by Mark Hand
March 2, 2003
Book Review: Mickey Z., The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (Soft Skull Press, 2003)
All of us feel frustrated, some of us more than others, with the daily toil our society forces us to endure to subsist. Our society easily could survive without putting people into situations where they have to compromise such huge portions of their lives to make ends meet. We have the means to move beyond the outdated ideal of full employment to one of full enjoyment, or as the Dadaists were demanding early in the 20th century, unemployment for everybody.
As Murray Bookchin argued more than 30 years ago in Post Scarcity Anarchism, we now have the technology, if used for life-affirming purposes rather than for greed and hierarchical control, to be free from toil and the burden of devoting the greater part of lives to the struggle with necessity. And yet we continue down the path of massive lunacy in our social and economic arrangements by remaining attached to an order based on a continuous and competitive raping of our land and lives.
Our failure, so far, to grasp the absolute insanity of our current social structure is why Mickey Z. picked the perfect title for a book that chronicles how people living on the margins use the system to get by. Mickey, a writer from Queens, says he chose the line from a Charles Bukowski poem for its lyricism. I like it for its brutal honesty. Here's the section of the Bukowski poem that caught Mickey Z.'s ear:
"I always resented all the years, the hours, the minutes I gave them as a working stiff. It actually hurt my head, my insides, it made me dizzy and a bit crazy. I couldn't understand the murdering of my years."
As a society, there is absolutely no reason why we should have to continue murdering our years by toiling in meaningless jobs. We have the means to enjoy more of our lives than at any time in history. And yet our society still has a fixation with the concept of a working life.
Many of us go through the motions without questioning the rationality of the current system. We may complain at the end of the day or try to find another job. But few of us gather together in an attempt to organize a rational system that could subvert the dominant social order.
Going through the motions is what society teaches us to do. Schools do their best to confine our thinking. All of the obscene testing and the emphasis on right and wrong is where life's murdering begins. In the book's preface, Mickey Z. tells us how "every school child encounters a test in which they are shown, say, two squares and a circle." The child is asked which one doesn't belong. "Consequently, at the tender age of 5 or 6, we are taught that different does not belong."
By the time we reach adulthood, the socialization has placed an overwhelming emphasis on finding a career. We measure our own worth by what we do to subsist rather than by our true passions.
In The Murdering of My Years, Mickey shows us how some people have successfully checked out of the irrational system. Others in the book still have one foot in the dominant social and economic system in order to squeeze out a livelihood. Mickey is careful to point out that there's nothing wrong with compromise, especially if it means the difference between having a place to call home and living on the streets. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, he says.
Mickey also doesn't try to portray his real-life characters as atypical or tortured souls. His goal was not to tell stories of misunderstood geniuses. Instead, his book follows the lives of 24 different people, including Mickey himself, whose lives actually do mirror a large segment of the population who also are trying to follow what's in their hearts. What binds the cast of characters in The Murdering of My Years is that every single one has decided not to put on hold doing what they think is right. They refuse to keep their creativity or concerns about the world bottled up. Instead of just going with the flow, they take what they need from the irrational world and then use it to attain a certain dose of self-realization.
Not all of the lives chronicled are going to appeal to you. I found some annoying. Others were bland. And then some inspired and amused me. The assortment of people represented in the book proves that diversity is a primary byproduct of the process of breaking out of a dominant social system.
For the book, Mickey Z. sent an email to more than 100 artists and activists to find out how they survive. He included a list of questions (which became the titles for each chapter of the book), and the recipients were asked to offer detailed answers to each question. Most who received the email chose not to respond. Many wondered why they were asked to participate since, by their own admission, they were "doing nothing special" or led "boring" lives.
Someone who participated, Tim Wise, repeated how he had worked on the anti-David Duke campaigns in Louisiana in the early 1990s and how he now has a gig as an "antiracism trainer" (whatever that is) for police departments, schools and Fortune 500 companies. Another one, a 30-something theater actor named Rachel Moriello, who has been living in "the city" since 1993, came off sounding flaky and self-absorbed, doing little to dispel the stereotype of her profession. And then there's a stuntman named Manny Siverio (likely a colleague of Mickey's), who lives in Astoria, Queens and says he learned the rules of the film business but has changed them around so they could work for him. That's fine, but his thoughts offered little inspiration.
Seth Asher's life story, on the other hand, could be turned into its own book. Seth gives us insight into the reasons for his divorce and why he needed to leave his job as an accountant. My favorite section of the book was the chapter entitled "Gigs: Everything In-Between" where Seth talks about how he fell into despair while working as an accountant at Merck. "My wife Esther was no help. I was desperately trying to plan my way into recovery and needed a meaningful occupation ... Esther, as an investment banker, had been making several hundred thousand dollars per year. She only wanted me to make a lot of money so that perhaps she could quit working at her dreadfully stressful job and still maintain a yuppie lifestyle."
After reading this passage, I was enthralled with what had happened to his relationship with Esther. I had to turn back to the "Participant Biographies" at the beginning of the book to read that Seth and Esther had divorced. Since then, Seth has undergone a personal "revolution" by radically simplifying his life.
Two of the better-known characters in the book, disability activist Marta Russell and Soft Skull Press founder Sander Hicks, had funny and inspirational stories to tell. Gary Baddeley, co-founder of The Disinformation Company, explains the rewards of not working for someone else and starting a self-sustaining non-mainstream company.
The star of the book, though, is Mickey Z., a 42-year-old self-made renaissance man from Astoria with a knack for inspirational quips. Mickey, whose real name is Michael Zezima, is a fitness and health freak with a passion for kung fu and chess. He's edited a "third-rate girlie magazine," worked as an action film stunt man, acquired the title of New York's "underground poet" and authored a book debunking certain myths of the Second World War.
Mickey developed the idea for The Murdering of My Years after writing a few acquaintances, soliciting advice on how he could make ends meet and still have time to write and follow his passions. At the same time, he was getting the itch to pen his own memoirs. When he started getting some interesting responses to his informal questions, though, he developed the idea to send out an email with an official set of questions. He decided to include himself in the book "as a provisional fix for my memoir mania."
After reading The Murdering of My Years, I still haven't gotten my fix of Mickey's life. His energy for life is transparent in his writing. As someone still trying to figure out how to overcome the system, would be interested in learning more about how Mickey Z. has lived such a full and exciting life without completely selling out. And perhaps that's the key to recognizing the real joys of life. By refusing to make the ultimate compromise in life, Mickey and the others in his book are not completely boxed in. They have room on the margins to step back, identify the most important things in life, and attempt to embrace them to the fullest.
Mark Hand is editor of Press Action (www.pressaction.com). He toils as an energy trade reporter and editor during the day.
Mickey Z. is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice.