own complicated thoughts.

I read Endgame in my first wagon home by candlelight (no grid electricity or running water there) and since then the progression of my gorilla thought has become less and less track-able as my influences have swung away from (mainly) life-changing books (though I was recently quite inspired by The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Katz) to life-changing people (and the songs and zines they write and distribute themselves) and experiences that have kept the ball rolling since as I try to create media that will inspire others myself.

And that brings us right up to today, to you and me sitting on opposite sides of two computer screens. You knowing so much about my life, and me wondering so much about yours.

0 Comments on “punk rock did not save my life

  1. One of my heros is Kirsten Brydum, who was murdered in New Orleans, which makes me cry still, just remembering. Google ‘Kirsten Brydum Memorial’ and you can read all about her, and the many things that she accomplished in her tragically short life.

  2. I still cannot get over the fact that you were able to pay off your loans in a year. Baffled, I am. Simply baffled (and impressed, of course).

  3. Actually, it baffles me a little too, come to think of it. I had cheap-ass rent because my mom and I moved into an apartment together and, well, remember how I lived down the street but nobody ever saw me that year? It’s because I didn’t do shit except go running and lay in bed reading. Aka I wasn’t spending much money, but was making desk-job bank. I didn’t have a lot of loans left at that point, however, because my mom put most of the money that my grandfather left her when he died to covering the house-sized ones. Long live Grandpa Ken and Mama Sue!

  4. The Dispossessed is one of my life changers too. I identified myself as an anarchist long before I read the book, but it was the first coherent model I had found of what a successful anarchist society would actually look like. I have passed around my copy to everyone who I thought might actually read it.

    Ishmael was a good one too. Enchanting and thought-provoking for sure. But I reread it recently, and he keeps harping on about how feeding the hungry results in higher populations, and that is just patently untrue. Feed the hungry and people start realizing they no longer have the motivations to keep breeding too many children – to work and bring in income, to tend the land, to take care of them when they get old, and to overcompensate for the children that will not make it, which in some places is inevitable. So he makes a lot of great points, but in the end the gorilla skews the facts and comes off as deeply biased in his push for a return to nature. It has left me wondering where we fit into the ecosystem, when some of the laws that govern it seem to lose our hold on us when we reach a certain technological threshold and whether or not that is a positive thing.

    I’ll have to check into some of those other authors; I’ve been dying for something I can sink my teeth into properly.

  5. Ah, that certainly helps. And yes, I remember how you lived down the street and I never saw you…and your beautifully-written budget taped to the inside of your kitchen cabinet (I glimpsed it; I did not spy). I think of that often, actually, when I start to realize I need to reassess my own budget.

  6. Jill: I had a neatly written budget on the inside of my cabinet? Damn, I don’t even remember that. But it would make sense. I was all about making double and triple loan payments a month.

    Rachele: Thanks for the response. I gave away all my Quinn books to others who I thought should read them, and thus have never been able to go back and re-read and re-assess. I imagine I would be much more critical at this point though, having come much further down the path of thought that I felt like he never took me far enough down. Do you have any book recommendations for me? It makes me really excited to meet (if you can call talking on a computer meeting) someone else for whom “The Dispossessed” was important. Hurray!

  7. Speaking of book recommendations along these lines, I recently (recently like last year sometime) read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and that was a pretty sweet one too. The only problem I had with it is that the author totally flakes out of coming up with a real human-based plan to overthrow the government by putting an all-knowing super computer at the hands of the rebels. But an exciting “this is how revolution could work” book all the same. I love sci fi.

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