07 July 2016

Showing Up and Saying Names in the Twin Cities

There was a vigil for the latest in the list of ordinary Black American names that had been propelled into horrible ubiquity by the gunfire of an American police officer, so I put on black and biked into St. Paul. By the time I arrived, the crowd outside the school where Philando Castile had worked was drifting apart already. Rain was starting. There were more people inside the school, but organizers had spread word that the space inside was to be held for those who had known him—who were feeling a particular grief and anger and nausea instead of the general grief and anger and nausea inhabiting bystanders like me—so I drifted around in front of the building a little, wished I had brought flowers to lay upon the pile, and rode back west, pulling the rainstorm along in my draft as Minneapolis still shone before me down the hill across the Mississippi.

I was not entirely surprised the crowd was dispersing; the vigil had started well over an hour before while I was wrapping up work. I was not quite disappointed and not quite relieved to find it dispersing, because I was not taking much of an interest in my own feelings beyond the grief and anger and nausea that was not truly particular, that had simply been brought into periodic focus by the predictable cycle of news and state violence as it had been before and assuredly would be again. But I was aware that I would have felt nearly as adrift even had there been a larger crowd, and that I still would have had nothing to share but the bug spray I'd thrown into my bag, anticipating the usual July evening conditions outdoors.

It seems important to decenter most of one's own feelings when one is a comfortable White person standing witness to the everbearing horror of state-sponsored anti-Blackness in America. And yet the attempt at bare rationality does not get you anywhere of use here, either. Bare rationality (or at least its body double, self-interest) says: why go join the crowd, just to be one more body drifting within it? Why go, when true change happens in patterns so vast your body in comparison is only a Brownian particle bombarded by the storm of larger forces?

Of course, that voice is not entirely rational either. The patterns need the particles to exist. But it is a very easy voice to heed, when one is White and comfortable and, often enough, anxious and depressed. It is so easy to be buffeted by these forces on all sides such that you ultimately move nowhere, and someone has to look very closely to notice that you are not placid but buzzing with dread.

In the winter it was Jamar Clark's name in the news and on our lips. My romance with Minneapolis was still fresh; his slaying shocked me in a way I couldn't have been shocked by police killings in Chicago. I'd bought in, assumed that the bubble of safety I experienced as a citizen of this gloriously progressive city must be general.

I didn't go to the protests for a long time, though I did eventually march. I didn't manage to join the crowds at the Fourth Precinct. Instead I glued myself to Facebook and watched it archive the community that grew outside the station: music, bonfires, feasts compiled in the biting cold.

I dithered; I deferred. What could I really contribute? And if I could not really contribute, was I not just taking up space? Was my desire to participate not probably, at root, as selfish as my hunger as a child to be included in all the groups of friends who did not want me in their ranks?

And then, more shootings. Armed and terrified white supremacists who'd showed up to the Fourth with who knows what murky plans, who'd been flushed out, fled, and fired in retreat. There was a sense of something wrenching itself loose from the crawlspaces of the internet or the collective mind, and intruding into the real world.

That wrested back some of the public attention that had gone slack as the news cycle rolled on. But even once that attention drifted away again, the occupiers of the Fourth kept showing up, day after day.

And I began to think about the possible aims of protest beyond external change. It began to occur to me that protest might also be a very effective means of care for self and community—that it could be, even in the absence of confidence in its power to shift policy and opinion, a tool for the preservation of the soul.*

I am not saying this is the best or only reason for otherwise comfortable people to consider showing up and saying, out loud and in public, "NO," when something occurs at the hands of the state that is intolerable to the soul. But even in the midst of deep hopelessness it is a motivating one, and that is notable, and I will seize it when I can.

* A concept which requires no real faith, in my assessment, beyond the belief in the value of one's fellow humans and oneself that is, after all, the only thing keeping any of us safe from all the weaponry the world has for the taking. Beyond the general benefits of community contact and staking public space for one's convictions, it seems to me that it is almost always soul-preserving and humanity-preserving to convert the general into the particular—which motion is in fact one of many brilliant tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through photos, through the voices of family, through sheer repetition, the movement confronts the world with the particular being of the irreplaceable person who has been stolen from it. Say his name. Say her name. Say his name.

