Satellite, Part II

Satellite, Part II

U2 is a band renowned for its ability to redefine itself without renouncing its true nature. No fewer than six times has the band successfully redefined itself during its nearly thirty year career; U2 has enjoyed such longevity in part because of their redefining ability. As I near thirty years of age, I find myself in the same process of redefining my identity. Like Bono, I’ve been wondering “What happened to the beauty I had inside of me?” Recent events have finally answered that question.

I sacrificed my identity when I graduated from college and entered the corporate world. I am not cut from the corporate cloth. My first on-campus corporate interview followed immediately after a class on Russian poetry; needless to say, I tanked it. I learned from that mistake, but I learned the wrong lesson – I passed my next corporate interview instead of passing on it. I did what was necessary to support my young family. I conformed.

As I rose up the ranks, I managed to keep enough of my attitude to get myself into a respectable amount of trouble. After less than two years I resigned. I was proud to learn that years later the city manager was still quoting from my letter of resignation (that may be the only time that my writing has been quoted!). I was not proud of what I did next: I went nine months without a steady source of income. Desperate for any sort of employment, I took another entry-level position with a large corporation. This proved to be an even worse fit for me; it was retail.

I was fortunate enough to work with a team that shared my attitude regarding big box corporate retailers. Aside from some obnoxious co-workers who didn’t last, there was only one individual who didn’t understand my point-of-view; she happened to be the department’s manager. I put in for a transfer and my situation went from bad to worse. “You wanted to get somewhere so badly/you had to lose yourself along the way.” I moved to a different department in another store, where my new manager made it painfully clear that if I did not change my attitude quickly I’d end up on the street knocking on closed doors again. That was an experience I was not eager to repeat, so I did what was necessary. I buried my attitude, my personality, beneath layers of corporate rhetoric. As U2 put it, “And you become a monster/so the monster will not break you.” That’s precisely what I did. I became a monster, a distortion.

In order to prevent his own celebrity from consuming him during the Zoo TV tour, Bono experimented with role playing. One of the identities he assumed was known as “The Fly.” Bono hid behind large, black sunglasses and became free to rattle off the skewed aphorisms of the song that shared its name with the character. Like any writer, I am fond of word play and repartee myself; I’ve been called a ‘smart ass’ more than once. That was yet another aspect of my personality that I had to repress. For each of the instances that I allowed my tongue some liberty I was reprimanded. I learned to assume an alter-ego of my own, but, unlike Bono’s, mine kept silent to avoid being crushed. I subverted my own identity in order to survive the corporate jungle, which I did with some success. My department performed so well after a year that my position became obsolete. I nearly worked myself right out of a job.

Long before I was informed of my next position, I told my wife that if they ever moved me into the food court I’d put a bullet in my brain. My supervisor waited until he learned that my wife was about to give birth to our second son to break the “good news.” I took a week off after our baby was born and tried to find another job. The only offer I received was not good enough to warrant forfeiting what few benefits I had earned, so I bit the bullet instead of putting it in my brain. It was a suicide of a different sort – one that still provided for my family’s financial and psychological stability. My identity was buried instead of my body.

My body hardly went unscathed during this trial of personality, however; I ruptured my Achilles tendon. Twice. It was an excruciating injury to endure once, let alone a second time, and yet I still prefer the pain of physical healing to that of the psyche. In my case, one led directly to the other. The time I spent off of my feet (and away from work) afforded me more time to read, and the books I read ignited my revival. Among them were The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, The Sagas of Icelanders, and H.A. Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen (My own mythology and saga-inspired book, Orlando and Geoffrey, was also published at this time). These books prepared me for a book of paramount influence: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

Campbell’s treatise comparing the similar underlying traits of myths from a variety of cultures had a profound impact on my perceptions (Serious fans of the Star Wars movies may be familiar with the impact it had on George Lucas). One of the book’s primary premises is that if many separated cultures independently developed similar myths, then there must be certain elements of myth-making which are inherent in the human consciousness. This helps to explain the broad appeal of mythological tales in addition to demonstrating that even fantastic stories are applicable in real life. In the first section of the book Campbell delineates the stages of the typical hero’s journey. Part of the journey he describes involves a self-realization through self-annihilation. Only by peering inward and casting aside all unnecessary layers of consciousness can the hero (or regular individual) discover his own nature, which is one with the nature of the universe. Introspection provides a view of the so-called big picture. Just by reading this book I began my own inward journey of self-annihilation. I am by no means a hero, but even ordinary individuals like me have a potential (great or small) to fulfill.

