"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’ve been reading your column for about a year now, and really believe you might have some words of wisdom for me. I hardly know where to begin in describing my situation. I am single, no kids and 52. Two years ago I lost my job as a professor in a field that is now archaic, that field being Russian language and literature. And so I found myself not only unemployed, but, at the age of 50, seemingly unemployable.
At first I reacted to all this in the worst possible way. I drank too much and experimented with pot for the first time in decades. I also moved back to the closest thing to a hometown I’ve got (my mother moved us to this liberal Oregon enclave in 1977). However, I did get a grip on myself, quit the pot, which, anyway, only increased my anxiety, and cut out the excessive alcohol intake. My problem is I thought I would enjoy being around my family again. In fact, it’s complicated. My mother is in her late 80s and I do get something out of helping her out, but I have real difficulties in living in the same town as my “identical” twin sister. “Mary” just loves my being back in town, has never minded the twin thing. I have always hated it, even though I have always loved my sister. I didn’t think it would be much of an issue when I decided to move back, but forgot how much the stupid comments bothered me (e.g., “You guys sure look alike. You must be twins!!”)
Mary dropped out of college, and subsequently led an alternative, tree-hugging kind of lifestyles. She smokes prodigious amounts of pot and is an alcoholic. She is married to a man, “Mike,” who I think of as a real brother, but he drinks a lot, too (although he does not smoke weed). They seem to have a master/slave type dynamic. Mary would cut her arm off for him — and for me, for that matter. He often is irritable with her. And it’s hard for me to not be, as she is, well, almost childlike and, frankly, boring to talk to after she’s swilled several beers and gotten good and stoned, which is every night. Literally, she talks about yard work, what she ate for lunch, what mundane things she’s going to do or did do, and so on. She isn’t into reading, seems to have almost no curiosity about the world. I often don’t know what to talk about with her so I find myself sitting in stupefied silence while she babbles on. To compound matters, I am renting a small studio apartment from the two of them, as I can’t afford anything better, and if I can’t make rent, they let it slide.
Even worse, my sister runs a landscape maintenance business and I have been working as her assistant about once a week as I struggle to launch a translation business (takes a lot to reinvent myself in this new profession and this also is very discouraging — to be mowing lawns after struggling so hard to attain that damned doctorate). In my first year here, when I was drinking heavily myself, I often felt suicidal, but what stopped me was the pain that would inflict on my mother, and also on Mary. I have, thankfully, pulled out of that dark place and am now “merely” depressed. I miss the identity my former profession gave me, and I hate Mary’s neediness. I had to really work to create some personal space for myself — Mary and her husband would love me to hang with them virtually every night as they are largely bored with each other. Mary makes noises about cutting back on drinking. The pot is something I don’t see her ever giving up. I doubt if she’ll go very far with the cutting back on drinking because it’s what she and Mike do. He even distills whiskey. And he’s big and can drink without getting as drunk as Mary, who is slender and pot-addled, as well.
I think I could deal with all this, though, if I had a job that provided me community. I miss teaching. I miss being independent. I am not a gifted technical translator thus far and have tried to get work at the local community college and in various staff positions at the local university. I’ve tried for several office jobs and nonprofit jobs. I think my three postgraduate degrees and my age make me unemployable in this economically distressed area. I feel like I have no identity of my own, and that I am living in some kind of nightmarish limbo. Most of all, this situation with my sister oppresses me. I never realized how much socialization I used to get from my work. I am, in fact, a social person, outgoing and personable. But without going to bars and drinking, I don’t know how to get that fix and so now I spend a lot of time alone, and while I like my own company I feel like part of me is withering. Yes, I am tutoring on a volunteer basis for the community college that won’t hire me, and I’m working out at the local recreation center. These help, but I don’t have friends of my own. I never thought I would be in this situation. I never thought I would find it so hard to branch out.
I guess what I’m asking for is how to deal with this? I halfheartedly fantasize about moving to China and Korea and teaching English as a second language, not because I want to teach English as a second language (which I did for a couple of years way back in my globe-wandering days). I would miss my two cats, and I’d feel bad for deserting my mother and Mary, who are both so thrilled that I moved back here, but that’s about it (not that that’s a small thing). But I miss teaching, I miss having colleagues and a professional identity and a life of my own that has nothing to do with my family. I could also try to find something of a writing/editing nature in a bigger town — Portland or Seattle. I also think, well, if I could be successful at this translation gig, then that might be enough — especially if I could attend professional conferences now and then. In short, I don’t know what to do about my current lot in life.