17 May 2015

Games for One Player: Rainstorm

Headache weather came and found me this weekend for the first time since I've moved to Minneapolis. This is a meteorological phenomenon and a psychoemotional one, usually common to my climate. The headache is not acute, but harder to shake for being so hazily dispersed. It disguises itself as a part of one's personality, as if it had always been there and planned to always be.

The novelty of a new city and the funny little life I've established in the apartment I've rented but not yet filled with my furniture or household—a sort of treehouse life, a child-hiding-in-the-backyard-bushes-with-things-pilfered-from-the-attic life—have kept my spirits high for weeks. But today, the last warm one before a predicted cold snap, some gray humidity crept in so gradually that I didn't think to pin my lethargy on the weather; indeed I often don't notice the connection until afterward.

One could argue that this attitude shirks responsibility anyhow, although it is true that low-pressure fronts have not only physical effects such as joint pain but demonstrable neurochemical ones: for one thing, they cause the adrenal gland to slow down its production of cortisone. For me, though, it's helpful when I can convince myself with a glance at the forecast that neither the world nor I are likely to be stuck in featureless gloom forever. 

I couldn't muster up that argument this afternoon. I wasted hours of time on nothing in particular, supposing that two events I was planning to attend later would serve to make me feel I'd made some use of the day. Then both were canceled, and I chanced a reprieve in the drizzle to get out and try to save the evening and myself.

When I don't know what to do with myself on days like this—when I am profoundly bored not by the world but by the irritating fact that I am the filter through which it must pass—I try to put myself into a book, or into the sound of my guitar, and when those things don't help, I often go and put myself into a movie theater. 

A movie in a theater can serve as an excellent reset button for the soul. You are dispersed into the big dark among a small crowd of people who ask nothing at all of you in exchange for their presence, their benign population of this soft realm. The relationship among you all is almost that of children at a slumber party, in the moments when everyone is finally too tired to talk but hasn't yet fallen asleep. 

For two hours, your mind is overtaken by images and sounds for which you can in no way be held responsible. It is a nap without the risk of oversleep or bad dreams, provided you choose a film correctly; besides, it is more restorative and makes for better conversation when someone asks about your weekend. The movie needs to not be bad in an upsetting way—for me, that means no gratuitous bloodshed—but it does not especially need to be good. Its only job is to absorb whatever you would like to have leached out of you.

I saw While We're Young, Noah Baumbach's newest, and liked it as much as I was expecting to, which was a small to medium amount. (I would prefer he never make a film without Greta Gerwig, and I am by this point in life fairly bored in all mediums by male leads with grand and grandly frustrated artistic ambitions; this man always has a more practical and/or less artistic female partner, and I always wish that for once she were to be allowed to be the impractical but artistically pure one in this eternally recurring relationship.) But it didn't push the reset button for me; when the lights went up I still felt that I had done nothing with my day or with life, and I decided to walk the four miles back from the theater in the hopes of seeing more of the city and becoming tired enough to sleep.

The road was nearly suburban, a long straight ribbon laid over sedate hills. I felt the presence of lakes somewhere in the blocks beyond—the sky seems to sprawl and deepen over them—but wasn't sure how close. (I'd taken a bus down.) After a mile or two the idea of this walk started to seem as boring as any other idea I'd ever had, but I let a bus pass me by anyhow, planning to wring a little deliberate suffering out of the evening if nothing else.

Then my mood shifted and the rain started at once. It is sometimes delightful to realize one has been tricked by the brain, as much as a magician revealing his secret or a mystery author her red herring. Ah yes—of course it was the low front all along

I would have been happy to be soaked through for a block, a little less so for two miles—but just as the drops approached maximum size and velocity, I spotted a house in the process of being built and tucked myself up under its unfinished porch. 

This was an excellent way to spend 20 minutes: sitting in the soft dirt, watching rain hang in curtains from the raw eaves and form rivulets in the rocky soil underneath them. There was nothing definably useful in the pastime, but I felt I had very elegantly solved the problem of how to spend the day well—that somehow I could share in the credit for engineering such a neat match between my sudden need for shelter and this unbuilt house. I worried a little about someone sending a squad car by to investigate my trespassing, but I already tend to feel innately suspicious going on foot through leafy suburban neighborhoods, so my probable illegality didn't trouble me much. 

