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.

22 March 2014

A Small Book About Buses and Trains

Here's a funny thing—illustrating something or other about form shaping content, I suppose. Leafing through one of the little notebooks that I always carry to snatch down the odd image or snippet of someone else's conversation, I realized that, owing only to the circumstances of their composition, about every third entry pertained somehow to being in transit.

Here, then, is some of what I know about the buses and trains (and sometimes planes) of Chicago, collected without intention over about six years.

1. An Epigraph for Life
"I got 90 pockets. Watch me. I'm gonna be like an octopus. Taking inventory of this shit. I lost my ticket. I'm gonna find it. I got my phone—at least I got my phone! I got change. I'm gonna get paid." —a passenger on the Red Line of 2012 or so

2. A Metaphor of How to Catch Success
Stand up close to the track, then scuttle sideways till you reach a door.

3. An express train gusts past the windows, a gray-scale blur like the newspaper-page montages used in certain corny movies to indicate the passing of time.

4. In the emergency-exit row of a plane, I am informed of my duties in a manner novel to me:

"And you do understand that in the event of an emergency, no one will come to assist you?"

I nod, braced and a little thrilled at my boldness in this existential moment.

5. Westbound Pink Line, evening, 2009 or so:
"The cake lady's sister just died, so she can't do our order."

6. The large, elderly person across the aisle is emitting at intervals a ghoulish sound which rationally I know to be a painful cough, but which trails every time into a demon chuckle, channeled through him from somewhere in the bowels of the earth.

7. Amtrak
Beside me sits an enormous frat-boy type, backward Cubs cap and all, who, upon splaying himself in his seat and part of mine, begins immediately eating from an enormous bag of Combos—nacho flavor, I think, from the scent. Now he proceeds to twist open and spray onto the floor a bottle of Sierra Mist. Now he is listening to something awful on an ancient off-brand Discman.

He has just placed his backpack on my foot.

He gives a flatulent cough. He is drumming on the table between gulps of pop.

Some respite: he rises. He has to stoop as he moves down the aisle, and as he lumbers away from view I think that it must be difficult, to be a person of such phenomenal natural vigor and always be made to check oneself in this way. He ought to have sailed the bounding main and slept on deck, in boundless salt air and the boundless camaraderie of his peers; but he has landed on a little train in this small century, beside me.

8. "The earth is not your home," beams the missionary woman on the bus. It is a sunny day, though. "Okay," I say, and allow her to place a thin white tract in my hand.

9. Fallacies, Part 1
I sometimes catch myself reasoning as if time worked the same as distance: if buses arrive every half hour, then I am never more than 15 minutes away from catching a bus.

10. Rain pours down the back of the train car ahead in tiger stripes. Across the aisle a woman of 50 or 60 reties her green leopard-print scarf around her head. She carries a green camouflage bag, the creature and its environment at once.

11. Between stops, the rain has become snow.

12. Fallacies, Part 2
The Red Line and the Brown Line stop beside each other and exchange a roughly equal number of passengers. A logic moves through me that says: why shouldn't everybody then just stay where they are?

13. An old couple on a loud train cannot hear what each is saying to the other, but, across from them, I can. Should I offer to translate?

14. A funny thing is happening on my way into the subway. An old man lifts his leg up onto the handrail, stretching like a ballet dancer.

15. Eternal Beauties
The flash of satin gold on the subway tunnel's wall before the train's one eye comes peeking through.

16. On a Good Night
A bus comes slowly into focus, distinguishable from other vehicles by the soft brow of light above the two wide eyes. It arrives, tilts a friendly shoulder in my direction, and I board. I take a seat behind a woman with long, still-damp black hair, which gives off a boozy scent of styling product.

17. At 10 o'clock at night, a man carrying a large ironing board with a polka-dotted cover boards the southbound Red Line.

18. An Ideal State
I stand to one side of a pillar and realize after a couple of close encounters that people approaching from the other direction must not be able to see me until the last moment. A little girl, pulled along by the hand of her father, passes and finds herself staring openly into my face as she goes by, as though I were an appealing billboard appearing through the window of her train.

19. She takes out a lighter from her coat pocket and flicks it briefly, as though checking for the time written in flame. Then she gets off the bus.

20. Good Education
On the Sedgwick platform of the Brown Line, a mother to her young child, in a tone of gentle conversation and instruction:

"And here comes the train, right on time. Now ain't that a blessing?"

21. A child to her father:

"I got a brother named Justin Bieber. My friend's got a brother named... Paris. Paris... Chicago. Paris Chicago.

"What store is that? What store is that? Can we go there in the morning—after we go to sleep?"