The Ladies

Family History / Nostalgia / Personal History / Women

The first doll in the doll collection was a baby doll. A hideous oft-bodied thing with a hard-molded plastic head, about  the size and shape of a small sack of Irish potatoes. The doll’s official name was Baby Precious, which struck me as inordinately stupid. “I think Baby Precious is a such a sweet doll,” my mother would say. I thought Baby Precious looked like Marlon Brando stuffed with one of those embedded noisemakers that made it sound like a dejected sheep whenever you picked it up. “What is the point of a baby doll?” I would ask. “What do you do with a baby?”

My mother would smile, beatific. “Why, you take care of it, of course.”

“Taking care of” sounded like a chose, not a game, and thus wholly unfun. Besides, infant humans weren’t cute like small animals. Unlike puppies, they would not play. Unlike kittens, they were exceptionally loud and incapable of handling their own shit, an obvious design flaw. And unlike the infinitely more exciting elderly humans, they neither played nor drank gin and probably wouldn’t let fly some tantalizing piece of family gossip—Did you know your great grandmother once committed murder? I’m not surprised. She had a tacky powder room and a weakness for men from Louisiana, and you know that they are all criminals down there—before letting you win a whole ten dollars in nickel bets.

Nana divined early on that my interest in Baby Precious and her ilk was scant, at best, and changed her doll strategy. A collector herself, she had a notion she might instill some of her passion in me. But instead of Japanese Porcelain or Chippendale mirrors (a hard sell to even the most eccentric child), she would give me dolls, in particular Madame Alexander dolls, a brand of molded plastic costume dolls with shimmery, heavy lashed eyes and lustrous hair. They came in blue floral-sprigged boxes with a rosy pink interior, identifying paperwork ribboned round their wrists. Instead of small, fat, bald people in unflattering nightgowns, these new dolls were at least adolescents. (Mostly) young (mostly) women with crinolines and pinafores, stockings, bloomers, high-button shoes and velvet dancing slippers. They had taffeta evening dresses, tulle ballgowns, organdy day dresses, silk tartan wraps, fringed handbags and beaded reticules. Tiaras, broad-brimmed hats, lacy mob caps and the various geometric follies that constituted Renaissance millinery. They had auburn ringlets, glossy black braids, long blond hair, short honey bobs, and in the case one of men, a neatly trimmed moustache.

I wasn’t really supposed to play with the dolls. To retain their value, Nana instructed they must w stay in mint condition, with original boxes and literature: their hair unmussed, their accessories perfectly maintained. For a while, Mom tried to enforce this. She collected the blue boxes in a corner of our low-budget horror film of a basement and told me These dolls are valuable. You can’t play with them like your Barbies. But she also surreptitiously collected the tiny slippers in a plastic bag she kept with her fancy table linens so I wouldn’t lose them. Because she knew I couldn’t keep my hands off the dolls. I brushed their hair and talked to them. I admired every scrap of lace trim, each fold of gathered satin. I thought, it is cruel that I do not live in the era of portrait hats.

Nana, convinced that having the dolls out in the open would only tempt me to mess with them, bought me a tall, five-shelved cherry display cabinet that squatted on claw and ball feet in the corner of my bedroom. By that time, I had enough of a collection that most of the shelves were at least half-filled with dolls, sitting side by side, their legs outstretched beneath voluminous skirts. I didn’t like consigning them to their glass house, but I arranged them, so their heads were turned to each other and arms raised as if gesticulating in friendly conversation. Whenever I took them out, I tried to put them back in different combinations, so they would be able to meet new friends and get a different perspective. I had four boy dolls total; I tried to distribute them as widely as possible between the shelves to foster some diversity.

“Many of my friends are boys,” I would tell the lady dolls. “Don’t be mean to them just because they wear boring clothes. It’s not entirely their fault.”

I loved my dolls without reservation. Other kids had Star Wars Figures and My Little Ponies. They had Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcakes, Rainbow Brites, Cabbage Patch Kids. They had Legos, Barbies, and G.I. Joes. All the toy commercial nostalgia pieces from the apex of 1980s Saturday morning wish lists. I had a few of those things too, but they weren’t the same as the dolls. The dolls were resolutely unfashionable, a thing little girls in the 80s were not supposed to want, and as a result the dolls felt both retrograde and kind of subversive. At night, I went to sleep facing shelves of fantastically arrayed women in geographically and chronologically impossible combinations, seeming to discuss the news of the day with great with and enthusiasm.  

“Aren’t you ever afraid they come alive at night and do creepy things?” asked Andie, when she spent the night.

I was secretly sure they did not come alive at night, because the world is, in no way, that cool or magical. But I wished they would. I figured they’d discuss fashion politics and theatre, which were precisely the things I imagined sophisticated, grown-up ladies discussed all the time. I wanted to be a sophisticated grown-up lady more than anything when I was little. And the first part of being a sophisticated grown-up lady was calling bullshit when you heard it.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Andie,” I said. “They’re just dolls.”

It wasn’t just Andie, though. Somewhere along the line, the dolls went from being merely unfashionable to evidence of some grotesquely feminine Gothic Horror lurking in the attic. I don’t know if the world decided dolls were creepy and then Hollywood decided they were creepy or vice-versa. But by middle school, the consensus had it that dolls were the province of withered, lonely old crones, who may or may not be witches and probably murderers. Witches and murderers were okay, almost cool. But ugly, lonely and old? No worse fate if you were a woman.