When the rain let up a little I crept back out and headed on toward home. I played a little hide and seek with the storm clouds, tracking my speed and direction against theirs: of course, a cloud can move at the same speed as a person, if it wants. This realization seemed nearly wondrous to me. 

Feeling favored by the heavens, I went out of my way a little to walk along the curve of Lake Calhoun before going home. The sky above it seemed to be expanding rapidly, pushed apart by novel cloud forms. The water and every manmade surface shone lavender. 

When I reached the lip of the lake I was surprised to find that the soaking rain hadn't much impressed the earth: with every step my boots left white footprints, dry sand under the thinnest shell of wet.

11 April 2015

Early Reports from Minneapolis

Note: Having gotten the job mentioned in the below, I'm striking out for Minnesota soon; I wrote these fragments late last month, on a visit.

I'm sitting in the extraordinarily comfortable and serene Hennepin County Library, Northeast Branch, after having spent the last half hour or so of the morning rambling around the neighborhood, feeling as alert and at large in the world as a ghost just returned after a dark hiatus of unknown duration. I walked down little streets with little workingman's frame houses crowding up to the sidewalk, very like a neighborhood adjacent to the one I grew up in and would walk through on my way to poke around a massive blackberry thicket I'd found and treasured. Silent houses, nearly empty streets, a space for large sunlight and blessed ghosts.

I climbed up a railway embankment: someone had gone to much trouble, perhaps recently, to carve stairsteps into the dirt slope, but by the time I reached the top I could tell it was nothing official. I stood on a small and obsolete trestle hemmed by stone railings in the classical style, the rail bed entirely overgrown. It could have been a good place to sit for a long time, but the air was brisk and nearby I spied a seeming shelter built from bungee cords and deadwood. I heard no one rustling, but I erred on the side of not disturbing someone's Saturday morning.

When I'd climbed back down, the train cars on the adjacent trestle began to stir and pull away. This was a great surprise—such unexpected animacy in the stilled world. It would, I thought, have been easy to have tucked myself into a nook on the end of one of those cars. Ten or twelve years ago I might've run back up and done it; the train still hadn't taken on much speed by the time I turned my back.

If I am returned to the sunny earth, to this anonymous body, from where am I returned? Myself, I guess, but from some strange and artificially lit room I never inhabit quite by choice. This is a way of saying I have been interviewing for jobs. It looks like I'll get one of them, if nothing goes wrong, and I am truly pleased about it. But it has been taxing to live so close to the surface of myself for so many weeks, holding my thoughts and motions gingerly, packaging and repackaging the product of myself. I've never felt it sounds right when I talk about myself. (Or: I've never felt it sounds right when I talk.) I become so bored and disappointed with my subject matter it takes a great hoisting of the will to not stop midsentence.

In these weeks it has been hard to get out of bed. Harder than usual, I mean. Anxiety drapes itself over me, its fur prickling, its weight immobilizing. This is of a different species from dread, because it also pulses with a hope it daren't express with any larger gesture.

It lifts. But there are so many ways to be slowed down. Even joy can do it, even the feeling that overtook me this morning on the empty streets: the impulse to stop and stand and let the moment gather itself around you. To see how big it will become, how many things might be collected by its gravity into its blessed orbit. In fact I did stop two or three times. Among the things gathered in the glow were three tranquil dogs; a building for a construction company called LaMere that was muraled with cherub-cheeked construction men and trucks as plump as loaves of bread; some kind of factory built a long time ago from mostly windows; and, waking me a bit, a line of cars whose wheels played the segmented concrete road in washboard rhythm.  

So much sun makes me drowsy. Although I've been lingering in bed mornings, daylight's also been shaking me free of sleep vigorously and early, whether I've slept enough or not. (I never have.) Then, afternoons, it catches up with me and I'm flushed of all vitality for hours. Before then, therefore: time to quit my sojourn in the library and head back into the day.

A little Baptist church has placed a motto on its sign: "Just Believe!" It keeps me laughing all the way up the hill to Windom Park.

Today I am of a mood to delight in all the ways we lumbering magpies have chosen to decorate our homes.

One house I pass has—built from plaster, I guess—what looks like an altar or creche greeting visitors beside the door. Inside there is a tableau comprising two gape-mouthed Elmo dolls. One is riding a horse from an entirely different toy universe.