If The Hero with a Thousand Faces was the script for my journey, then the Pop album was its soundtrack. Although it was released seven years prior to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I had never heard Pop until after my brother Chris and I saw U2 perform on their Vertigo Tour. In that sense the album was entirely fresh and new to me. None of the songs from Pop made it onto the playlist for the current tour, but they were the most relevant songs pertaining to my search for my dormant inner beauty. What else would you expect from an album that ends with a song called “Wake Up Dead Man?”

The search begins with the first line of the album’s third track: “Lookin’ for to save my, save my soul.” Bono goes on to describe the pieces of his identity that he is seeking. Two that held true for me were: “Lookin’ for the father of my two little [boys],” and “Still lookin’ for the face I had before the world was made.” “Mofo” is a song just about looking, however; one has to go further into the album (and the psyche) for any sort of resolution. The two songs in the middle of the album, “Last Night on Earth” and “Gone,” are songs about losing (or giving away) those traits you no longer need: “You change a name but that’s okay …it’s necessary/and what you leave behind you don’t miss anyway.” This is a theme that carries over into the affirmations found on their next album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Like the mole from “Elevation” I dug into my soul, discarding the ugly, unwanted layers that had accumulated on my personality. It was like removing garish coats of paint from a naturally beautiful hardwood surface.

As I underwent this unsettling internal process, I became increasingly unhappy at my job. The layers which I sheared away had acted as a barrier against the volatile environment of the corporate retail industry. Removing that barrier introduced two incompatible entities into the arena. I would not yield but I could not prevail against an entire corporation. Being true to my nature meant being miserable at work. I was finally finished with the crutches and orthotic boots that had been necessary for my tendon to heal, so I resumed submitting resumes. Yet again the offer I was tendered was insufficient for my family’s needs. I felt trapped.

After a particularly virulent day at work, I went home in a black mood and had an argument with my wife. Due to our previous experience with my lack of employment, she was justifiably unsympathetic to my plight. I informed her that I had better go on medication if I were to survive and walked out into the October night.

While I walked I sang a refrain from (what else?) a U2 song. Not a song from the October album, but perhaps the least likely suspect from Pop: track number nine, “The Playboy Mansion.” As I stated in the opening of this essay, U2 has reinvented its public identity multiple times while retaining their original core identity. “The Playboy Mansion” is a fine example of that apparent oxymoron. The song is a clever comparison of personal and societal values. Bono posits that if society’s values are what they seem to be, then paradise is represented by the Playboy Mansion. This leads him to ask if he has what it takes to qualify for this new incarnation of paradise. Instead of passing judgment on society at large, he takes the productive approach of analyzing his own values. I was doing the same, so I borrowed these lyrics on that dark night:

Don’t know if I can hold on,

Don’t know if I’m that strong,

Don’t know if I can wait that long,

Till the colours come flashing

And the lights go on

Then will there be no time of sorrow

Then will there be no time for shame

And though I can’t say why

I know I’ve got to believe”

But believe in what? In me! That was the precise moment when my identity crisis concluded. The excavation was over. I had a sensation of falling into myself and in that instant I could see the big picture in its entire scope. It is but a seemingly simple shift from “I believe in you” to “I believe in me,” yet the actual difference is tremendous. I had stopped believing in my own gifts, decisions, abilities, and values. When my brother Chris read the predecessor of this essay, one of the comments he made really stuck with me. Referring to our teenage years, he said that he remembered me so well from those days – he’d thought that I was like “a force of nature.” After years of conforming to corporate standards and rupturing my tendon twice, I didn’t feel like any sort of force whatsoever. That night I resolved to be that force again, to wear the face I had before the world was made.

One element of this realization was that I could no longer work for a retail corporation. I could no longer be that subservient. As Bono sings in “Please,” so my identity implored: “Please … please … please get up off your knees.” Although the tone of the song is disparaging rather than earnest, it is the song that best fits what happened next. I began applying for new jobs in November and by the start of December, things fell into place in such a way that Hollywood could never make believable.

