Six months off the sauce

Six months ago I stopped drinking alcohol. I still remember the moment: I was on a ski trip in the Swiss Alps with a group of my friends and it was well past 5am. They were still up partying while I was in bed, trying to sleep. That week I had just read a book called This Naked Mind about the effects of alcohol, and realized what it was making me into a person I didn't want to be. Alcohol was not my friend.

To be clear: my life was never out of control with booze - I would have at most two beers every weekday night, and a bit more on the weekends. But it was my brain that was out of control. The quiet, everyday cravings - the wanting. Alcohol seemed to be controlling my mind, to be taking away my ability to concentrate and focus completely on myself and what I wanted to accomplish in life.

After quitting I've realized how more patient I've become, allowing me to be more open toward learning about myself and others. It opens up new pathways in how to think that I couldn't quite access through the haze of booze. It allows me more time to feel alive in my own body, to feel physically healthy and fit.

Quitting drinking hasn't made my life perfect, at all. It sucks to be left out of invites because friends think that I wouldn't be interested.  It's lame when people don't feel comfortable with their own drinking so they push a drink in my face. And yes, sometimes I do miss how easy it seems to be to go out, have fun, and be social.

But ultimately - is it worth it? No. I'm not under any delusion that alcohol actually helps me have more fun; and when I came to terms with that - that I can still tell jokes and laugh and dance - I actually had more fun. I'm happier, and more free. The reality of my life is raw, and beautiful, and I'm capturing it all real time.

Quitting alcohol allowed me to think, to evaluate, to understand. It unleashed clarity, where I could scan the contours of this messy brain, dive deep into its inner workings and see how these workings were affecting how I wanted to pursue life. How I wanted my own story to turn out - not the story mixed in with a controlling, harmful substance.

And the story still unfolds...

Will I die young?

An older gentleman looking serene, surrounded by books. Can I one day be him!?

An older gentleman looking serene, surrounded by books. Can I one day be him!?

Several months after my friend Daniel died, I was preoccupied with whether I would also die young. Accidents notwithstanding, I was practically raised on fast food, one of my parent's smoked, and I was a frequent sunbed goer in my late teens. Do any of these things constitute death? No, but still my mind wondered.

Last December my dear Angelique unexpectedly passed away, and the question arrived again: am I next? But I have to remember who Daniel and Angelique were - they died young yes, but they were so full of life while alive. They lived incredible lives, even in the short time span they were here. And so, it does a disservice to my life to raise this question.

But allow me to just answer it: Matthew: you will die young. Perhaps at 32, 40, 60, or even as old as 90. As long as you keep learning, keep growing, keep meeting great people, keep taking care of your health, keep loving your G!d, keep immersing yourself in life - you will surely die young. 

This is a promise I'll work to keep.

Ashraf and Mohammed have been married to each other for 80 years. No, that is not a typo. Ashraf is 100 and Mohammed is about to turn 110.

A period of becoming, a period in transit

I-5 S Tacoma

I-5 S Tacoma

For a long time I've held a vision in my head, of my spirit traveling through space. This vision would come to me at the most random of moments: while at the gym, in the shower, or just before bed. 'What does this mean?' I used to wonder. I don't yet know, exactly, but I do know that I've traveled far in my life; further than I could have ever imagined.

Who was I? That 14 year old Missourian gay kid planning to move to LA as soon as he turned 18. That 18 year old who so desperately wanted to move to NYC, but instead ended up moving to Tacoma, Washington. That 26 year old who moved to Amsterdam and met his best friend. That 28 year old who moved to Zürich. But this is more than just changing cities. To be in transit is more about a mindset, like Marcel Proust once wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes."

When I read journals I wrote when I was 16, 17 - I barely recognize myself. Like many at that age I was stupid and naive. But I was also incredibly brave. I willed myself out of bad situations, bad circumstances. I knew that there was always something greater than a minimum wage job at the Tacoma Mall. I knew there was a light down the tunnel somewhere.