At the next house the yard is decorated with football-size stones, which someone has swabbed with purple paint and glitter like Easter eggs.

At the next someone has made an abstract sculpture of a tree by paring away all the living parts of a tree. Its remaining limbs reach heavenward, in an attitude less beseeching than vengeful.

And so on.

Now I am sitting at the crest of a sunny hill on a bench that, simply to please anyone who passes through, has been hung on short chains so as to rock back and forth. Within my view lies a toppled snowman on bare grass; his carrot nose is perfect. His many-fingered arms stretch out as if he has accomplished some pyrrhic victory; he will melt away exulting.

I won't hear an unkind word about a world like this, not today.

12 October 2014

More Hermits Per Capita

My relatives and I don't speak particularly often. This is due mostly to who we are, and not what we have done to each other. I talk most frequently to my mother and my grandmother, and of the two, because we are more alike in cast of mind and habit, my grandmother and I talk a little less. We'd welcome more conversation, but we are both not much for the telephone and are each almost embarrassed to make the first move, now that we are both adults and have become something like friends. It is as if too-frequent contact would ruin this relation; it must be felt that we are choosing to speak freely out of esteem for each other, uncoerced by blood.

"I think Chelsea was a little homesick last weekend," says my grandmother of my youngest cousin, now in college. "She kept texting me. She said she wasn't, but I think she was." My grandmother loves this clingier cousin and is pleased to be needed, but she reports this in a tone of gentle indulgence of a weakness. She cannot imagine behaving this way. I, the firstborn, precedent-setting grandchild, would not behave this way.

So we speak every few weeks, and in the interim my grandmother travels: up and down the dirt roads and mown paths of my grandparents' home in the woods, occasionally to the homes of her children in the city and the suburbs. When we are reunited, she tells me the news of the world.


Among our family, my mother's boyfriend is a sore thumb: short, twitchy, throbbing with talk.

"Every time he comes up here, he asks the same stupid questions," my grandmother complains. "So you know he's never listening." This man has lived his entire life in exurban Indiana. He has never been made to understand the rhythms of the country or the city. Both scare him in different ways, and so like a dog he barks ceaselessly when confronted with either. He does not mean to be unfriendly.  

"And oh, your uncle can't stand him," my grandmother says. I hadn't considered it—only my grandmother, apparently, ever sees more than a  flash of light beneath the heavy door of my uncle's inner life—but now that she says it, I know it could not be otherwise. "'The guy never shuts up!'"

"No, we're really not a family of big talkers," I agree.

In illustration, she tells me a brief anecdote: on vacation farther north in Michigan (they are always and only venturing farther north, to ever more isolate lands), my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, and cousin were eating together in a diner, in easy silence. Midway through the meal, the diner's manager stopped by their table simply to remark:

"Wow! Wild crowd we got over here!"


But if there is a wild card among them, it will be my grandfather. He has buoyant moods. They seem to upset my grandmother in the same way she is upset if he opens a second beer. He then becomes unknowable to her; he has suddenly oriented his being towards a small crowd or a waitress, whereas when things are in order he is turned only towards the habits he has established in the lonely woods. He is not then turned towards her, exactly, and nor would she want him to be—"Your grandfather is being funny lately—keeps grabbing me and telling me that he loves me!" she remarked during one unsettling period of their life together several years ago—but the pattern of his thoughts and motions is the one she knows; it is open to her tracing, if she likes.

But here is the form his buoyancy often takes these days, she tells me. For instance, a young woman has just sold my grandfather a power tool and is explaining its lifetime warranty.

"Oh, well, you'll make money on that, then!" my grandfather says. "I'm just an old man who'll be dead within the year."

"He'll outlive us all," my grandmother assures the woman. It has become her line in these situations, her part in the vaudeville act, for—and I did not know this!—my grandfather has been broadcasting his incipient demise to all and sundry since the two of them met.

He was 19, when they met.

(I have also recently learned that my father did roughly the same thing when he and my mother were together—agonized over every birthday, worried about his health. Ah, Dad! Another point of pointless sympathy between us.)

I recall an incident from my childhood discussed in low tones, the sort of thing one can never later drag out into the light: my grandfather alone in a closed bedroom with one of his shotguns, a bang, a hole, thankfully, in the wall.

