the ballet of life and death, and other injuries. (for conor).
first of all so you know people here in australia don’t say g’day, at least not in sydney. maybe they still do in the bush.
but they do have a wonderful assortment of things that they DO say…my current favorite is their tendency to say “rock up”, as in “arrive”.
you’d think it would only be used to arrive at, say, an underground bar, clad in torn, sparkly, spikey attire, ready for a night of hard concept drinking, underwater chess and snorting lines of ecstasy off pre-paid mobile cards…as in: “we’re going to pre-load at steve’s house until about eleven and then rock up to the bar around midnight…”
but no, the australians simply use it to mean “arrive”….anywhere. as in: “if you’re heading to the juice bar early, i’ll hit a yoga class and then rock up around noon.”
i love this about the australians. i love the australians. i love australia.
for those of you coming to the sydney festival – four nights down, six to go. the shows have been slamming.
if you’re coming, real quick: come ON TIME. the show is 7:30-8:30 SHARP.
also go see scotch & soda (across the village in the other tent), limbo (in the spiegeltent after me), and go to the little wooden “folk in a box“, near my tent. it’s a closet-sized box that fits only one musician and one audience member, in the DARK.
they are rotating 50+ musicians. it’s the best thing ever.
i am so happy to be here, but i also feel like i’ve escaped reality and am getting some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card from my actual life.
the last week or so before i left were about as dismal as it gets. it was like the universe went: here you go, palmer, let’s shovel some cold dead misery on your head to make sure you escape in style and appreciate the grass on the other side to the fullest extent possible.
christmas itself was nice and quiet, neil and i spent it on vacation with his kids in mexico in a hidden rented house,
and there was a lot of guacamole and bonding and board games and walks on the beach. spending christmas somewhere weird is weird, but i was happy to get offline family time…neil’s kids are all amazing, and they’re not even kids. they’re all now officially adults – maddy is in college (at wakeforest).
two nights after christmas, on the 27th, i got a text from whitney in san francisco.
she said: call her. a text like that is never good. i called her.
i had just seen conor, which made things even more unbelievable and weird.
we had spent two days together in san francisco just two weeks before.
he was going through a rough time, this much i knew.
conor and i were a couple for a while in college.
for about a year, we saved each other…from the boredom of isolation and college agony (we both felt friendless and lost), from the stifling, suffocating surroundings of our peer groups, from ourselves. conor was more outwardly masochistic than i was (and i was fascinated by it, his arms and body were riddled with deep patterns from cutting, something i knew very little about at the time) but we were both self-loathing creatives.
it was 1997 (or was it 1998) at wesleyan, and for about a year we played a game of romeo and juliet; we lived across the street each other in separate societies that had a half-joking rivalry with each other.
i was in eclectic, where the punk dorks lived, and he was in alpha delta phi, where the musical theater dorks lived.
the rivalry between eclectic and alpha delt was long-standing and mostly fictional, but we did occasionally do things like shoot potato guns off our roof into their house, and steal their beautiful framed yearly composite pictures and store them in our basement. i remember being vaguely part of two conspiracies: one in which twenty pounds of raw hamburger meat was left to rot in hidden nooks and crannies of their basement rec room (including inside their upright piano. i wasn’t so much a fan of that prank, because piano RESPECT goddammit…) and another one which involved painting their brand new brick pathway an obnoxiously bright shade of wizard-of-oz yellow (THAT one was fucking hilarious). conor and i kept our relationship on the DL. we were kind of ashamed to be sleeping with the enemy.
i remember most: us bonding over OK computer one of the first days we met, and spending a saturday lying on the floor of my dorm room, holding hands, listening to OK computer on repeat. again. and again and again. and we WEREN’T EVEN STONED.
conor helped me make gig posters (he was amazing at computer shit). i helped conor not to cut. we took walks. we talked about our depression. we listened to records. we played with conor’s pet ferrets. we gave each other backrubs. we gave each other neck hickeys, arm hickeys, and face hickeys. we held hickey CONTESTS. we wrestled each other and laughed until we were blue in the face. we had food fights. we made up words. we broke each other’s shit and yelled at each other and then made up and gave each other more hickeys in weird places. we were lovers, we did the things lovers do when they’re 20…we opened up our souls to each other, we tried to figure each other out. we drank cheap white box wine that we bough with my sister’s duplicate driver’s license and we smoked clove cigarettes. we both came from massachusetts, and over school breaks, we met each other’s families.
we were close.
that year ended, we graduated. conor’s usual girlfriend came back from wherever she’d been, and i took up with a cellist, and we never needed to say goodbye dramatically…school was over. we drifted apart. we stayed in touch over the years, conor moved to san francisco, he would come to my gigs, he’d bring a girlfriend. we didn’t talk very much, flash hugs, happy memories, i was always touring, he was always busily working on internet this or that….we’d trade the occasional email to check in.
until about five months ago.
conor had gotten married to a woman named ava, who i hadn’t met. they were expecting a baby.
i was happy for him, and – as usual – amazed at the idea of someone i knew procreating.
in my mind, conor was always 20, lost, and deliberately banging his head against something.
the idea of him having a child was like…a miracle.
i was sitting in a plane waiting to fly from some city to some other city, and we exchanged a quick hello text.
conor said he was happy, he had a new job at bittorrent, the baby was due in a week or so.
and i don’t know what compelled me, but i asked:
how are you REALLY? are you freaking out? tell me for real.
and i got what i asked for. he told me for real. he WAS freaking out, and not in a good way.
he was cutting again, and he was back in the darkest place he’d been since college.
oof, i said, that is not fucking good, conor.
if it makes you feel any better, i told him, i found myself feeling the same way this past year.
which was true. last year rivaled college in the absolute fuck-me i-don’t-want-to-i-can’t-just-make-it-stop depression black hole department.
i never thought i’d get dragged back there. but enough things happened at once, and there i was, back in the dark.
we talked for as long as i could talk before the plane took off.
after that, i stayed in touch. i checked in every few weeks, to see how things were going.
baby finn was born. photos were sent. a teeny weeny little girl gazed up at me from my phone.
he said that things were going much better now that she was around.
ironically (poetically? i never know), on the night of becca darling’s memorial, i was downstairs in the theater dressing room about to go onstage to introduce the second half of the night with neil, when a text from conor came in asking if i could call. i called. he was miserable and needed help. i had to go on stage. i did the only thing i could think of: i called back up. i called whitney. ah whitney. whitney moses (who a lot of you met on this last west coast house party tour) is an old friend of mine who wound up colliding with conor because they both ran in the same scene in san francisco. i’d introduced them ages ago and then moderately regretted it when conor accidentally broke whitney’s knee at a trampoline party. he was always breaking shit.
whitney is a bodyworker, a social force and connector, and the kind of person you want around in any crisis. she’s a caretaker and a no-bullshitter. i knew she’d probably help. she did. conor went over to her house that and they talked and talked.
i worried a little, but not much.
i was headed to my west coast house party tour and i had three or four free days in san francisco. conor asked if i’d be up for doing a gig at bittorrent, his new office.
being a fan of bittorrent (and all torrents, for that matter) i said i’d be happy to, and i got the idea to use the opportunity for something that i’d been meaning to do anyway:
hold a forum/town-hall-style meeting with a random slice of the fanbase to talk about how i should release my next round of music.
conor asked around, the guys at bittorrent were game, and we set it up for about 100 people to come to bittorrent for a special event.
i invited along zoe boekbinder so we’d have another musician’s brain to pick.
whitney was coincidentally my wing-man for that whole tour, and so we went over to bittorrent together.
here’s me pre-show at bittorrent, posting THIS blog from conor’s work station at bittorrent, with prop bottle of whiskey to make me look bad-ass:
and true to form, conor gave me a bloody lip during a office-wide mosh-pit to a song we played by the clash.
the event was over at around seven o’clock, and conor and i went off into the night, to catch up for real.
we stayed out until about four in morning, hashing out our lives, stumbling and speeding down memory lane, drinking amarone (conor’s new obsession).
it was strange, but time slipped backwards, and we were twenty again. we sang, we slomped through the cold san francisco streets, we laughed and took my ukulele out at the BART station…we even wound up at a bodega and bought some clove cigarettes because…we had to. we smoked them.
conor was clearly having a rough time.
i could tell his head cracking open his head with no obvious answers…but this was also the conor i knew.
tortured and coping with his depression, as he always had. as i had. as we had, together. no big deal.
he was incredibly alive…laughing, being a weirdo, joking in his deep-voiced, twisted sarcastic way.
and he had a BABY, which, in my mind, is like a magical bullet-proof vest against self-harm.
how could you hurt yourself when you have to take care of this small, powerless thing?
i pressed my face hard into my old friend’s hand and wished him luck at work the next day, because we were both, no doubt, going to be very VERY hungover.
we were. we texted and woefully sympathized with each other.
i broke ground on my book that day, conor put in a day at bittorrent after dropping finn off at daycare, and i was slated to leave for seattle the next morning.
late that night, whitney and i decided to go to a strange wooden hot tub in a hidden forest to reward ourselves after a hard week of touring and house parties (and me, to reward myself for writing the first 1,000 words of my book). we invited conor along. he had a few hours off and joined us late.
we didn’t talk much that night, we sat in the magic forest, soaking naked in a hot tub in total silence, with a handful of other equally silent san franciscan people.
after about an hour, we parted ways. conor gave me a lift to where i was staying.
you’ll be okay? i asked.
he said yes.
he’d be okay.
he always was.
we would stay in touch more.
we would visit more.
i love you.
i love you too.
we kissed goodbye,
then he drove off.
that was december 11th.
it was december 27th when i got the text from whitney. call her. i did.
conor had shot himself.
he was gone.
we had been texting the day before.
it was my turn.
