Essays

A collection writings and thoughts by artist Gary Llama.

Control, Goals, and Status: How illness taught me to build a life while respecting myself

I opened my own business, an audio mastering studio, when I was 23.

Mastering, for those curious, is the final process before a recording is shipped out to be replicated in it’s end format. The final level adjustments are made in the mastering process. The goal is to make the recording sound great, everywhere, on all playback systems. The sequence of the songs is also done here, the timing of each track, fade in and fade out: taking a bunch of songs and putting them into the perfect order for the album. Essentially, mastering is where recordings turn into records, they sound like a ‘record’, they feel like a ‘record’. And it is done by manipulating the audio into the perfect form for what the artists wants.

So I was 23, ‘mastering’ audio.
I cannot stress how pretentious that should sound.

Here I was, with around two years of professional experience recording audio, ‘fixing’ audio recorded by people with way more experience than me. Was it absurd? A little. Was I good at it? I was decent. I remember one client remarking to a fellow engineer , early into our mastering session, that I was something of a ‘prima donna’, I mean here I was 23, and telling this older gentleman what was wrong with his song’s audio. But I did it. I’d win over the clients because my work was good, and I’d work diligently to learn how to be better because I fell in love with the craft. Being in a supportive environment that encouraged me to try it helped as well. The studio I would freelance at as a recording engineer offered me space to setup my own room, incidentally, the old room of an engineer whom I looked up to greatly. All in all, it worked out really well. I learned the room and the equipment. I learned about business. And I began to earn clients whom respected my work as an audio engineer. And that respect, that feeling of usefulness, is why I am writing here today.

A few weeks ago, my therapist and I began talking about loss. I made a map of the loss I have had in my life, and we reflected upon it. The next week, I graphed gain. And a peculiar thing appeared: While being very honest with myself, I ranked the experience of receiving professional respect in being an audio mastering engineer, as the high point of my graph of gain. What makes this odd, is that within 2 years of opening the mastering studio, I had decided to close it down.

Around a year into running the mastering studio, my health began to get bad. Real bad. I lost about 25 pounds. For an already skinny kid, that was a huge loss. That put my weight down around 108, which as my doctor liked to call it, was ‘the weight we admit folks to the hospital at’. And he did. My appetite was horribly non-existent. I felt sick whenever I ate. We tried a few different things, different diets, nothing worked. I was beginning to believe the food I was eating was causing it, and my Doctor had no reason medically to believe I was not just suffering the normal bouts of IBS I had been diagnosed with years earlier, and becoming OCD. Becoming paranoid. He even offered to try me on Marinol, to see if perhaps that would suppress the nausea I was feeling and increase my appetite. I was a dangerously low weight. The only thing I knew for sure, was that running the studio now was incredibly stressful, and that stress did seem to be making a bad situation worse. I held out for a year, then gave in and closed it down.

Loosing a dream is really hard. Shutting one down to feel better isn’t. I felt the stress leave. I felt the sky open up above me. Things were better. But in all honesty, It didn’t hurt so much then because I really did not understand the full ramifications of what I had just done.

Now I’m sitting here about eight years later. and my health is a bit more manageable. It turned out that the ‘paranoia’ that my family, friends, and doctor all thought I had about food turned out to be an extreme set of food allergies. The kind that when you eat those foods, destroy your immune system. And some of the other problems were diagnosed a short time later as Peripheral Neuropathy. But, my weight is down again, and no one really knows why. And I have new health issues, the main one being Hidradenitis suppurativa. Don’t Google image search that.

Looking back over the loss timeline I made at therapy, the problem wasn’t that I shut down the studio. The problem was that I shut it down, and things did not really get better. The problem is that I also lost other opportunities because of my health, and had to walk past jobs I would be fully qualified for because I knew either the stress, or the physical expense, would make me sick again. I felt, early in this, that by giving up my dream, I would be gaining my health. I didn’t realize I would lose it all, regardless.

Over the course of this experience I learned a few things, and I would like to outline them here.

1. Control
Before my health issues, I believed Human Beings had a good bit of control over their lives. Growing up, I always asked myself how folks became homeless, and the best answer I could give was “they fucked up”. That is a person that believes in control, speaking.