My grandfather is a competent man when he cares to be, and deliberate in his carelessness. The family was largely relieved when he retired early from his job as a delivery driver: yes, he was sacrificing money, but he was growing increasingly angry with his superiors and, they thought, would likely have hit somebody if he'd continued to rattle and rage down the streets much longer.

Even so, I doubt he ever took a sick day. Now in his 70s, he wakes before dawn and tends a shrinking garden and keeps clear of sticks a lawn around the house large enough to host a traveling circus. My grandmother's body has been sliced by back pain and bad knees and foot problems since I was young, but my grandfather really does seem on track to be a cursed immortal: a spring in his step, a bad joke on his lips, and a dark glimmer in the black of his eyes.


We might not really understand other people, my grandmother and I. We can pin down motives and watch subconscious currents nudge the ones we love; we are not entirely oblivious. But as much as we attempt sympathy, we cannot quite fathom why people misuse their lives as they do—why, seeing the good path, they would head down the bad.

A dark thing has been happening down my grandparents' road. Two things, really, but one is still happening and the other has removed itself already. The latter concerns a walking buddy my grandmother had acquired from the home directly south of theirs. In the country, you accept the friends proximity grants you, and it takes some truly egregious misdeed to refuse their society. This woman has now moved away, and my grandmother is a little glad, for she often had to hear from the woman about her fights with her husband—the husband for whom she'd abandoned her children, as their father was Mexican and her new husband an ardent racist.

The woman confided that the fights often became physical. My grandmother told her she must go: tell no one, but simply wait for him to leave the house, take her things, and leave. The woman agreed this was correct, but in the end did not leave; when the two of them moved, it was to a trailer together in another part of the state.

"Well, things couldn't have been that bad, I guess," my grandmother concludes. I demur, say that it could certainly have been that bad, that it's hard to comprehend the strength of the ties that can bind even the worst people together.

I am arguing for a kind of agnostic sympathy here, where my grandmother prefers soft judgment, but we are both struck with the same essential bafflement. My grandmother and I have always stood within ourselves ready to walk away from the entangling ugliness of other people's emotions. (It is mostly luck and our own aloofness that has ensured we've rarely had to.) Why can others not do as we do?

The second dark event: there is a family at the end of the road to whom my grandparents have been close since this couple bought their land and started building their A-frame house and having babies. Theirs had seemed to be a solid family, the younger kids still in school, the eldest son a happy contractor in Alaska (where many rural Michiganders' idle dreams tend: the well-paid work, the wildlife, the thrillingly low population density). This year, however, the husband was diagnosed with a particularly hungry form of brain cancer. Prognosis was poor from the start, and the man's condition began to deteriorate rapidly. Very soon, he lost the use of his legs and resorted to a wheelchair—hard enough in a city with its inconsistent sidewalks, but treacherous when you live in the woods.

Then another crisis occurred. When the man was most recently hospitalized, his mother arranged for him to have a special visitor. Her timing, however, was poor. The rest of the family learned in that hospital room that the man had a mistress—had had her for two years, and was not about to give her up now that the end of his life was so near.

The revelation split not just the family but the (very small) neighborhood in two. The man said his marriage was no good, and he was forced to act as he had. My grandmother sided with the wife, but was not about to shun the man with brain cancer. And in fact he seemed to crave her approval. He'd wave her down when their paths crossed. She and my grandfather would sometimes arrive back from town and find ruts mashed into the dirt embankment up toward their house: tracks from his wheelchair's unsuccessful attempt to reach their yard in the midst of a muddy summer.

One day, alone at home, she heard a muffled banging. The man was outside, thumping a wooden post as a doorbell since he couldn't climb the steps. He wanted to explain himself; he wanted to be understood.

He would not be. My grandmother is a polite woman and likes to do what is expected, but it was not in her to offer even the insincerest feint at absolution. She told me: "I looked him in the eye and all I could say was, 'Why, Don?'"

"Of course, who am I to judge," she added with little feeling—meaning not that she in particular would be a hypocrite to do so, but that no one on this earth rightly could.


There is an author I need to read, but haven't yet: Marilynne Robinson, who had a profile in the New York Times Magazine a week ago. Of her Midwestern upbringing, she says:

"There was a very strong tendency among people to be isolated. More hermits per capita than you'd find in most places. We were positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with."

