Using Prog Rock to Combat Existential Dread


This is going to be a bit on the rambling side. Sorry about that.

When I announced to my friends and my family that I would be packing up everything and moving across the world to a country where I know no one and don’t speak the language, most of them said the same thing: “Oh my god, are you freaking out!?”

And the funny thing was that, no, I wasn’t freaking out. I was relieved! I was ecstatic! I was stoked! I was about to fulfill a dream that I worked my ass of for! To this day, nearly one month into my move to Tokyo, nothing about the move itself has made me “freak out.” At the most, I’ve felt confused (mostly because of language barriers) and at times daunted at all that had to be done, although that was widely before the move, now I’m in an easily-manageable routine.

To say I never freaked out though would be a bit of a lie. Because during this entire process I learned something about me that I had not previously suspected.

My brain is fucking stupid.

Okay, well, I’ve had suspicions in the past that might be the case, but these past months really proved them to be true.

This is what happened. Right before Christmas things really started to heat up with my move. My roommates had moved out, I was getting my house ready to put on the market, and I was really going into overdrive with packing and setting things up to go into storage. It was a lot of work, and if anything about my move caught me off guard, it was just how hard it would be to prepare for the move itself. I know that kind of sounds stupid, so allow me to elaborate. I knew the move would be a lot of work, more work than anything I’ve ever done before, I just didn’t realize it would be THAT much work. I didn’t realize it would be 14+ hours of packing, sorting and organizing a day work. I wasn’t prepared for that.

I also wasn’t prepared for the solitary aspect of it all. My roommates lived with me for nine years. It’s not like we spent all hours of the day together, but it was a comforting feeling to know that I was always just a few feet from someone if I needed to talk about something important, or to just vent and engage in a bit of human interaction. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past few months is that I’m far more extroverted than I ever thought I was).

So they were gone, leaving me in a big empty house that was becoming emptier by the day, as I packed up more and more of my stuff and drove it off to storage. And I was seeing less and less of my friends as well, which isn’t their fault. I really can’t blame them, I mean “come on over and help me pack shit” doesn’t really sound like a rad way to spend a Friday night.

It was in this negative feedback loop of anxiety, isolation and stress that I did the worst thing that anyone can do in such a situation.

I started reading random shit on the Internet.

Seriously, before I get any further, if any of you ever find yourself in a situation similar to mine, do yourself a favor. Watch a movie or TV show, read a book, play a video game, GO OUTSIDE. Whatever you do, just don’t read random “news” blogs. Especially random news blogs that publish woefully under-researched articles about near-time extinction related to runaway climate change.

Yeah, in the 11th hour before my move, I decided to dive headfirst into an existential crisis about human extinction via climate change.

See? Brain. Stupid.

I don’t want to talk about the article in question that launched me into this fit of depression, I don’t feel it’s worth mentioning. I’ve done plenty of research (and then some) in the days and weeks since reading it to learn that most of what it said was bogus and based off of flawed research, and that while the future of humanity most likely won’t be sunshine and lollipops, championing our complete and total extinction in less than 30 years is a bit much.

But in what I now realize was a fragile mental state, I sure as hell bought into it hook, line and sinker when I first read it, and the result was…not pretty. I more or less lost a whole weekend’s worth of work to a debilitating bought of depression, and while it lessened enough to allow me to get work done in the coming days, it still left me a shell of my former self (and my stomach a goddamn wreck) for at least a few weeks, finally subsiding in the days right before I left the states.

Once arriving in Tokyo, I had too many real-life of-the-moment pressing matters to focus on any abstract fear or anxiety. I had to get my immigration papers in order, file for national health insurance (yay!), start the intensive training for my job, get my apartment in order, and so on. It was a myriad of distractions, and they served me well for at least a week or so.

But then my brain got stupid again.

It’s funny how when I find out about something that both upsets me greatly and I can do next-to-nothing about, I try to spend as much time possible focusing all my attention on it. I started reading about climate change (always focusing on implausible worst-case-scenarios) while on the train, between lessons at work, even on my phone while at the cat cafe! It was once again creeping back into my life, threatening to ruin my dream-come-true existence.

Thank god for Yes.

