Monday, August 22, 2016

Tail of the Dragon

This is a pitiful way to begin anything, but I've been meaning to write for weeks.  It's almost the end of August, a new season is on its way, and I do not know which end is up.  We visited friends in Pennsylvania, family in Ohio, had family visit us in Michigan and other friends come to town.  We've basically had so many adventures in such a short spurt of time that Samantha doesn't know which baby goes with which adult anymore or whether anyone lives five minutes or five hours away. 

I haven't written because...I have no idea what I'm doing.  I've been in a dry patch as far as reading goes, and I'm not really out of the woods yet.  I keep picking up short stories and reading one and then moving onto another collection, wedging essays and spiritual books into the middle of those, punctuated occasionally by full-length works. 

I did settle into Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs, by Dave Holmes, which is amazing and hilarious. It gets everything right about being young and clueless in New York City while also being touching and wise about finally learning to be yourself.  On top of all this, its descriptions of popular culture and music are absolutely brilliant, which is sort of unfair.  Why does one person get to be funny and wise AND brilliant?  Gah.

On going to a conservative, preppy college when it wasn't a great fit for him--a young gay person obsessed with pop culture--Holmes writes: "I was probably supposed to be going to a school where people had open meltdowns, and went through bisexual phases, and broke their legs jumping out of trees while on mushrooms, but I was determined to make my relationship with this very normal, practical place work this time.  [He got kicked out for bad grades his first year at college.] As a compromise, I turned off everything that was unique about myself.  I was still manically social, but I wasn't dealing with what was happening in my mind or soul or crotch."

Later, he writes: "As graduation loomed, I decided that I needed to escape the Holy Cross of my mind [he went to Holy Cross, get it?].  Enough of small places where everyone knows one another, enough of homogeneity.  I was going to move to the biggest, greatest city in the world: I was starting over in New York City.  I had enthusiasm, a poor understanding of how the world worked, a 2.4 GPA, and no job skills.  I couldn't fail."    

In one of the "interludes" that are basically genius cultural analysis, Holmes breaks down songs from the 90's that got him through his lovelorn times including "The Freshman" by The Verve Pipe, "I'd Die Without You" by PM Dawn, and "literally anything by Toad the Wet Sprocket."  Of Toad he writes:

"Were these guys ever happy?  I picture them all in windbreakers, on a late autumn afternoon, just having finished crying." 

Several times while reading Party of One, I broke into the sort of whimpering, weepy laughter that builds on itself until I just had to curl up and breathe until I recovered, the sort of uncontrollable laughter to which my mother is especially susceptible late at night after eating too much sugar.

In my spate of vacuuming up pieces of literature around the house, I finally read Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays, which I highly recommend if you want to bathe your brain in flawless prose or send it off to pyrotechnic tumbling class.  Sullivan taught at my graduate school and lived in Wilmington, NC when I was there. I occasionally served him cups of coffee at the coffee shop where I worked but never introduced myself because I hide from heroes.  Sometimes, I creepily but innocently watched him from my spot behind the counter and thought, so that's how it's done, as if I could glean anything from watching someone sit at a computer and bounce their leg or chew on a hangnail and squint at a screen.

Sullivan looms large in our household, his name like others kept alive through mutual fascination or appreciation or Tim simply talking about a book enough so that when I finally get around to reading it, it feels tackling a classic (see also: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom).  Sometimes, it's an actual classic I tackle, like the summer I worked at the coffee shop more than usual because it had air conditioning and our apartment did not.  That summer I spent mornings doing yoga and reading Anna Karenina, cooling off with forward folds and images of winter wheat fields before running off to work and embracing the cold carrots I was tasked with washing and cutting for the pain-in-the-rear juicer, itself loud as a chainsaw.

Speaking of Franzen (which I'm always doing, according to Amelia), my worlds collided this month when Brad Listi interviewed Franzen for his Otherppl podcast, which remains one of my favorite podcasts around.  And while I didn't exactly learn anything new about the guy (Franzen, I mean.  I always learn something new about Listi, whom I submit as one of the most compassionate and kindhearted people on the internet today and also very funny, in an understated sort of way), I appreciated Franzen's gloss when he said (something like): I see the world through the lens of family, because I love that element in all his writing.  He appears to think deeply about what it means to be part of a family--all of a its benefits and complications--and I love hearing him think about that subject through all his work.  

He also said he always wanted to be a comedic novelist, and that because he's famous, people miss that element in his work.  They take him too seriously.  I have problems with some of his novels (I can barely think about The Corrections without cringing about every character except the mother, who is so uniformly unlikeable she is almost admirable), but I do find him deeply funny. 

I read a book called Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, which is a transcription of interviews between Mitchell and fellow musician and Canadian broadcaster, Malka Marom, over a series of decades.  When I was growing up, Mitchell seemed to me someone who knew what she was about and didn't pull punches.  I appreciated how she seemed able to be herself and fully feminine while being recognized among a bunch of male musicians.

Reading In Her Own Words sort of flipped things around for me an extra spin, because she really throws the covers off some of her male companions' bad behavior.  She is forthcoming about her disappointment when Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen lifted lyrics without crediting sources, and about the infuriating misogyny of the music business.  She tells about a time when Dylan told her to "say something sexy" into the camera for a documentary they were making, something I had a lot of trouble picturing until I realized if I had been given even a little bit of power in my twenties, I surely would have misused it.  (But still.  Kinda gross, Dylan!)  And I took a weird delight in her account of David Crosby trying to credit his band for inspiring her song, "Woodstock," when she says they had nothing to do with the writing of it at all.  Funny how history looks a little different now that we're hearing from the women, eh?

Mitchell can be caustic and shockingly ungrateful sometimes, but she is also honest, and the overall effect to me is tonic.  The book is an education about her life as an artist, from her training as a painter through the hardship of giving a baby up for adoption when she was very young, through her evolution as a musician and her fierce allegiance to artistic exploration throughout her career.  At one point she calls her collaboration with Charles Mingus "steak and potatoes jazz" and pretty much says she had to trick him into letting her have a little fun with the project, which made my jaw drop. Did you just call Mingus old hat? 

I have a hard time relating to Mitchell's desire to outgrow expectations constantly, because I am someone who lives about sixty-five beats behind every one else. But I loved hearing about the different choices she made musically and imagining her devoting all of her time to whatever project called to her in the moment. 

Of Wayne Shorter, one of the musicians in her jazz band, Mitchell says: "A genius like Wayne is always exploring, so he's gonna be more inconsistent.  He's gonna be all over the place.  Because he's going into new territory.  The great things nearly always come on the edge of an error.  What comes after the error is spectacular.  So if you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic." 

That's a pretty amazing indictment of perfectionism, right?  "If you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic."  I like that. 

There's a mini stack of food memoirs on my desk and a short list of home repairs I have avoided all summer.  With two weeks left to September, can you guess which one I'm eyeing?