This was never put into so many words for me growing up, but it is, I find, a core value. Come to us with a problem of the heart and my grandmother and I may offer some mild counsel, but if you cannot live comfortably within the mind you have fashioned, we know there is not much we can do. We have established comprehensive laws on our own islands, and know that they will not hold up in court on yours.

One could then pull up the bridges, close the gates. But, aware of my capacity for hardness, for fleeing toward the desert hermitage at any warm-bodied threat, I try to cultivate a tenderness within me. I read, of course, endlessly: fiction, essays, pages and pages of people revealing their lives. (I am for one thing magnetically drawn toward advice columns, this being the closest thing I have to a guilty genre pleasure.) On certain attractively lit evenings I go walking and every stranger I pass provokes a surge of misty fellow-feeling; I grab onto it and let it pull me as far as it will.

And this is perhaps one reason why I choose to live in cities and wrap myself in the society of the internet—despite on some level preferring wilderness, silence, and the works of the eloquent dead. I think I am a broader, more moral person when I am made to bump up against so many other minds. 

For even in the woods, it appears, one will eventually be found and asked to bear witness to the pain of other lives. It would seem to be the core human duty; accordingly, I will try to do as my childhood of wilderness training instructs and be prepared.

31 August 2014

Sweet Nonsense: A Love Story About The Chiffons

Note: I actually wrote this some time ago, as the first of a planned series of girl-group essays. That never materialized (turns out nobody wants an essay series about a fairly niche, long past, deliberately non-boundary-pushing musical moment), so I thought I might as well give this one a home.

In 2000 or 2001, a boy lay on a bed in a room in his grandmother's house. I put him there. He was serious, beautiful, and had an obscurely tragic but also beautiful end awaiting him later in the story (train tracks, autumn, dusk). But first, he turned on his grandmother's beat-up old radio, tuned permanently to the oldies station, and heard a song.

He's so fine, oh yeah
Gotta be mine, oh yeah
Sooner or later, oh yeah
I hope it's not later, oh yeah

Like anyone with ears, the serious boy could not escape the perfection of the song's four-part harmonies—and that low, simple lead line free of melisma or flourish, the voice confident not from any sense of bravado but because its beauty was self-evident and the singer had never learned to doubt it. But he found them as empty as the nonsense sounds that kicked the whole thing off, doo lang doo lang doo lang; they seemed to be taking place in another world entirely, cotton-candy-light and devoid of engagement with the serious truths. Some kind of teenage thing, and although he was a teenage boy if you wanted to be annoyingly literal about the whole thing, he was definitely not that kind of teenage boy (despite being in physical description quite a lot like the soft-spoken, wavy-haired object of the Chiffons' affections, come to think of it; we teen girls being predictable, after all). But the 117 seconds of the song granted him a moment of hazy weightlessness that was the closest he would come to levity; it could not save him from the train tracks, the autumn, the dusk.

I wrote this insubstantial tragic dreamboat into existence around age 15. My grandmother too listened to the doo-woppier oldies station when she listened to music at all; she could not brook even jazz, finding it hard to understand why anyone would want to listen to "a bunch of people playing different songs at once." (My protagonist would have certainly liked jazz, and ideally been better schooled in it than I, with my collection in the genre consisting of Bird at the Apollo and a best-of Thelonious Monk disc.) But I did not discover the song in my grandmother's house, though I certainly lay back on my bed at home getting lost in those warm female voices as my protagonist did, especially in moments of soul-flattening misery. And I must have been less successfully armored with seriousness than he, because the voices did not just drift pleasantly by but reached into my chest, and had I needed them to, I was soft enough that they could probably have saved me.

At that time my musical diet consisted mainly of punk (preferably political) and riot grrrl and those two jazz CDs, with a little lesbian folk around the edges. I hadn't heard "He's So Fine" until my better-rounded best friend and bandmate put it on one of her enviably eclectic mix tapes. I hadn't heard anything like it at all before. In the middle of The Clash and the Germs and Parliament Funkadelic and probably a few joke songs from Sifl and Olly, there opened up this impossibly brief window of consuming sweetness.