I received an e-mail from my lifelong friend Ryan which stated that he had some news so important that he needed to call later that night to share it with me. I suspected something significant had happened in his family. Instead I learned of something tremendously significant for me: due to a fortuitous change in travel plans, Ryan and his wife Erica were coming to Utah for a few days. That was good news indeed, but not so extraordinary that it warranted a phone call. Ryan cast a few more hints my way, but the reality was so far beyond the scope of imagination that I could not grasp it. Their visit coincided with the U2 concert in Salt Lake City, but the concert had been sold out for nine months. That fact did not prevent Erica from securing a pair of tickets on eBay! And since Erica does not enjoy U2 personally, she made the second ticket available to me!

Ryan and I were going to see U2 together! I wrote in part one that I wouldn’t rule it out, but this was beyond all probability! For the second time in the same year I was able to see my favorite band with one of my favorite people, courtesy of the incredible generosity of the women in their lives! Call it fate, karma, or destiny, but nothing short of sheer universal alignment explains such an unlikely possibility!

My excitement and bewilderment made it difficult for me to sleep that night, so I went to my job interview the following day tired but elated. The interview was for a position at the bookstore at the University of Utah, my alma mater. My fatigue proved no deterrent; the interview went well, but I hesitated to set my heart on such a well-suited position. Two days later I received and accepted the offer while at work – for the first time in over four years at Target, I grinned throughout my shift! I submitted my two weeks notice that same night. I was beside myself!

A mere ten days later I was beside Ryan in the Delta Center for my second hitch on U2’s Vertigo Tour! The opening act that night was Kanye West, a far more recognizable artist than the Kings of Leon, but one of no more interest for Ryan and me. We listened to a couple of numbers and then hit the concourse for drinks and souvenirs (I was quite pleased to discover that the t-shirts we bought were made by Edun, the clothing company founded by Bono and his wife Ali).

There was no need to speculate on the opening number this time – the concert began the same way as it had in May, with “City of Blinding Lights” opening for “Vertigo.” From there on it was a significantly different playlist, with a strong infusion of the Beatles, and some of the tracks that Bono listed among his favorites in a recent Rolling Stone interview. Towards the end of the tour U2 was doing what they have done so well for years: keeping their music fresh and potent.

After the concert Ryan and I were in no hurry, so we walked and talked, something that had been a sort of ritual of ours growing up. In its own way this was as greatly anticipated as going to Star Wars with Chris in May. As the enormity of the concert sank in, we discussed some of our favorite subjects (U2, the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and so on), and some of the events detailed in this essay. Eventually we returned to the hotel where Ryan and Erica were staying. Erica had ordered some platters from room service for us; it was like being invited to a swank post-concert party! It was late and they were flying out the next day, so I didn’t stay long.

Exactly one week later, on Christmas Eve no less, it was my final day at Target! It was one of the greatest Christmas gifts I’ve ever received (Among many nice gifts from my wife I received the DVD of U2’s Vertigo Tour. Its playlist differs from both of the concerts I’ve seen, and it only approaches the exhilaration of the live performance if you watch it standing up)! Instead of reporting to work at 4 a.m. the day after Christmas, I had the day off courtesy of the bookstore being closed. A comparison to being exonerated and released from prison hardly seems like hyperbole in this instance. To quote once more from Pop:“December … remember … are we just starting again?

In my first week at the bookstore we listened to the radio broadcast of Utah’s resounding 38-10 upset over Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. Driving home that afternoon my eyes filled with tears of joy because life seemed to be so right. That sense of elation, transitory as any human emotion, could not last. Yet it is the actual transition in my emotions and identity that is cause for rejoicing. Just as the shifts in tone and tempo make a concert more enjoyable, so it is with life. Now that my identity is no longer suppressed I am once again able to experience (and enjoy) the ordinary fluctuations of life.

Last fall, as I was undergoing my renewal, Bono told The Rolling Stone: “In parched times, in fire and flood, we discover who we are. That’s my prayer, by the way, for the United States in 2005.” I cannot speak for the United States collectively, but individually it seems that prayer was answered.

One Response to “Satellite, Part II”

  1. I loved this essay, Josh. I especially love the use of lyrics pertaining to what you were going through, that is something I’m completely familiar with. My favorite line of yours has to be “I bit the bullet instead of putting it in my brain.” I’ve found that sometimes doing things like that isn’t so easy but the fact that you did it is inspirational.

    I love your writing.

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