So, this vision I have. I'm not quite sure what it is but it comes to me, of me traversing through space. Through darkness and sometimes through light. I don't have all the answers, I don't exactly know what I am doing, where I'm going. But I do know that as long as I keep going, I will be all right.

An unfolding self

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
— Anaïs Nin

Growing up there were two sections of the local bookstore I felt afraid to be caught in: the LGBTQ section and the Judaism section. I was raised in a family of Christian fundamentalists, and the mere interest in being gay or Jewish was unthinkable - as if the moment I was caught with one of these books I'd be sent to hell.

But something brought me back to those sections. Time and time again, I'd return and discover truths that felt right to me. 

Fast forward almost twenty years, and I have been in a relationship with my Jewish partner for nine years and I've decided to become a part of the Jewish people. Let's be clear: acknowledging one's sexuality and becoming Jewish are two very different things, but both involve a change in identity, a change in how we present ourselves to the outside world.

I am not converting to Judaism for my partner, as he's never been particularly interested in the religious aspects of Judaism - this is my decision alone.

In the beginning of my relationship I was surprised when I discovered my partner was Jewish. I hid my books on Judaism from him. Too ashamed to tell him I had an interest, Judaism was his culture, his ethnicity, his family history, that I had no right to claim as my own. But I deeply craved a relationship with G!d through this sacred lens.

I kept finding myself - in London and Amsterdam and Berlin and Zürich and Paris and Krakow and Cape Town and Florence and Rome and New York City - browsing through the Judaism section in bookstores and visiting Jewish sites and museums. But it still never translated into something that I believed I could do for myself - I didn't have the strength, the confidence. Until I took a flight from New York to Zürich last February.

I was on a flight with a group of Jews traveling to Tel Aviv through Zürich. Across from me sat a man reading a book in Hebrew, and while watching him something within me clicked - I don't know what it was, but a strong feeling toward something. The indescribable feeling arose within me, something of what I knew was so strongly inside was now bubbling over the surface of my life.

After landing in Zürich, I began the task of approaching the G!d that existed all along. I just had to acknowledge the existence within; had to build the confidence to say "Yes" to myself, before I could fully acknowledge what was living in my soul.

The wonder in her eyes

"People first, then money, then things," Suze Orman used to say on her television show. This is a phrase I kept repeating to myself when I booked a flight for my mom to come to Europe. After the flights, train tickets, hotel bookings, and upcoming dinner reservations, I couldn't help thinking: "This is going to be expensive. I am not used to spending money like this."

Don't get me wrong. I have a good salary, I can afford it. But the poor college student won't leave, who still yells at me for spending over $40 on a book. But as soon as my mom came - this worrying about the cost almost completely disappeared.

Because she was here, in my home, at my work, in my Roman neighborhood. She was here, on the Venice canals, in Paris. I watched her every moment, looking at her eyes, watching her dazzled at what she was seeing. 

Like a small child, she took it all in. Like a sponge, learning about the world. She was discovering.

"What a gift!" I thought. "What a glorious gift!" To give her the chance to see a part of the world she never would have otherwise.

My mom lives in the Midwest. After working at the same company for 27 years, she recently went back to school and became a nurse at 54 years old. Now she spends her work weeks from 7pm to 7am in one of the most dangerous parts of the city, taking care of the poor and minorities; people who've lived very hard lives.

Of course, my mom and I have a complicated relationship. She gave birth to a boy who would one day carve out his very own life - make his own choices, struggle to become who he really was. At a young age I rejected a lot of what was handed me by the world I was born into. Rejected the "default" sexuality that was not my own, the predetermined religion that was not my own, the city where I didn't belong.

But my mom and I are bounded. By simply love - she's my mom. So, to take her to Zürich, Lucerne, Rome, Venice, and Paris. Small drops in the bucket of a rich life that she gave me so readily, so lovingly and happily. A mom is a mom is a mom is a mom - I can never pay her back for what she's given.