i owed him a text.
neil’s had to watch me watch a lot of people die this past year or so. becca, jeremy geidt, and anthony almost.
last week he went with me to a memorial (and even read a poem by keats, the trooper) for my beloved latin teacher, doctor fiveash (i’ll do a separate blog about that one, i guess. jesus).
he just died of cancer too.
when i got the call about conor, i just needed to weep, to be alone, to make sense of the no sense. i needed to talk to people who knew him. neil didn’t. he’d barely met him.
i called whitney and we talked for a long time. she’d been IMing with conor the night before. he’d sounded okay. i called geeta, who was at a house party with me and conor during the tour.
she hadn’t heard the news. we talked for a long time about death, and friends, and suicide, and what the fuck is happening to people.
i called zoe.
i wasn’t right for about a week.
i laid in bed with neil for a few nights after that, telling him conor stories, trying to explain who he was, what he meant to me. he got it, as much as he could.
i stayed off the internet.
when people die, it’s lonely.
when people you love die, it’s important to be around people who knew them, otherwise you don’t really get to feel them dead.
i wasn’t in san francisco anymore.
my stepbrother died when i was 21, within a few days of my grandfather dying.
it was a crazy time for my whole family.
and one of my biggest regrets is that i didn’t fly home for the funeral.
my family encouraged me not to. i was overseas in germany, days from starting a new semester at university…he was dead…going to the funeral wasn’t going to bring him back…all that.
but that was the thing. he WASN’T dead. it didn’t feel like he was dead. him being dead was just some insane abstract idea.
it’s so funny: i travel so much now for work and music that i book a plane ticket at the drop of a hat somewhere 7 hours away just to play a show.
but back then, traveling overseas was like some huge drama.
if i’d been at that funeral, if i’d seen everybody accepting the fact that karl was dead, really dead, like being put in the earth DEAD, i might have digested it differently.
i still wonder where he is.
why isn’t he here?
why isn’t he coming to my shows?
why isn’t he painting paintings?
why isn’t he playing bass on my albums?
why is he dead?
why are all these people dead?
why this year?
will it stop?
is it just a numbers game?
maybe i just know too many people.
i couldn’t stop thinking about the moment in time where conor actively picked up a gun,
using his brain,
his brain which worked so well and did so many things
his smart, smart brain
using that brain
to lift his hand
to pull a trigger of a gun
to stop his brain from working anymore.
it is an image i still can’t really shake, nor make sense of.
i also owed him a text.
we came home, and the next night, i took neil to the boston ballet, to see The Nutcracker.
neil had never been to a ballet before.
and i’d never had a more surreal experience sitting in a chair, watching art play out in front of me.
i just kept looking at all the ballet dancers thinking:
conor is dead.
look at these people dancing so well.
he shot himself in the head.
before me, was this massive-scale spectacle of perfectly-orchestrated grandeur, covered in sparkles and strings and costumes that went fifty feet up in the air.
and i was in awe not just of the precision of the the ballerinas and their sinewy, swanny bodies and of the magnitude of the production…
but i just kept thinking how AMAZING it was that all these people on stage WEREN’T DEAD.
i mean, what were the chances of all these people being alive, PERIOD, but…alive and DOING ALL THESE THINGS AT THE SAME TIME?
but no, it was working, here it all was, like a magical, glittery, snowy, very-much-alive clockwork…
as undead as it gets…there was more well-organized life on that stage than could even be contained by my own petty imagination.
photo via Essdras M. Suarez
i cried for most of the first act.
then i snapped out of it.
the second act was just a ballet.
new years came and i was too sad to celebrate.
this is finn.
i packed for australia. i packed up boxes.
neil and i hosted a wedding at our house, for our friends rachel and clare.
we were moving out of the house three days later.
i tried not to be too sad.
whitney went to conor’s apartment to help clean things up.
it was hard. she told me about it on the phone.
i went to anthony’s book launch.
he’s still alive.
sean sent me his dad’s suicide letter, from all those years ago.
he thought it might help.
in a weird way, it did.
whitney is my proxy, as they put conor to rest out there in the bay area, while i get on stage every night here in sydney.
she told me: they are going to do a viking-style funeral for him, complete with flaming ship, into the waters of san francisco.
right into the bay, i assume.
which is connected to the ocean.
i am on the other side.
maybe he’ll meet me here.
last thing…and this one was hard for me to watch, i didn’t get up the courage to watch it until today.
it’s the video of “should i stay or should i go”, the clash song that we danced to when conor bust my lip open.
he’s the one with the mohawk. i wish……i wish he’d stayed.
p.s. if you want to read another long blog about conor from a totally different perspective, i highly recommend this: chipinhead.com/2013/12/29/depression-is-a-disease-and-most-of-us-arent-doctors/
“depression is a disease and most of us aren’t doctors” by suzanne forbes…it really helped me, i learned a lot that i didn’t know about conor and it also made me think a lot about how we help each other…where, when, and why.