The reality is, most of us coast along with luck. And some of us, because of the position of privilege (healthy, money, supportive environment) can coast along like this until we hit the grave, dying gracefully, as we all like to believe we will, of old age, surrounded by those who love us, and leaving behind a legacy of our contributions to this world to enrich the lives of those that follow us.

But that, is a very lucky thing. Reality is much different. And control is not part of reality. Control, I found, is an illusion. An illusion based on probabilities. What is the chance you will get cancer? Not very good, until you get it and beat it. Then those chances seem way more probable. Then you realize you do not have control.

The only thing we can control, is how we react to what life throws at us. We can go down screaming that we didn’t deserve this, or we can go down holding the hands of those we care about, and loving them fully.

2. Goals
Before I got sick, I looked at goals as things you did. Set them, achieve them. Then life is better, you are better, everything is better. And I did that, but for some reason, things didn’t get that much better. Somethings did, I mean, making a large amount per hour will make the pain of poverty go away pretty damn quick, but it won’t erase that gaping hole in your sole. You know, the one you hope to fill with fulfillment? That won’t do shit for that.

You also may, in attempt to acquire the goal you know will greatly improve your existence, ruin the existence of everyone around you. You may, so blinded by your goal, turn into a complete dick. You may, become the most unmoved, uncaring, abusive asshole that you could ever become. And you may actually credit that dehumanized abusive behavior as one of your strengths, and simultaneously, learn to hate yourself and expect horrible behavior from yourself as necessary for success.

And even then, you may completely arrive at your goal, but not by way of the means and circumstance you expected, and then not be able to appreciate reaching it. And you may even walk by 1,000 other amazing things and not pay attention to them as well, simply because, they were not on your itenary, they were not on the flight plan for your specific goal. And in doing this, you may actually work harder for your goal, as you, so devoid of seeing the beauty around you, have romanticized it into the antidote to the depressing stressful life you are currently leading. Pity anyone who should stand in the way of that.

Avoiding this behavior is rather simple: love the idea, not the specifics. And more so, love the love behind the idea: Wanting to help a specific group of people, because you care about people, seems ridiculous when you can’t even take time for the one’s you personally love anymore. Don’t loose site of what the core motivation is.

3. Status
Going from making $25 an hour, to $60 an hour, then down to $15, then $7.25, then basically broke and on food stamps is a humbling experience, but it’s also a trying experience when related to status. Regardless of one’s political or society beliefs about status, that $60 lets you know your work is appreciated. It’s an instant approval of validity to your current value to the market.

The problem with this is, it is NOT a marker of your actual value to the world. To the world; your spouse, your family, your cat, your neighbors, your friends; you can add so much value that will never be capitalized on, or even be able to be figured out how to capitalize it. And we would never think of doing that, because it’s “Home life”, or as Thorstein Veblen termed it, ‘leisure’. In the separation of our lives from work, we have deemed our marketable work as the thing that gives value. And don’t believe that a leftist/anarchist does not fall for the same trap, they can value their work AGAINST the market, existing as an actual part of the market’s dichotomy, as higher than what they do for friends and family.

And I shouldn’t put this across as an externalized function, because as status is really just value, we can gain this from ourselves. We can feel value in what we do ourselves. But generally, we feel it for the things we love. We feel it for the things we put time into, yet don’t realize how much time we’ve actually spent. The things that are effortless for us, because the exchange, our time for felt reward, is so lopsided to our advantage that we don’t even notice how much we do.

*

In each of these things, I am a better person than when I closed down my dream studio. I realize that I have no control over anything but the way I react, and I try to react according to the life I want to live. I have loose goals that don’t keep me from enjoying the journey to them. And my status, though not financially provable, is what gives me the audacity to hold my own art show, write my own book, hell, even write this essay. I have assigned myself agency, because I know I’m valuable; a Human Being, with work that is motivated by love.

I am still very much a work-in-progress. But I like myself a lot more now than when the market/profession/industry seemed to really like me. That’s a goal I would like to loosely stick to.

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Llamatism is a collection of things, a cabinet of curiosities, and reports from explorations on things, by Gary Llama.

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