And I am still thinking about her face, her expression as we went to Colosseum or took a boat through the Venice canals or walked under the shade of the Eiffel Tower. The wonder in her eyes; an immeasurable gift.

Dear Social Justice

I am sorry for neglecting you for so long. I moved to Europe, got a regular 9-5 job that paid well, and became almost hopelessly complacent. I have recently awakened to the fact that time is passing me by, and I have a responsibility to make the world better. For myself, my family, my friends, and my world. 

How can I best serve you, social justice?

1. By paying attention. I know I shouldn't only read the New York Times, Politico, and Huffington Post. There's a lot more to read out there, including Democracy Now!

2. By remembering who I am. I have long been passionate about animal and women's rights. Also, as a gay man, I owe it to my community to serve the LGBTQ+ community.

3. By taking action. Fighting for a better world doesn't only mean being angry about how things are, but doing something about it. I want to participate in protests, donate more money, and write about the injustice I see in the world. Lately I have been following Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz on his Valley Beit Midrash channel, and his passion for social justice, animal rights, LGBTQ rights, and religious pluralism inspires me.

4. Take care of yourself. If you are unhealthy or working too much, you can't be effective at helping others. Focus on having a balanced diet, exercising, and meditating for a more even-keeled mind. The world is a crazy place, and you should act as a stabilizing force within it.

Tikkun olam - it's on us.

Sincerely,
Matthew

 

Who am I if I don't write?

I've kept a regular journal since 2001, when I went on an exchange to Germany as a high school student. I still have scraps of paper from as far back as 1994 - when I was ten years old - that tell me about the kind of person I was, what I felt, who I loved, hated, and how I thought about life. But what happens when we fall silent? When we stop writing? Does time just disappear, life just flow right past us?

That's how I've felt about the past eight months since I've written in here. Like time is just escaping. But I need to write, I need to share and connect with people. But what has led me to not do that?

It's not being busy (we're all busy all the time), it's not for lack of interest (writing is in my heart), and it's not because I love doing other things more (except design comes close). It's something I can't describe, and should it matter? No. Passion is timeless, as is art. We should just create, because that's what our job is to do.

In these past eight months I got a new job. I traveled to South Africa. Traveled to Amsterdam, New York, London, Kansas City. Took weekly Dutch classes. I stopped drinking. I found something magical within myself - which I will share with you, when it's time. So, this writing continues. To figure out what I am doing, what is happening, to stay true to myself - I need to write.

What is this feeling?

There's a peculiar feeling when saying goodbye to someone for the last time. I felt it the last time I saw my grandpa, the last time I saw one of my former colleagues, and with strangers I meet, connect with like they're old friends, and then suddenly depart from. While none of these events can be equated, the same eeriness persists.

What is it? This feeling... with a glint in your eye wishing them good health, the very best, and hoping that someday you might meet again. But somewhere deep inside, knowing it will not happen. At least in this world.

The future belongs to those creating

It's easy to fall into the trap of constantly consuming content. With one quick swipe on our phone we read what other people are watching, hearing, and creating. But how much of that content are <em>you</em> creating? How much of that content has been shaped and shifted by your mind, your own hands? And how much of that has a deep, meaningful, and lasting effect on your life?

Few people are strategic with how they consume, rather - whatever appears in their inbox or newsfeed is what they digest. And the people creating the content are shaping thoughts and feelings, both within your mind and society at large.

To take an extreme example, [Ann Coulter](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Coulter) is creating. She publishes book after book after book of Republican far-right wing beliefs. Although her views are absurd, she is the one setting the tone on the news, in interviews, and to a large extent, in many parts of American society. Why? Because at a very basic level, she's consistently creating.

To create content gives you some power, because you can shape what other people think. How other people think. Even if people disagree with you, they are doing so as a reaction to what you're making.

