The music coming though my headphones at the gym is usually the same music that I was listening to as an angst ridden adolescent. At home or in the car, my music preferences have broadened significantly over the years. There's still some metal here and there, but it's no longer a staple in my music diet.
But at the gym, the music is loud and aggressive. Sometimes there's a swagger. Sometimes there's a chip on the shoulder. But there is always a sense of certainty about it. I put the playlist on shuffle once it's going, but it always starts with Hell's Bells. I love walking out of the locker room and up the stairs with those bells in my ears. And that opening guitar riff just oozes inevitable destruction. Then Brian Johnson's scratchy opening lines. "I'm rolling thunder, pouring rain. I'm coming on like a hurricane." There is no second guessing oneself when you're a fucking hurricane.
When I was 22 years old, I lived in Houston Texas. I had an apartment in a pretty rough neighborhood near Hobby Airport. That apartment was furnished with a sleeping bag, a pillow, and a small stereo. I had a pet rabbit named after Huey P Newton. And I had a job making copies of legal documents at an office downtown. From 10 pm to 6 am, I stood over a Xerox machine listening to music on my Walkman and making copies.
I'd come to Houston, via New Orleans, from Denver.
I was a ninth grade dropout. In Denver, I was drinking heavily and I was doing drugs more and more often. Fights were commonplace. I'd lost a few friends to violence. And I'd seen plenty more sent to prison. I'd had numerous scrapes with the law, but I'd managed to avoid any trouble that would stick with me long term. And then, literally in an instant, I just knew I had to get out. In one lucid moment, I saw the pit that I'd sunk into, and I knew that if I didn't get out immediately, I might not ever get out.
A couple of months later, I got a one-way ticket to New Orleans. I had a backpack full of clothes and $450. New Orleans didn't last. I couldn't even find day labor work. And $450 didn't last long. So I used the $35 deposit on the room that I'd rented for a bus ticket to Houston. I had an Aunt and Uncle there, and they were gracious enough to take me in.
I got the job making copies. Then I found the apartment. The job didn't pay much, so with no friends and limited options for my free time, I started making good use of my library card.
I can remember where I was the first time I heard Rage Against The Machine. I'd already found plenty of music that gave expression to my anger and frustration, but never so perfectly as Rage. That was exactly how it felt. I didn't always understand the references in the lyrics. They were clearly a well-read bunch. And I clearly was not. But the music grabbed me by the gut and gave clarity to my feelings.
On the inside sleeve of Rage's second album, there's a picture of a pile of books. Early on in that first year in Houston, I took that picture to the library. And I discovered a whole new world of people that were as angry as I was. And they'd found a way to direct that anger. They'd found a purpose for it.
There's a line in a Rage song that always stood out to me. In a song filled with screams that come from deep in the gut, one line is whispered quietly. "Your anger is a gift." I was finally ready to take that idea to heart.
I made a ten point platform for myself, modeled after the ten point platform for the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Ten promises to myself. Things that I was going to change. Not just my actions, but my thoughts and feelings too. I wanted, needed, to end the self destructive ways of thinking and being that I'd developed throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. I needed to stop hurting others around me too. And I needed to start making a positive impact on my world. I needed to take my anger and make it work for me, rather than against me. I spent the better part of the next decade wrestling with those changes on an almost daily basis.
Today, I don't have nearly as much anger as I did at 22 years old. I get angry, but I don't generally walk around with it. I get sad too. And frustrated. Lonely. Afraid. Confused. Uncertain. And I know that those feelings are also gifts.
About seven years ago, I discovered that I could take those gifts to the gym and transform them into something entirely different. With running and lifting and swimming, I can turn fear and anger into peace. I can take uncertainty and confusion, and create strength and confidence. And while so much else has changed over the years, the soundtrack of those transformations remains the same. And I like that. It's a nice reminder of where I've been. And a wonderful suggestion of where I can still go.