It sounds like you are experiencing depression and a kind of “social death” as a result of your unemployment and return to the family. So your life task now is to regain your social life, to locate, in this temporary wasteland, people among whom you can again exist vividly. You need people who can actually see who you are. Since you are largely about ideas and knowledge, you must be around people who can see those ideas and that knowledge. The way you accomplished that in the past was to have a job, but you may have to find other ways to accomplish it now. That is OK. Many people are having to do this. Our culture is being rearranged in certain fundamental ways. There will be much support for this, as millions like you rearrange themselves culturally and geographically. We will see in the years to come a new definition of “job” as we find new ways to acquire necessities and also new ways, outside of “jobs,” to define ourselves socially and “be seen for who we are.”
Here is the bottom line: The people around you now do not see you. You have become invisible. That is the source of your anguish. It is also your existential condition, but we will get to that. For now, it is vital to note that your family cannot see you. Your twin cannot see you. You do not exist in their eyes. What they see when they look at you is something of their own creation.
Deprived of your social identity by unemployment, exiled from a place where you had standing, you have returned to the condition of childhood and its murky, undifferentiated selfhood.
You have disappeared.
It’s weird, isn’t it? We return to the family, thinking we will be seen, but we are not seen. Rather, we disappear.
I must say, I think part of the reason we resort to alcohol and drugs in such situations is that the threat of nonexistence causes us to panic. Ideally, we ought to understand that this panic is merely the recognition of our essential condition. We need not panic. We are merely being brought back to reality — the reality of our groundless, shifting, temporary existence; the reality of our mortality and smallness. Our panic is occasioned not by some calamity but in fact by the arrival of truth and the loss of an illusion. So, while you fight to regain your social identity and find some comfort in it, do something else as well: Welcome this groundlessness and discomfort; make friends with it; meditate upon it; it is your existential condition.
The world of languages is the land of the traveler. So in a more practical sense, here is what I suggest: Seek out other language people. Seek out people who will get your Russian puns. Go to movies in Russian. Place ads in the paper for work as a Russian tutor.
Also: Define your mission. Give it a clear purpose and an end date. You have come here to help your mother in her final years. That is why you are enduring this. With your mother’s death, your chief reason for being here will also disappear. So plan for that. Begin looking in Portland and Seattle for jobs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to take a job yet. But begin looking.
What makes it so hard to be seen today? Does it not seem to you that our world is one of constant distraction? Does it not seem that the attention of people is not on us but on their devices? As they peer into their devices, do we not lose something of their attention? Are we not jealous of all that attention being sucked up by devices? Do we not mourn the death of their seeing us, the death of being vivid and central in others’ sight on the street?
We wish to be seen and now we are competing with many devices for the attention of the passerby.
So we post videos of ourselves on the Net. If the Net is where the attention has gone then that is where we must go to be seen.
Those are some things to think about.
Now, as an addendum, here are some things I read as I was thinking about your situation. I found them interesting, so I’m just putting them here at the end. Perhaps you will find them interesting too.
Here is something interesting on the Loss of Work Contacts and Depression:
“According to an Institute for Work and Health Issue Briefing, researchers conclude that the loss of social contacts with colleagues has a more harmful effect on the unemployed than the loss of income (Helliwell, J.F., Putnam, R.D.,September 29, 2004, “The Social Context of Well-Being,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.) Workers who have abruptly lost their jobs have also lost their social support system and are forcibly isolated with their stress.”
Also this on Unemployment as social death: “Long-term unemployment affects many facets of a person’s life besides their income. According to Ernest Becker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Denial of Death, losing our role in our culture is a kind of social death (1973.) In a culture that values hard work and believes that anyone can get ahead who is not lazy, long-term unemployment is a shameful prospect. The person has lost the social contacts once enjoyed in the workplace and has lost the sense of playing a role in society at large. Besides the self-doubts raised by rejection after rejection from employers, the long-term unemployed person faces rejection from society as a whole. Accusations that the unemployed spend their days loafing on their couch and collecting unemployment checks are not uncommon and are a defense of the American core belief that people who are poor only have themselves to blame.”
And finally, though this may seem even more tangential, here is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing on “psychological death.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)