And this is not about tangible creations, only. There's so much within ourselves to discover, to become, to create. But constantly consuming content gets in the way of this work. It obstructs us from pursuing the art within our own lives. It stops us from making our own futures.

If you want to shape your own life and art, consume less. Create more.
 

Three steps to cross your creative threshold

I've struggled with this concept in the past, both as a designer and writer. The concept of "creative threshold", or when the right time is to share your work. To show what you're doing on a personal project.

Most of us don't have the resources to do endless iterations or have a thorough, professional analysis done on our creative work. But we have to get it out to the world to show what we've done. When is the right time? When do we know we've reached the point where we can show our work?

Ultimately, it comes down to the questions you're trying to answer, and the end goal you have in mind. 

So, if we want to show more work, then what do we have to do?

1. Get used to it

Pushing ‘Publish’ consistently makes you get used to getting out there, showing your work. Even if it’s not perfect, showing your work often can make you less sensitive to criticism and more importantly, allow others to get to know you and your craft.

How are people supposed to get into your work if you’re a ghost, behind a thick veneer of coldness, or self-doubt? Your dedication and passion is impressive, and you need to get it out there. Show your work often. Publish, publish, publish. This builds a certain power, a fortitude - and through this you can move your art forward into the world.

2. Ask

Ask for feedback, ask for help, for resources. This can sometimes be so hard, but if we’re going to get better, and show work we need to ask the people around us to help.

No one can become successful alone. And you need to get used to asking for others for advice, for help, to simply look at your work or to talk. To move your work forward.

But what if you’re a painter and don’t know any other painters? Or any other writers? Or any other interior designers? Then use social media like Instagram or Twitter, or go to art stores/schools, bookstores, poetry readings, home decorating shops, - any which way, get out there. Ask for help. You’ll need it.

3. Use grit

Grit is the least understood, but most powerful weapon in pursuing one’s art. But to produce work regularly doesn’t come easy. One must set a schedule, and stick with it, and not allow the outside world to become a threat to the ideas and imagination and plans you have within.

Television shows, the news, social media, the phone, certain relationships - all of these can be devastating to your craft, your work. You need to get a handle on them and understand how they’re affecting your craft.

Be conscientious about how you spend your time by using ad-blockers on your browser or putting your phone in the other room. Do whatever you can to continue. Because sometimes brute force alone can take you to the next level. 

So... what are you waiting for? Get to work. And then show us.

For a great book on this topic, check out Austin Kleon's "Show Your Work"
 

On Hallwylstrasse

Yesterday a woman on my street tried committing suicide by jumping off of her balcony. She screamed “Why why why why why?” in German while police stood down below, figuring out what to do. My neighbors were doing the same thing as I: wondering, will she jump?

I got off my balcony and went into the kitchen and ate some chocolate. Curious, I went back to the balcony and the screaming had stopped. She had jumped, and on the ground was a bright light, and medics surrounding her body. And then I heard her screaming again. Almost the same, but now a little hurt. Screaming what? I wasn’t sure. But she lied there, on the ground. And I went back to the kitchen and finished my chocolate with a shaking jaw.

Finding a Routine that Propels You Forward

What if we fashioned our entire lives so that our art, health, and happiness blossom?

I wake up each morning at 5:45. By seven I head out the door, get on the train, and go to work. I usually get back home in the evening between 7 and 7:30, rarely later. I have a four-hour daily commute and if you see me on the train I'm doing one of three things: writing, reading, or designing.

There's phenomenal power in my daily routine. I am able, without thinking, to improve on my passions just by making them daily habits. I'm able to become a better writer and designer because I focus on these two areas on my daily ride.

But this is only the train ride. What about the hours of sleep I get each night? Or the food I eat? Or the people I talk to on a regular basis? The relationships that I keep on an ongoing basis? How can I maximize the healthier aspects of each moment of my life? There are many aspects of our lives that we can better understand, and isolate in order to improve them. And it doesn't have to be complicated. For example, each day before lunch my friend has a reminder go off on his phone that tells him to 'Eat healthy!'. Keeping a diary of how many hours you sleep each night, and how you feel each morning (and perhaps why) might also help to improve your sleep.

