If you knew him, and a lot of people did, ahead of time fair warning; This isn’t a story about Jason Chin specifically, nor is it some elucidation of a complex political model he once explained to me. He’s a guy I and a lot of people remember fondly, and he’s an important part of the story, but I don’t want you to feel baited and switched as if this essay’s title was the trailer for ‘Across The Universe’. Great trailer, by the way. Trailer. Among the stories I could have told to illustrate the same point, I chose this one because A.) I’ve never told it before, and B.) I think his part in it is illustrative of one of the really important and cool things about him. C.) I think he would have liked it. He’s a small character in a larger but still itself small story. If you indulge me with your patience I think you’ll see that there is a point to that.
So. Let’s start with getting the specificity of our scene out.
It was New Year’s Eve ‘07 to ‘08. I was at a party at the home of two friends who now in '17 have had paths uncrossed with mine for quite some time which, as you probably already know, is part of having friends while also existing in linear time. Long term and short term friends, fondness for, in my experience, never being the quality of distinction between them.
A classic rock playlist of a at-least-every-third-song-is-a-sing-along quality played loud enough to be heard while still loudly talked over. My excitement to be there was a battle of my heart’s want to just sit in the quiet part of the house and listen to and smile with my friends versus my young obsessive comedian’s brain’s need to be seen and laughed at by the hilarious and popular people I admired in the Chicago improv/comedy scene who were all there. I could feel the gestalt of those two sides forming into an as of now low hum of vague spazy nervousness manifesting as quick shallow breathing, clenched jaw, and acute awareness of how uncool I probably looked. I was too young at the time to recognize it, much less understand why it was there, and much much less that it was anxiety of the pathological sort.
I started drinking heavily.
Adding fuel to the gasoline to the mental health fire that was growing there anyway, I had had a recent breakup with someone who I had fallen way too hard in love with while she was barely slightly attached to me. Which is, of course, completely fine but needs to be pointed out as completely fine for those among my damaged theatre boy brethren who would read that and seethe against her heart’s wants as if they were the audacity of an entitled bitch. I know you, damaged theatre boy, I was you once and you are the problem.
Truth is that she was, and remains, in strong and well deserved possession of the adjectives strong, intelligent, creative, deservingly successful, kind, beautiful, funny, and several more, most of them synonyms for what is already written here. She was and is still a stand out in the world. However, amongst the directory of my exes she stands indistinct as just one of the many who has had put up with my ridiculous bullshit. The most recent example at the time of this new year’s eve; in a moment of weakness, the truth how I felt had come out of me, she felt weird about me having such strong feelings, I was hurt and angry and boy that was duly expressed, and that sure didn't make her feel any better and, in point of fact, worse. And that was that.
Side but relevant note: The pathologies of anxiousness and depression tend to drive their human hosts romantically to other hosts of the same. This is how the sad babies who become sad adults are born, along with some truly great music. In the rare instance where a host finds a healthy (See: <quotations present to denote “so called”. Not because they [the healthy] actually aren’t, but because at this point I don’t think I know what that word means but this seems like right word to use here? [Question mark to denote my voice raising with uncertainty at the end of that sentence as if it was a question even thought it is not.]> “cool”.) person, the sense of inferiority grows from palpable to literally tactile as progressively deeper fingernail indentations grow in the palms because hiding being an impostor gets harder and tooth-crackingly harder as someone that you are not good enough for and never will be continues to, for some deluded fucking reason, be kind to you.
Back in the past, at just a hair over two hours until 2008, obsessive comedian brain was in that moment winning out. I stood on the cusp of being sloshed while talking to two local funny dudes parked near the basement keg. They were holding cups both of which were boozeless as they had recently decided to become sober in the permanent sense. One of them had gotten divorced that year. We were laughing about how shitty and difficult life gets sometimes and landing on variants of “But hey, what’re ya gonna do? Fuck it I’m still here, ain’t I?!” Swapping stories the way little boys take turns doing devastating belly flops off the high dive and laugh their asses off at each other. You know, the way grown men do. There were back slaps involved.
