My Existential Doctor, Herb Part XV by Brian Polk

“b_#~^£€bh79#” by Jack Estenssoro | Best of Birdy Issue 032, August 2016

By Brian Polk
Art by Jack Estenssoro
Published Issue 083, November 2020

I have a lot to discuss with my existential doctor Herb this month, because I realized something big — a breakthrough of sorts. Of course, I’ve had breakthroughs before. Some of them linger in my mind for several weeks, others seem to vanish after just a few hours. But that’s the thing about working on my outlook on life: it’s a process that will only cease after I either die or suffer debilitating dementia. So I guess that’s something to look forward to. But anyway, I’m actually excited to talk to Herb about the recent events that have taken place in my head.

“You look different,” says Herb when I get to his office. 

I nod. “I feel different. It’s because I thought of something.”

He offers me a glass of water, which I decline. I have to walk back home from here, and there aren’t any public restrooms open due to COVID, so I don’t want to tempt fate in the accidental pants-wetting department. (Of course, this train of thought forces me to realize I probably have an abnormal fear of controlling my bladder. Maybe I should get a regular therapist one of these days.) 

His eyes widen — a visual cue for me to expound. “So, I was reading this zine called Burn Collector. Have you ever heard of it?” He shakes his head. “It’s by this guy, Al Burian. He played in a band called Milemarker, which one of my bands actually opened for in 2001 at the 15th Street Tavern. It was a hell of a show.”

“I can only imagine,” says Herb, which makes me laugh. I can’t picture someone of his stature — stuffy and a bit too serious for fun — rocking out to punk rock in a dingy venue where the clientele are used to sticky floors, dollar draughts, and pungent, unidentifiable odors. 

“Anyway, he had a long-running zine that I was reading the other day,” I continue. I brought the publication with me, so I open it to an ear-marked page. “In one of his essays, he talks about happiness, how there’s a concept of happiness that people like Thomas Jefferson professed. He says that according to Jefferson and others, ‘happiness is not a passive condition at all; it is an activity, a pursuit.’”

Herb mulls this over for a few moments. “Okay, so what does that mean to you? Do you agree with that sentiment?”

“Well, no, because he goes on to say, ‘Is happiness the offspring of achievement? There are a million miserable over-achievers out there who will testify otherwise.’ Then he mentions a hypothetical mountain climber who will experience a newfound emptiness once he’s climbed a mountain. And that emptiness can only be filled by climbing an even higher mountain.” 

“You don’t believe in happiness,” he says matter-of-factly, as though he just remembered who he’s talking to. 

“No, and I never have,” I say, though as soon as I do, I realize that at some point in my life I assuredly believed in happiness — around the same time I believed in the tooth fairy, Santa, and God. I don’t vocalize that, however, and instead focus my gaze back on the zine. “Okay, one more quote from this: ‘If you do ever meet a successful, happy mountain climber, you’ll notice something strange about them. It is a quality I’ve discerned in every truly driven and ambitious person I’ve known: a certain kind of blindness. They will only speak in terms of HOW (the newest advances in pulleys, harnesses …). They never talk in terms of WHY.’”

“So you’re saying that speaking in terms of ‘WHY’ will always lead to unhappiness,” he suggests.

“Yes. And I will always speak in terms of ‘WHY.’ Always.”

“Well not always,” Herb corrects me. I ask what he means by that, and he says, “You just said that your band performed with the author of this publication, which means you rehearsed as an ensemble, agreed to be a part of the recital, and then played your songs to an audience. This must have been a months-long process from beginning to end. And during that time, did you ask yourself ‘WHY?’”

He’s got me there. I shake my head. “Well, no,” I admit. I stare off into the distance and contemplate this perspective for a good minute. “I never think of music in terms of ‘WHY.’ It’s always ‘HOW.’ And music is one of the only things that makes me happy, for lack of a better word … Actually, you know what? No, I’m not comfortable throwing around words like ‘happy.’ Music makes me feel less shitty. How about that?”

“That’s fine.”

“But that’s the thing about that,” I say as I try to order my thoughts. “So there’s no way around ennui, is there? I mean, I come here and sit on this couch month after month and I talk to you about the big picture — about how bleak things are when you really think about them. And then you get me to focus in on one specific aspect of my life, which causes a breakthrough of sorts in my pattern of thought. And this causes me to forget about the big picture for a while. But I will always come back to big picture-thinking. I will always ask ‘WHY’ — unless I’m playing music apparently. So the only shot I have at happiness, or contentment, or whatever, is to be happy being unhappy, which isn’t happiness at all.”

Herb laughs. “You could always play more music,” he suggests, which makes me laugh. “I’m not kidding,” he says, almost defensively. “That’s your spirituality. And that’s what spirituality is — thinking in terms of ‘HOW.’ It’s saying prayers, going to church, meditating, climbing a mountain — or in your case, playing music. And these pursuits circumvent the whole ‘WHY,’ because sometimes it’s okay not to ask ‘WHY,’ because, as you know by now, there is no answer that will ever be satisfactory to your worldview.”

“So happiness is being content that there’s no point to any of this?” I ask.

“Or simply not thinking in terms of there needing to be a point to anything.”

“Hmm, that’s not very satisfying on an existential level.”

“Sure, but you know deep down that you never came here looking for satisfaction. You wanted answers, and rarely does having answers lead to anything resembling satisfaction.”

I stare at Herb for several moments with no discernable expression on my face. “I think I need to go play some music right about now.”

“I think you should,” he says. “And anyway, time’s up.”

Brian Polk is a Denver-based writer, publisher of The Yellow Rake, and drummer for Joy Subtraction and Simulators. He’s the author of Placement of Character and Turning Failure into Ideology. He likes writing, muck raking, yellow journalism, zines not blogs, cheap booze and punk rock.

Jack Estenssoro is a born and raised Denver, Colorado based artist. Born in 1990, Estenssoro has experimented with art since his adolescence. Starting in 2015 oil painting became his primary medium of choice. Jack Estenssoro is a self proclaimed Neo-Sureal-Realist. Estenssoro’s work deals with the complexity of ordinary, contemporary life that may be overlooked because of a sense of  banality. Estenssoro instead finds great inspiration in such topics and explores why such themes are of great importance to the zeitgeist.