Saturday, August 3, 2019

Van Halen, Pam Houston, and the Slippery Slope of Summer

If you told me a month ago I'd spend any amount of time reading a book about Sammy Hagar, I'd have said you were CRAZY.  Then I went on a Van Halen bender, courtesy of a book called Runnin' with the Devil, by their former manager, and suddenly needed to know everything I could about all things Van Halen. 

For reasons I can't quite explain - and don't wish to, exactly - I will probably always lean David Lee Roth in the Van Hagar wars.  And while I did make it through a whole book by Sammy Hagar, in which he somewhat convincingly points to reasons why he was the superior front man, Roth's silly videos for California Girls and Just a Gigolo played on repeat in my childhood. 

I don't know why I'm leading with 80's arena rock here.  I read lots of quality - literary! - books this summer.  In fact, I reconnected with my inner sloth and I'm better for it.  Some mornings, I caught up on petty rock star feuds with a mug of coffee while the bambinos watched Dora and built forts off the sofa.  (And yes, there's a broken shelf over there now, which we "fixed" by propping it up with lit journals.)


Sometime into my third Van Halen book, I realized that I could look up not only the current retrospective accounts I was reading, but also books published in the 80's, after the band got huge.  I could keep this party going for decades!  Then I picked up a collection of Best American Essays in Tim's office.  After reading only one essay, my spirit sort of sighed with relief and settled back into sanity. 

Before I fell down a Van Halen rabbit hole, I stayed up reading Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band one night.  I opened it merely to see if I would like it.  After finishing it several hours later, I looked at the clock, which read 4 am.  Woops!  There was something in the writing that worked for me, I guess.  

I don't really know why I picked up Girl in a Band.  I probably felt like I should know more about Gordon and Sonic Youth than I do.  But my favorite parts were the times she threw shade on Courtney Love, for whom she produced an album, and her tender remembrances of Kurt Cobain, for whom Sammy Hagar has strong feelings, too.  In his memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, Hagar says: "Drugs kill people.  People think drugs are what made Jimi Hendrix great.  No, drugs are what killed Jimi Hendrix.  Kurt Cobain could have been saved.  The people around him let him go, for some reason.  They had to have seen that coming." 

That sort of fanatical groundedness - calling BS on the excesses of the music industry - was, I suppose, one reason I survived a whole book about Sammy Hagar. 

In addition to revisiting dubious role models of my youth, I spent part of the summer reading two books by Pam Houston, an author whose book Cowboys Are My Weakness I was given right after college. I was staying at a friend's house and her mother, having just finished it, handed the book to me  and said, "I think you might like this."  It was happenstance, it seemed, but was probably the first book of short stories I'd been given, as a gift.  Something about it felt like a benediction, and I spent a night or two in my friend's cozy guestroom reading the book.

I haven't always identified with Pam Houston, who has held jobs as a river guide and back-country guide, like many of the narrators in Cowboys.  Tim and I used to joke about her book called A Little More About Me, because it was just too fun to say, "Well, who asked?" whenever we saw the title
.  (We are obnoxious.)  Similarly, I remember seeing the cover of Houston's Contents May Have Shifted and somehow conflating the book with A Little More About Me.  I didn't think there was much for me in Contents, but one morning I reached for a stack of books we'd recently gotten at a library sale and cracked it open.  From the start, the prose was haunting, nearly electric.  I kept coming back to it and spent weeks reading it like scripture, hypnotized and barely retaining it, but washed by its seriousness and elegiac reaches. 

Contents May Have Shifted
is broken into geographical sections that loop and weave and it's really quite beautiful.  I went right into Houston's most recent book, Deep Creek, the same day I finished Contents, and was treated to a similar tone and pliancy with white space. 

There is something so soft and forgiving in Houston's life and work now, far from those tough, cowboy-crazed narrators that made her famous.  I'm in awe of the discipline it takes to record her life as lovingly as she does.  I'm also grateful someone is recording the sounds and light of Colorado's high country, a space I find beautiful but rather lonely, a space I'd much rather read about from a cozy bed, frankly.  Plus, the cover of Deep Creek, with its dog in a creek bed looking across a green meadow, should really be a poster.

I am not someone who struggles with the passage of time, normally, but living life in the shadow of academic schedules sometimes gives me low-grade panic.  It's always been my worst nightmare to live in a rush but thankfully, it's been a summer full of beach trips and sleeping in and late nights for me and it's been healing. 

Ellis knows how to say "ant problem" although, thankfully, there isn't much of one in our kitchen anymore.  Samantha helps him dress and get into pjs, and the two of them entertain each other (and squeal like alley cats fighting over toys) all day long.  A man stopped me in the store to tell me that when he closes his eyes, he sees his 50-year-old son at Ellis's age, and it feels like two days ago that his son looked just like Ellis.  His son was down the aisle and didn't seem as charmed as I was by his outgoing dad.  I guess 50 years of it has grown thin.  All of it made me happy - the older man's enthusiasm, his grown child's indifference to his father's joy.  What will my children ignore about me, if I have the good luck to grocery shop with them when I'm 80?  And what will I brag about then, recalling these days?