But making long-lasting changes in the way you live takes courage. Great power is needed to instill a inner strength that propels one forward, that doesn't allow unhealthy habits or routines sabotage the potential that lies within. You just have to find this power, and it can only come from yourself. Meditation, writing in a journal, or seeing a therapist helps.

My goal for 2015: to slow down

Flickr: Tristan Shmurr

Last night I walked into the gym and was shocked: it was packed at a time when it's normally empty. Then I remembered: "Oh yeah, it's 2015 and everyone made their new year's resolution to get fit." Although I usually roll my eyes at new years resolutions, this year I made my own: I am going to work on slowing down. 

Throughout high school and into my 20s and college years, I was running, running, and running. Even after I had started my first 9 - 5 "real job" I was working early in the mornings until the evenings. But last July when I hit 30 something changed.

I looked around, and realized that I wasn't really enjoying life. I wasn't really enjoying my surroundings, or feeling grateful for all that I have (and I have a lot to be grateful for). I wasn't connecting with people, or making good, solid friendships. I was focused on the next project, the next thing to do, the next goal to achieve. But I wasn't paying attention to what I have already achieved, and the family and friends I already have.

So, although I'm sorta rolling my eyes while typing this, my goal for 2015 is to slow the fuck down. To connect with people. To enjoy life and feel gratitude for the relationships I have. Because, at the end of life, good relationships are the most important things we have. It's not a career, or money, or awards, or degrees. The most important thing in life is looking into another person's eyes and feeling love for them, and having a connection with them.

Recently I told one of my former professors that one of my regrets from my time in college was that I didn't slow down, didn't truly connect with others. Yes, I was involved in successful design projects and did well academically. But when I look back at that time of running, running, running, I feel sad. Because I remember that young guy who was struggling to get ahead, fighting to raise his stature in life, all the while missing the life that he was surrounded with.

I'm changing this. People and relationships first. Everything else, after.

To smile and be bold

Why don't you say something? Why don't you share something? 

Events in recent weeks has led me back to this blank page, to write about what I know and don't know. An unacknowledged but deeply felt fear that I've had, for not being perfect, for not writing things the right way, for not showing you the most pixel-perfect designs, the fear that I am somehow lesser than what I have in my mind.

This, has kept me from sharing. From saying: "Hello world, here I am, here are my writings, here are my designs. Let's connect, let's share - together". And I'm sick of being quiet, of not saying things or showing things for fear of being wrong. Well, I am wrong sometimes, or dammit, much of the time. That's part of being human. Being imperfect is human, it's natural.

And it's true: the work we show should be good, or we should strive as much to make it as good as possible. But don't let that striving keep you from expressing yourself. Saying how you feel, or trying to get an idea out.

Seeing my friend Mike play last week in Zürich and Lausanne, reading Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking, following @kseniaanake, and other things (like meditating) has gave me new confidence and energy to just go for it.

So, I'm going to smile and be imperfect. Be bold. This is what I'm telling myself now, to smile and be bold.

A raucous life

daniel

I turned around as soon as he started mooning a group of schoolchildren.

I couldn’t take it. Daniel was just too much to handle. I began walking ahead of him, increasing the distance between us. But two minutes later, he jumped on me in hysterical fits. “No, no — don’t be angry! Please! I love you.” Typical Daniel. One moment doing something completely egregious. The next, confessing his love and affection for you.

For every bad thing Daniel did, there was an equal amount of love, kindness, generosity, and affection he gave to everyone he knew. He would do anything and everything to make his friends happy, giving all he had and asking for nothing in return.

It pains me to write this in the past tense, but maybe someday this will become normal: his heart stopped beating on January 23, 2012, 23:29 Holland time. His death is impossible to accept, like an unfathomable reality I cannot comprehend.