So, a bit of backstory. Earlier this year I guested on an episode of Retronauts, a podcast dedicated to retro gaming (full disclosure: I was a guest because I backed it on Kickstarter). One of the hosts of that podcast is Jeremy Parish, an excellent journalist, ardent Bionic Commando fan, and die-hard Yes supporter. Talking with him briefly about Yes (and engaging in Yes-centric discussions between him and Chrontendo creator Dr. Sparkle via Twitter) piqued my interest in the group. In the past, I would typically dismiss most Yes as “boring prog-rock wankery” but after hearing these (supposedly) sane people elate about how great they were, I decided to give the group a chance.

Thankfully, at the same time I made this decision, I saw a Yes discography box set at Tower Records (JAPAN HAS TOWER RECORDS) on sale for about $50. An amazing deal I couldn’t resist, so I grabbed it. And wow, it turns out that Yes is an all right band! Fragile is a great record! 90125 is like some amazing best-of-both-worlds combination of prog and synthpop! And Drama…well, hey that first song is pretty rad.

But what the fuck does this have to do with my depression?

Well, one of the things I like doing the most in Tokyo is just walking around. Tokyo is a really safe city (especially when you tower over the general populace like I do), and that affords one the possibility to just trek out and explore. And, me being me, I don’t go anywhere without my iPod and a pair of headphones. It was during one of these treks that I felt especially depressed and anxious when I decided to pop on The Yes Album, the rather poorly-named third LP in the band’s discography.

The fourth track on The Yes Album is “Iv’e Seen All Good People,” a track I have probably heard over a thousand times before, but one that I never listened to before that night. On the near empty twilight streets of Tokyo, alone with my thoughts, I realized that this song is about getting out of your own skin, doing the right thing and living life to the fullest (all surrounded in a chess metaphor).

One line in particular “don’t surround yourself with yourself, move on back two squares” especially resonated with me. It was describing my problem to a tee. I was too far into my own head and thoughts. so far removed from reality and the amazing life I was making for myself that I couldn’t even see it! I had to step back, re-evaluate my life, and figure out what was really important to me. Was I going to stay lost in my own thoughts and fret about something that I have minimal control over? Or was I going to escape this negative feedback loop of self-destruction and sadness and actually realize that, even in the worst of times that could come, I have a lot to live for and a lot to enjoy. And absolutely nothing in the world, nothing that has happened and nothing that might happen should stop me from living life to the fullest.

Yeah, I got all that from a Yes song.

I told you, my brain’s weird. But I’m happy I was able to harness its weirdness to escape that funk. Now I’m enjoying life again, and I can honestly say that right now I’m probably the happiest I’ve ever been. And it feels really good to write that sentence.

At the same time, I haven’t resolved to stop caring about the environment and climate change, topics that have long interested me well before these recent events. In fact, I want to double-down and actually try to make a difference. I’m no longer content to sit from the sidelines and read about assholes and evil corporate mouthpieces spew lies into the discourse, distracting and deceiving people into a false sense of security that could, in long term, spell disaster for the entire human race. I’m going to get involved!

Okay, I’m still trying to figure out how to get involved!

So…if anyone has any ideas there, that’d be great, let me know! However, if anyone out there has any comments related to climate change being a fraud by Al Gore, or conversely, any comments that back up the alarmist, defeatist and idiotic viewpoint that all of humankind will die-off in the next 20-50 years because of climate change, please keep them to yourself. The former are annoying, and the latter do nothing to help anyone as that’s just another form of giving up. And while at times the fight against climate change does often feel like an impossible uphill struggle, I’m just not ready to throw in the towel and concede just yet. And besides, nothing worth fighting for has ever been easy. The good guys have won near-impossible battles before, and I believe they can do it again if they try hard enough.

Sorry if this was kind of random, it was something I had to write. My next blog post will be about record stores I promise.

One Response to Using Prog Rock to Combat Existential Dread

  • C. says:

    Nice article, fella – a buddy of mine sent me a link to your article on the toy stores and I couldn’t resist the title of this one. My 2 cents: There’s been a recent study that suggests that paracetamol can help curb “existential dread” – though Roger Dean illustrated records are obviously a close second. Work on what you can, which is your immediate surroundings and work on improving yourself: Exercise, eat right, learn patience, learn understanding, humility – learn an art well enough to practice it as a craft. Whether it’s music or ikkebana – do it well, not just well enough. The other stuff will fall in place. Even the big stuff. Small actions have big effects and people are more convinced by peoples actions than the noises that emit from our heads and hands. Art is really the only thing that has the power to break through the plaque of noise and nonsense of our everyday lives. So maybe consider that… Good luck.

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