As a nonrecovering merch addict, I feel that it’s my responsibility to let you know when there’s an item that’s particularly deserving of your attention/consideration/money. Now is one of those times.
There is a t-shirt you need to buy. Like, immediately. It’s pictured above (on the left), it was
made printed for Richmond-based rock band The Trillions by Triple Stamp Press, and it features lyrics from the chorus of the band’s song “What When Where.” [Update: The shirt was created and designed by Austin Auandee.]
I’ve written about this song before, and my affinity for the quoted lyrics — “Do what you can, when you can, where you are” — is such that learning this shirt existed made me feel a little like my mind had been read, or like someone had asked me what the perfect Trillions shirt would be and then got Will Smith to zap me with the Men in Black amnesia wand thing that the Internet tells me is called a “neuralyzer.” But that’s not why you should buy the shirt. You should buy it because it will make the lives of the people around you better.
By wearing this shirt around, you’ll be giving friends, family and the strangers you pass on the street a wonderfully concise and impossibly wise piece of advice. It’s part call to action, part plea for compassion and part absolution from guilt — a nuanced cocktail of emotional instructions that are worth following every single day.
“Do what you can, when you can, where you are” asks you to be a positive influence on the world around you — to rouse yourself from an idle state if there’s an opportunity for you to contribute something. But that’s just the surface. Along with that, the phrase asks you to look inward — to examine with real honesty the actions you take in relation to your capabilities, which is an exercise we could all benefit from doing more often. Could you have driven a little more slowly on the way to work, thereby making the commuters around you safer? Could you have spent more of the last year visiting family members that might be lonely?
This type of thinking benefits our own lives and relationships, but it also leads us to be more considerate of others. It’s exactly this type of consideration that David Foster Wallace described in his speech at Kenyon College’s 2005 commencement:
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.
In that speech, Wallace rails against the type of mental laziness that leads us to make snap judgments about seemingly despicable people, but it’s just as important to avoid turning those ill-considered judgments inward. Before you allow yourself to feel guilty about something, ask yourself — Did I do what I could, when I could, where I was? It’s not a get out of jail free card, but is instead a way to apply the emotion of guilt in a more healthy and deliberate way.
This is the part I find most affecting, in part because it echoes advice my mother gave my sister and me in the wake of my father’s death from brain cancer. Whenever we’d worry about whether we visited the hospital with sufficient frequency or did enough to make him comfortable in his last days, she’d say things like “We’re all doing what we can,” and “You can only do what you can do.” These words haven’t completely stripped away the guilt I still feel to this day, but they’ve helped me navigate my way through some intensely dark emotional spaces, and “What When Where” has turned into a tool with similar powers of illumination.
I don’t know how many of these shirts remain unsold. That number, sadly, might be zero. But I do know that I would strongly advise anyone who is required to wear clothes when they go out in public to do the people around you a favor and buy this shirt on sight. I also know that The Trillions are playing tonight at The Camel with The Great White Caps and Warren Hixson. The cost is just $5, and even if you don’t manage to get your hands on one of the shirts pictured above, you’ll still get to see The Trillions perform, which is one of the greatest musical treats one can experience within the Richmond city limits.
Click here for more info about the show and listen below to “What When Where.”