Jaw tensity loosened, breathing into my belly, un-self-conscious, my buzz firmly getting on, I was having a good time. When then, of course, predictably only to hindsight and you dear reader, my recent break up descended the stairs into the basement with graceful head up posture she never had to try at, with just a little bit of charming clumsiness from step to step supported on each slight wobble arm in arm with her new beau, who she was apparently very much in love with, which I knew because I had asked. Of course. He also happened to be one of those aforementioned hilarious and popular people that I admired. Good looking too. Of course. She was dressed in a hipster's semi-formal oh-this-I-totally-woke-up-in-this dress that cut barely below the clavicle. She looked savvy. Coolly modest. An outfit that showed itself off rather than her with the exception of the absent back that revealed her tattoo that ran like liquid ivy clinging to her trapezius muscles down to a soft resting point at the little swoop of spine between her kidneys.
God damn did I ever think she was cool.
My insecurity, never missing a beat, reminded me that upon ending the relationship she had told me she needed someone stronger and was uncomfortable feeling like the man in the relationship. I forgot to mention the adjective ‘honest’. She’s that too. If that sounds harsh don’t blame her. I asked. Of course.
While the break up was a fairly recent development, my terrible handling of rejection was not. At all. Mid hearty guffaw at my perseverance and misfortune, my perseverance took a sharp never-saw-it-coming kick and shriveled up into my stomach cavity. Having been so suddenly abandoned by its friend, poor misfortune now found itself all alone with nothing to press up against to juice laughter out with. In a descending pitch from high to low, half a final ‘hah’ fell out of my mouth me like a cigar from the military general who just realized the world's first alien invasion is both unwinnable and the last. I swallowed the other half, going silent just as quickly as all forty three muscles in my face just gave up and my jaw went slack as I whispered ‘You have got to be fucking kidding me’ from the back of my throat where I was now hiding.
I didn't know she was going to be there.
Alcohol is an emotional credit card. And like credit cards I can’t think of many things more human than solving a problem just to create new ones. Consider the car, which I then proceeded to render operation thereof at minimum inadvisable for the next seventy-two to ninety-six hours along with any other heavy machinery I might come across as I started to drinking heavily made heavier by drinking in that too much too fast way you do because you're nervous and don't know what to do with your hands. Say what you will about the problems drinking creates, it does solve other more immediate ones first.
I don’t remember the rest of the party that well. The drinking didn’t help, but the real reason I don’t remember it well is because I wasn’t really there. instead I was firmly ensconced inside of my own (and only, which I sometimes find unfortunate) head where I was mistaking hiding for safety and safety for comfort and comfort for where happiness probably was. My body reduced to a mere transportation device for my brain. Of course at the time I had no idea I was making that series of mistakes.
I do remember at some point later I accidentally made eye contact with her and then starting acting (likely forcibly) surprised to see her like oh my gosh I had no idea. I must have said something stupid. Of course. Because I also remember her grabbing the new better guy’s elbow and speaking to him with her breath above her as she led him to the next room. He looked back, and ah shit I was looking at him and he saw it. In a brilliant move of spycraft I made my eyes do an instant dart away and I pretended to have been admiring the lamp.
I remember how I felt. Pressure kept growing as I passed by friends and acquaintances, comedy scene people that I just wanted so badly to like me. Forcing myself to talk to them. Anxiety making my mouth desiccated and paralyzed, me hating both everything forced out of it and myself for cowardly saying so little, anxiety being the nothing is ever good enough cunt that it is.
It makes you hyper aware, anxiety. It’s a spotlight pointed inwards cruelly scrutinizing every little detail, picking up on each little thought and action. Every movement. It grabs you by the back of your neck with one hand while it batters your face wet and broken with stone after stone of rock solid evidence of your constant failures with the other. It makes air tight cases for why and exactly how you will never be good enough. And it’s done with such passion, sometimes almost a sense of urgency. With calculation. And in your lowest moments it's done with a dark humor that you are on the far butt end of.
There have been times when I have tried to force the spotlight completely around so it goes through through my eyes instead. Maybe to utilize its intensity and intelligence towards positive ends, but the closest I could get out of my own head was awareness of a post nasal slide of excess mucus.
I remember at some point I was outside in the back, around the corner of the house where the smokers couldn’t see me. My friend the host was with me while I stupidly humiliatingly was doing the snotty hiccup cries. She comforted me, got me a tissue, said she was so sorry. She said would not have let this person come had she known. I said that wouldn’t be fair, but I knew what she really meant was that she cares, which helped. She's also a small character in this story. There's always more than you think.
She brought me inside to hang out where my aforementioned better desires of the heart were. In a smaller, quieter room. Upstairs. With friends. Every house party's late night close friend VIP area. After some time in company with the wine, the laughs, and of course alcohol’s booster buddy marijuana, I eventually started calming again. And after about three minutes of feeling better I was oh so sure that I didn’t just feel better, but that by jove now I was better. And stronger. My lesson permanently learned and immunity to fleeting emotional volatility granted. Falling for it. Of course. This is among the cleverest and oldest tricks of of self sabotage in depression’s book of spells.
While anxiety lives in the same neighborhood as depression they are never at the same place at the same time. Anxiety has too much energy to coexist with depression’s lethargic anhedonia. But they are teammates. Anxiety with all it’s punches big and small enervating you over time until you are knocked down. Depression then convincing you to stay horizontal so that nothing will ever knock you down again. Then they both high five and gloat. Don’t ask what you did to deserve this, they will tell you.
I remember being in the kitchen, close to midnight. I don’t remember how I got there, though I remember drunkenly trying to look like I knew why I was. As if I was a man with a confident purpose. I remember looking out the window over the sink and catching eye contact with myself in the reflection that darkness creates when you can't see outside.
So I have this weird thing where sometimes I will make faces I’m unaware I’m making. It’s usually because I’m really engaged in a conversation or scenario or something else that must be really important going on in my skull. This is apparently hilarious when I watch commercials. I’ve had multiple friends tell me they have secretly been laughing watching me watch commercials. They say I cock my head and look suspiciously at some commercials or nod approvingly at others, like I seem to be giving this unreasonable amount of expressive consideration to each one. As if I’m seeing commercials for the first time. In high school while walking the halls I was constantly told I looked lost. The running joke became to shout, slowly so I could understand it, "Your name is Peter Kremidas! You are at Carmel High School! It is third period!" And other pieces of hilariously obvious info. I don’t do these things so much anymore because while I totally get that it’s funny (it really is) I feel exposed when it’s pointed out.
So when I looked in (not out) the window I surprised myself when I saw that I looked just so...sad. Surprised both because I had been expending a lot of mental energy trying to keep that sad face hidden in my solar plexus where it belonged and also because I had expended so much of that energy that I had convinced myself that I actually was fine.
Laughter. My first instinct is that it must be about me. That I had been I had been seen doing something I wasn't aware I was doing again while starring out the window like a doof. Swift turn of the head and of course it was just two people were just having their own conversation. “Of course. Idiot. You think everything is about you.” I didn’t argue back.
I heard the cheering and sushes from two rooms away that always precedes the countdown. The only time annually I hear a command to silence just so we can then get immediately louder except together and in the right way. I ambled out of the kitchen to one room over, too crowded to get two rooms over, working hard to maintain a strong neutral face and upright stance. I was on the back wall by a bookshelf. I picked up a book and pretended to examine it, hoping nobody could see me while also wishing somebody would talk to me. The book was a series of poems or something. I think. I might have turned to Hawthorne’s 'Test of a Man' and had it fly right over my head just before realizing oh shit I’m at a crowded party reading fucking poetry put it back put it back put it back.
While I was distracted the countdown had started and was now at seven. I looked around. Keep your face normal, you’re fine. Five. Smile, damn it, smile. Don’t make this negative for other people too. They’re having fun. Keep it in. Two. I’m breathing very heavily. The room was so crowded that even with cracked windows in the Chicago winter it was hot. The air was heavy with the hot moisture of the all the breath coming from so many red heat and alcohol flushed faces with twice as many crinkled sentimental eyes all packed in and leaning into one another. People were hugging and cheering and I realized the countdown had finished a couple seconds ago and I was late to it. Arms around shoulders. Hugs. Meaningful cliches being slurred that are only cliches because we haven’t yet found better ways to express ‘I love you’ than the words and tones we typically employ on new year’s or during goodbyes after weddings. I'm surrounded with warmth and all the best promises of the theme song to ‘Cheers’ fulfilled.
And I felt
I had a panic attack.
Its intensity was exacerbated by being the first one I had ever experienced and it was by far the worst of the only two I’ve had in my life.
I focused on taking deep breaths. They came out as gulps. I could feel tears coming in hot and then focused all my energy on not letting tears come up. I fought against that looming humiliation of being exposed as not actually such a funny confident guy after all. That I'm actually soft. I had to get out It was too crowded I couldn't move I was stuck planted where I was standing looked up at the ceiling because maybe gravity could help hold tears back just like a nosebleed god that's desperate hide my face hide my face they're all facing the other direction don't turn around think of something else you idiot your desperate childish need for positive attention caused this they're going to see you they're going to see you can't handle yourself they'll tell everybody they'll all know you're an emotional wreck nobody will want to be near you plus you come across as aloof to people you know that when you try to appear strong it makes you talk down to people you idiot you asshole you headcase this is why people hate you this is why nobody will ever love you this is why you will never be happy or successful or
Jason Chin. He died a few years back. He was a long time Chicago improviser, teacher, coach, mentor, and friend of many. He put up a lot of cool shows. He had a great critical eye, wonderful and sharp as hell sense of humor. He was intelligent enough to be the best type of curmudgeon, as in not the shitty given up on life vindictive type. The kind that maybe had some idealism and hopes beat up a bit, but in the presence of a sense of humor that kept him smirking despite it. The type of dude who would see something dumb and snort a laugh at it not out of mockery but because he really truly gave a shit. That was my impression of him anyway, we weren’t terribly close. But I knew him. I liked him. I think I might have annoyed him more than a few times with all the ways I was young and dumb. And here he was, the only person turned around facing my direction, me pressed against the bookcase at the back wall of the room. He was holding his hand out to me.
“Happy new year.”
On auto-pilot I shook his hand and forced a smile. “Thanks, Jason. You too.”
He looked at me in the eye a little while longer than people usually do. He held a firm grasp on my hand. Maintaining eye contact he gave a nod with a simultaneous single assertive shake of the hand, his mouth in a firm line and the skin under his eyes pushed up giving a strong focus to them. It felt like “you got this”.
And for a moment and a little while after I didn’t feel so isolated.
I found the little oomph of strength to walk through a crowd and didn’t stay much longer. I remember glancing at the clock and it being eeking up to 12:10 as I walked out. I said as few goodbyes as possible. I kept the brim of my hat over my eyes on the bus and train home to hide my eyes from strangers. I was crying. To this day I haven’t been to a new year’s eve party since. I have, with the exception of the latest new year’s eve, always found a place to do improv instead.
I never spoke to Jason about that moment in any of the subsequent years I saw him. I still think about it sometimes. And it strikes me now, almost a decade later, as a good example for a model of politics and life.
I have been thinking lately that the best way to change the world is to just take care of yourself and people around you in a positive way. Break down any issue you care about and it always comes down to easing human suffering. I think the best that can be expected or asked of us is to simply make things easier for other people in our smaller personal worlds where and when we can. The way the ills of the world are presented to us make them seem invincible. I think people disengage and avoid the news and politics partly because it’s all so much bigger than us and the feeling of powerlessness is just so crippling. It's like being given a fishing pole and being told to plant your feet, dig in, and stop the rotation of the Earth with it. Do this, and keep in mind that the happiness survival of every single person’s world including those not yet born is at stake.
I think it’s all too much to ask any one person to feel responsible for. So let’s all just worry about ourselves and the relative few people around us. Stay informed, vote, be kind, and do the right thing in your little one eight-billionth of a world that we’re all sharing with you. The cumulative effect of enough people living in that mode is world changing, policy and personally wise, but not in a way that anybody feels like they’re bearing the weight for. You are powerful enough to do something so meaningful for even just a single person, every day. It turns out what you do matters. And it’s even easy. We collectively have the power to have any world we want, but I don’t think our simple nomadic mammalian brains are equipped to handle planetary scale stakes. What I’m saying is simplify.
The world is actually at present already better than we think it is, but the information we are given to digest about it is almost only ever grand scale horrible due to the things incentivized by national media such as how human eyes are so easy led by what’s just bled. It’s all terrible and we’re all powerless. This is a newer development in terms of the entirety of human history. It’s basically only since the telegraph that we’ve gone from predominantly and immediately local news we have influence over to national news we have relative little power over as individuals.
But it's also what is disincentivized to hear of, and even before the telegraph has mostly gone unnoticed. The little goodnesses. There’s no incentive to report on the millions of times every day somebody says ‘no you go first’ or ‘you dropped this’. Or smiles. I don’t think the road to a better world is a series of grand gestures. I think it’s in the billions of small and simple kindnesses.
Like giving a knowing reassuring handshake to a person who needs it.
Be a small part of someone’s larger but still small story.