When I discovered his heart would stop beating at any moment, I first went to the gym. It seemed like the only thing to do. “Just follow the schedule, Matthew. Follow the damn schedule,” I told myself. And I did. I went to the gym and began running. But I had to stop. I couldn’t continue. It was as if someone or something was placing a white sheet over everything — all of the treadmills, weights, exercise machines, and my own ability to think. I had to do something else, but I didn’t know what to do — my best friend was dying.

***

Crazy. Lovable. Intense. Genuine. Impulsive. Creative. Attention-seeking. Sweet. There’s so many ways to describe Daniel.

We first met at a bar in Amsterdam called Prik. Daniel approached me because he thought I was 17 years old. After later discovering I was in fact 26, Daniel said: “The bar must have been very dark.” Shortly after meeting, Daniel introduced me to the rest of his friends. All of his friends were normal, unlike him. What a surprise! They didn’t sit on strangers’ laps, sing a show tune loudly at a random moment, or order four bottles of wine without having any money. His friends were level-headed and responsible.

We were all fascinated by his energy — an enormous ball of spectacular energy that made you his audience by virtue of proximity to him. Even at 5 am, after a long night of dancing and drinking — he would be bouncing off the walls while the rest of us could barely open our droopy eyes.

Most of Daniel’s life was an adventure in which every moment was seized.

On his 33rd (and last) birthday, Daniel smashed my face into his birthday cake. I grabbed a handful of cake and Daniel began running. I caught up to him in the next room and spread the white frosting in his hair like it was hair gel. The night before his birthday, Daniel took his glass of red wine and poured it over a friend’s head. On another friend’s white couch.

However, Daniel was not always causing trouble. He was one of the sweetest and the most intimate persons I have ever met — always hugging me, holding my hand, and wanting to cuddle on the couch. Intimacy was extremely important for Daniel, and whether you liked it or not you were going to be continually touched while he was around you.

Daniel’s level of intimacy made me initially uncomfortable, most likely because my dad is a former Marine. I was raised to believe intimacy between two male friends is socially unacceptable. However, Daniel forced me to become more intimate, as he did with the rest of his friends. How I appreciated those hugs! Those kisses! Those moments we had snuggling on the couch! How I would do anything to have those intimate moments again!

But it is not to be. He is now dead.

He had an epileptic attack on January 20th. I knew Daniel had had epilepsy. Vaguely. He must have told me he had it at some point or another. But I never thought an epileptic attack would kill him — cause him to not breathe and have a heart attack, and make him brain dead.

Daniel was a friend who danced, sung, twirled you around and around in circles, and told random people your dick size (or his best estimate of your dick size). Daniel detested boredom and mediocrity, and was focused solely on doing what he wanted. 

“It’s Daniel’s world,” we used to say. “We just live in it.”

For many, like me, giving Daniel the spotlight was no problem. I loved his crazy personality and his infectious zest for life. For others, he caused a visceral reaction that had the person looking for the nearest exit away from him. “Daniel is Daniel,” we used to say.

Now we try to say: “Daniel was Daniel.”

The night after Daniel died, I had a dream that he suddenly woke up in his hospital bed and said, “I was just kidding guys! The joke is on you!” After I woke up, I broke down crying because I realized it was a dream. I actually expected Daniel to do this, because it would be so typical for Daniel to do.

Sometimes, I daydream that Daniel is going to come around the corner, and begin laughing at me like I am a complete idiot for thinking he was dead. Daniel’s seismic personality makes it unbelievable that he really is gone, forever. 

He was not ready to die. Daniel was taken with his soul shrieking: “No no no no no no no!” Now everyone who loved him is crying: “No no no no no no no!” His death has been too much to handle, and all who love and loved him are coming to grips with a reality that is impossible to swallow.

A beautiful and raucous life, taken from us. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no…

daniel