I barely understood what it was—I may not have even known the name of the group, or when it was made, at first—but I copied it onto every mix tape I made for several years. It didn't occur to me that there would be more where that came from. The internet was not yet an obvious source of music; one didn't necessarily expect that even current bands would have websites, much less one from 1962. It wasn't until I got to college that I began to accumulate some context for that luminous single. Eventually I used some Christmas money to order the remarkable One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found Rhino box set. When it arrived I sat down in my dorm room and popped the first CD in, and was promptly overwhelmed to the point of welling eyes and helpless gaping grin. I hadn't been aware that there had once been all these people dedicated to what seemed the pure pursuit of the most perfect sonic beauty, weaving the richest-sounding pop arrangements I'd ever heard (strings, chimes, Latin horns!) around the variously warm, shy, bratty, bracing voices of very young women.

There is a sense in which I seem to have aged in reverse between the ages of, say, 14 and 21. Around the time I heard my first Chiffons song I was beginning to make a project of not wanting everything I couldn't have. The emotionally elegant silhouettes who drifted through my early fictions were a little better at it than I was; they shook off love and family and camaraderie quite lightly, just the opposite of these singing girls with their two or three ever-present friends in harmony, their advice-giving parents, their successes in love or their heartbreaks so gladly shared. Even if I'd had more than the one song, I wouldn't have been quite ready for their unembarrassed youth.

Instead I formed an all-girl punk band whose lyrical content comprised half sociopolitical ranting and half Dadaist goofiness—absolutely no room for love songs or other girly stuff. We were already not taken seriously as things stood. Not that we should have been, possessing as little sense of songcraft and basic musicianship as we did, but it wasn't just that; it was the ostensibly progressive dudes who let slip that they felt weird about booking more than one female-fronted act on a bill, it was an older female friend saying that she just didn't like the way women's voices sounded. And so on.

Girl groups around that time called to mind Destiny's Child, or the Spice Girls, whom I'd loved along with everyone in sixth grade.

"They're not really musicians," my mother's boyfriend explained to me one day. I'd just gotten a cassingle of "2 Become 1" from a friend for my birthday—my least favorite of their hits, what with all the uncomfortable sexiness, but I clutched it proudly as a token of admission to a cultural realm where even the popular girls hung out. "They don't play any instruments. All they do is dance around and sing." I think I just nodded. His guitars filled a corner of our living room and his classic-rock cover band sometimes practiced in our basement at volumes so eardrum-battering that I escaped to the roof of the garage. I hated him and would have given up my entire tape collection for him to teach me how to shred and use what he called the wang bar. Instead he bought a guitar for my uninterested little sister, which I appropriated the moment she abandoned it.

This sense of rock-dude authenticity was just in the air if you saw yourself as someone who cared about music. So I, too, expressed disdain for women who did nothing but stand there and sing; at least I wrote songs, and clawed at a few chords between shouted lyrics. I wasn't good, but I could be real, sort of, and sing about things that mattered.

I suppose you could see it as a subconscious counter-rebellion, a few years later, when I sat rocked open by the voices of an idealized, pastel-toned mainstream girl culture four decades gone. I was certainly delighted when I learned that authentic rock-guy George Harrison had unknowingly absorbed "He's So Fine" and rewritten it as "My Sweet Lord"—and been successfully sued for plagiarism. (Not that I have anything against George Harrison; the pleasure was in the principle of the thing.) But in fact the girl-group sound was perhaps the first body of music I loved that didn't come packaged with an argument for its worth. It would not help me better engage with my peers; it would not help me understand the ineffable musical truths of a Bach or a Beethoven; it was not saying anything of political importance; it would not connect me to a venerable American tradition. Its beauty was superfluous in a way that, had it occurred in nature, would have seemed evidence for the loving generosity of divine creation; you could see why Phil Spector's phrase "little symphonies for the kids" needn't have been exactly dismissive. Yes, the songs were there to make money—as the rough and careless treatment of the Chiffons and so many other girl groups by their labels would attest—but they were much better than they had to be for commercial purposes, if never five seconds longer.

For instance, take Judy Craig's voice shifting from playful to plaintive in the space of two bars, the backup girls so blocking out the session players' on-the-clock plunking that it takes me a few listens in a row to even register that they're doing something back there. How to put it into words, what these inconsequential sounds do to me? Doo lang, doo lang, doo lang.