As people have skeletons in their closets, I have gravestones lining my bookshelves.
The books that surround my desk are testaments to my obsessions. Those that have lived and died, those that are slowly fading away and those that are at the height of their intensity.
Directly in front of me is a book: Return of the Osprey. To my 5:00 is a stack of field guides. Sibley’s Guide to Birds. Hawks in Flight. Hawks of North America. Eastern Birds. They are dusty and faded, their spines cracked. Worn from years of use and abuse at my childish hands, years ago. I have not opened them since.
To my left, on the lowest shelf of my tallest bookcase, is a row of books on a different topic: Iditarod Classics. Wolves at Our Door. Honest Dogs. The Collected Poems of Robert Service, a testament to the Yukon written in iambs. Occasionally I pry Robert Service from the shelf and read it aloud to myself. It re-awakens a not-so-dormant wonder and lust for the frontier that I have long given up on.
And to my right, one shelf up from the bottom of that bookshelf, we find The Joy of Drumming. Studying Rhythm. The Psychology of Drumming, a John Bonham biography and a stack of of vintage magazines featuring Led Zeppelin on their covers.
I am obsessive by nature. This nature comes with benefits and pitfalls. Since I was a boy I’ve been the type to find an interest, apply blinders and learn everything I could possibly know about the subject. It began with the typical obsessions of male children–you know, dinosaurs and the like.
But it was never enough to just like dinosaurs. I had to master dinosaurs. I needed the books, the know-how, the ability to recite their scientific nomenclatures without hesitation. The ability to identify fossils on sight–correctly, first try. Look at me, little Jamesy the golden boy: beacon of information on the fauna of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
That was what I needed, so that was what I did. Until the next thing.
I do not remember if it was directly after dinosaurs that I became obsessed with the Iditarod, bears, wolves, etc. or if those two obsessions were separated by a dalliance with shark-fishing (either way, if I look up and to my left, there are a pair of dogfish jaws hanging from my wall), but the former became one of my phases that boasted a longer lifespan. I read and re-read the stories of Jack London. On a birthday, I was given copies of “Iron Will” on VHS by three separate people. I wore a fur vest. I still wear it. I wore musher’s hats. I still wear them. I ogled over the photography of Jim Brandenburg. I still have a print framed, collecting dust, in a closet. I learned to whittle with my grandfather. We, together, whittled a tiny wooden wolf. It has been lost. I made walking sticks and carved mountains into their handles with a rusted Swiss Army knife. I learned how to make bows. I cut the trees, sanded the wood, soaked branches in my bathtub and pressed them into the red-brick arch over the family fireplace to dry. I strung them with special braided golden bowstrings that the crossing guard (Al, WWII vet) at my elementary school gave me. I attempted to make arrows (much harder to get right than bows). The Yukon gold rush was my prepubescent wet dream.
Until the next thing.
Music. Drums. Percussion. 4th grade – present. From 4th grade to my senior year of high school I played drums every single day. It, by far, was my longest-lived obsession. I still am obsessed, but I do not play anymore. It kills me. To my 4:00 my drum set is coated with dust and my cymbals rest on their stands, begging to be crashed or ridden. My snare drum rattles when I walk past, asking what it did wrong. Pleading for answers. Why don’t you play me anymore? The answer to that question is unclear, even to me. But that is not what this is about, and that is not something I enjoy talking about–one of the few things that absolutely gores me like a bull-horn of longing and memory of another time.
My first exposure to the wonders of drumming was John Bonham. He was able to roll on his bass drum with one foot. Most drummers today use a double-pedal. John Bonham used a single pedal: A Ludwig Speed King–super fast, but not chain-driven. An anomaly in the world of bass-drum pedals. He used Paiste 2002 cymbals. His most iconic drum kit was his amber Ludwig VistaLite, which is very hard to tune. I have a DVD that gives details on how his roadies tuned them. He used a very fat stick, made of hickory. He died of alcohol poisoning. These were all things that I learned. I internalized. I was enthralled to the point that dying young as a musician didn’t seem like a terrible way to go, for me.
In the fourth grade I could perform most rudiments faster than my concert band instructor. I remember racing her in paradiddles, watching her speed top out while I still had all the room in the world to speed up. R-L-R-R-L-R-L-L. Don’t accent your right hand–keep the strokes even. Faster, faster, faster. Little Jamesy, the golden boy: paradiddle king. All other drummers shivered in the long, cold shadow of my magnificence. I played an extended solo at the talent show in sixth grade. My drums boomed in the gymnasium like Bonzo’s in the stairwell (explained later). Roaring applause. Small-time fame. Not even in my teens. I became James, the drummer. Known for my prowess. My reputation preceded me. I loved it. I’d earned it. I had slaved over my practice pad until my parents provided me with a snare drum, and I had slaved over the snare drum until–after copious amounts of research and a plastic-sleeved presentation of my findings in a three-ring-binder to my parents (i.e. a clear case of obsession)–they agreed I was invested enough in drumming to buy me a drum set. A drum set over which I slaved.
And I slaved on. Pure passion and blind obsession. Drunk off the feeling of the Vic Firth 7As tearing apart my hands. I memorized the “Moby Dick” drum solo. I transcribed “Bonzo’s Montreux” in my blue Mead notebook, cover adorned with stickers. I learned things like: “the drum track for ‘When the Levee Breaks’ was recorded in a stairwell.” I began private lessons with Zach Field, and I watched his business grow as I grew as a player through elementary, middle and high school. I was percussion leader in my middle school concert band. I auditioned and was accepted to the district orchestra. I was one of the first freshman in my high school to ever make the Advanced Percussion Ensemble. I made Jazz Combo as a sophomore. I became obsessed with Roy Haynes. Art Blakey. I scoffed at Buddy Rich. The list of accolades is long, and firing off my achievements feels both self-aggrandizing and pathetic all at once, but I was in deep with music. I still am.
But it came time to apply for colleges, and music school, while very much in the conversation, seemed like a self-condemnation to a life of borderline poverty. Of setting up and breaking down drum-kits. Of long hours of rehearsal to play for an audience of 20. And so that, I believe, was where the drum obsession “died.” It opened the door for the next thing.
In college, I believe the culmination of dorm-life, testosterone-ridden campus gyms, a desire to impress females, the machismo that comes with inebriation, etc. led to a new, not-so-great obsession: self-obsession. My body. I’ve always had what could be described as a very unhealthy (during my love-affair with cycling and road bikes–an obsession I do not address this piece–I weighed as little as 114 lbs at a height of 5’9.” A story for another time.) relationship with my physical image.
I became addicted to the gym. A no-holds-barred meathead. Borderline one-dimensional. I even stopped drinking in my freshman year (of college! Stopped drinking!) for a considerable length of time. My nickname became “no-fun-Freitas” because the gym, my diet, my abs, my biceps all took precedence over going out–over any form of fun. My sophomore year (though I don’t like to admit to it and often deny it when it’s brought up), I refused to go out and celebrate my best-friend’s birthday because I didn’t want to have to drink and blow my diet. Which is absurd, I see now. And it inspires a greater guilt in me than said friend realizes.
But like Jamesy the little golden boy of youth, I saw success. I earned it. Through my obsession I achieved what I set out to. I was lean and ripped. Strong. Six-pack. I looked good. I received the recognition and compliments I craved. I knew everything there was to know about whey protein, casein protein, creatine, beta-alanine, hypertrophy, strength, accommodating resistance, linear programming, how to isolate the rear deltoids, training splits–you name it.
My freshman year I set goals to squat 400 lbs, bench 300, and deadlift 500-all of which I’ve achieved. My back is still thick and my legs are still stout. But now, though I’ll always work out and have gotten to the point where I require it for the sake of my mental health, even my self-obsessed gym rat phase is fading. My physical appearance is no longer my end-all-be-all priority. New obsessions are mounting. Such is the process. But it isn’t the end of the world. Not at all.
“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.” -Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
I first read Siddhartha in high school, and during my annual multiple cross-country flights, I would re-read it every time on the plane. I carried it with me as the devout carry their bibles. It’s the perfect book to polish off in six hours or less. And every time I read it, I re-underline the preceding passage.
I’ve always sought. Dinosaurs, The Iditarod, music, birds, whatever. When I wanted to know about those things, those things were all I saw. All those obsessions were goal-driven. But in pursuing these goals, their mortality as goals (dead once achieved) helped me find. At least I like to think so. And I know it sounds horribly cliche, but bear with me.
Though I don’t go out birdwatching anymore–you won’t see me driving to the Customs House in Boston to stand there staring up at the top, waiting for a peek at a Peregrine Falcon (which I did, like twelve years ago, god bless my parents for putting up with that shit)–I still am very much a lover of birds. If I’m out and see an American Kestrel, I know what type of bird it is. That’s still a part of me. And though I no longer have aspirations of owning a sled-dog team (well, not aspirations that I plan to act on anytime soon), my love for wolves and bears and The Iditarod still exists, deeply woven into the fibre of which I’m comprised. Jack London still shaped who I am. And I’ll never stop wearing my fur vest. And though I’ll probably never hook a real big shark, I still go out and try to catch dogfish with my friends where the river meets the sea sometimes. It’s who I am.
And music. Music, music, music. Though I’ve chosen the career path of a writer, it’s the music that made me. And I’m reluctant to admit that I’m welling up as I write this. Music taught me everything I know. To focus. To listen–but not passively–to listen actively and let that be the impetus behind my action. Set up hits for your horn, lock eyes with your bassist, let the melody carry through your solos, even if you’re “just the drummer.” Music was the first thing I ever did that–cliches are cliches because they’re true–slowed down time. Or sped it up. Some of the longest hours of my life were spent on a drum-throne. Some of the shortest, too.
And so my bookshelves are a graveyard. Headstones to knowledge sought and obtained. Knowledge internalized and moved on from. Seeking. But now that I’ve stopped seeking I have found. And funny to think that my obsessions are survived as books. On my bookshelves–among DeLillo, Chopin, Stegner–my most prized possessions. Because all along, whether I was seeking it or not, I was meant to find writing. Reading. Books. Literature. And my obsessions have taught me diligence. So here I am, hoping, that the same success I found as a seeker, I can find as I’m finding.