I didn’t argue. I got that people were squicked out by dolls. Everyone had things that got under their skin and unsettled them. For me, it was natural disasters, tube socks, boredom, uniforms, and farms. Stacey thought my doll collection was scary; I thought that the Girl Scouts were probably fascists. But that’s the beauty of life. We’re all different!

Also, I was getting older. The bullshit of adolescence leaves little time for staging conversational vignettes between Alice (of “Wonderland” fame), Jo March, and Mary Queen of Scots. When we moved from my childhood home to the post-divorce house under the mountain, the doll case overwhelmed my bedroom. It moved to the living room, and there, left estranged until years later when it was marooned in the upstairs hall of my mother’s new house, and finally, removed to the far side of the smallest upstairs bedroom at my mother’s new house, half-blocked by the bed.

“Ew. Those things are so creepy,” a friend said, when we were visiting my mother’s house. “I don’t know how you can even sleep with them in the house.”

I remember thinking, they’re not creepy. I remember saying, “Your kid has realistic toy guns, right? How do you sleep with those in the house?”

We live in a world in which it’s perfectly normal for adult men to collect action figures and comic books. I’ve had a blind date, a man in his early forties, who asked earnestly if I was into Legos. Nostalgia for kid stuff is a huge industry, but most of that kid stuff, the stuff it’s okay to still like, is coded masculine. Things overtly and conventionally feminine are often viewed as, at best, superficial and, at worst, well, close your eyes and give me the first three adjectives that would pop into your head if I were to tell you that I have a doll collection in my house.

I don’t, by the way. My excuse for abandoning the doll collection at Mom’s for all these years is that I don’t have space. But that’s not really true. I would, in a minute, find space if Mom made good on sending me the piano, which is objectively bigger than the cabinet and its contents. Eventually, my parents will downsize, and I will have to do something about dolls. They didn’t end up being the valuable collectibles Nana once anticipated. The boxes are gone. Many of the dolls have been heavily played with and well loved, better suited for some kind of sentimental “Velveteen Rabbit”-style apotheosis than eBay.

I’ve never wanted children, but I have always fantasized by the notion of some other little girl seeing the doll collection, being transfixed by the same petticoats and ribbons, the fluffy skirts and portrait hats as I was. She wouldn’t think they were creepy. She’d see them, paused in the same animated, witty conversation they’ve been having since I was little.

I’d like to think she’d think they were fabulous.

Which, honestly, they are.

Women in Rock

Music / Personal History

Summer 2001, late night, at a sidewalk café in my hometown with a table of friends, one of whom was then dating the bass player of one of my favorite bands. The bass player was nice, genuinely so, and funny, and we were all a little drunk, I think, and somehow I got to talking to him about writing.

I’d finished a draft of novel, a deeply adolescent relic full of punk rock teenagers in abandoned houses, and I was drunk enough to tell him his band’s music had been a huge influence on my writing. This is pretty dumb thing to say unless you’re talking to Patti Smith or Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. Maybe Wu-Tang Clan. Maybe Elvis Costello. Musicians use words in different ways than writers do if they even use them at all. And when I said I wanted to write a book that read the way his band sounded, I wasn’t talking about the lyrics.

He was sweet enough to tell me he was flattered. In fairness, a babbling, slightly star struck twenty-five year old woman being all, “you know that part in that song when there’s this weird polyphony thing going on for a second and the distortion hits and suddenly it’s like wall blows off and for a second or two it’s like you’ve got this discordant symphony doing fugue stuff and your hackles kind of rise when you listen to it because holy shit. Well, I want write a paragraph like that” was probably not the weirdest thing he’d ever heard from a fan.

Later, when we were walking back to the apartment, I flashed on a thing I’d read years before about the author Rick Moody, an outspoken Feelies fan, trying to press a copy of his first novel into the bands’ hands because he felt like their music had been so important to his writing. And I remember cringing for him, as I imagined the band’s probably tepid Thanks, dude, because I could imagine myself doing the exact same thing and it was excruciating.

My friend William, also a musician and a good one, listened to me go on about it for a while and opined that it might be easier to write noisy songs as opposed to trying to write fiction that somehow simulated the experience of listening to noisy songs. This was also flattering, though obviously bullshit, as William had observed my attempts to play guitar and was well aware of my limitations.

I had written one song that I kind of liked. It didn’t have any words, but with a little imagination, I could close my eyes and strum the chords and think it sounded a little like Versus. Back in the winter, William told me to send it to him and he would mess around with adding other instrumentation. “You don’t have to do anything fancy. Just a four-track. Whatever.”

I didn’t have a four track or whatever, so I called around and one of the Brians had a recording setup in his basement apartment. I made him swear he wouldn’t laugh and drove over. I didn’t have a case, so I seat-belted the  guitar in the backseat and slid picks into a powder compact. Brian spared the commentary and sidelong glances when I plugged in to his amp, and sounded so big that I blushed, both thrilled and embarrassed. We recorded a half dozen versions. Afterwards, I slid the cassette tape into an envelope and mailed it.

William had joined a band by that point, and somewhere in the shuffle of recording an album and going out on tour, my tape disappeared into the ether. I wasn’t mad about it. I was honestly a little relieved. William was one of my best friends. I respected his taste and talent. He was one of the few men, in those days, that never condescended to me when it came to music. I don’t I could have survived it if I thought he was patronizing me or my dumb song. And it took a lot of magical thinking for me to think he wasn’t .

After the night with the famous bassist, I started messing around with the song again. My friend Kim and I drank a bottle of wine one night after her kid went to sleep and decided to start a band. She would play bass because she had one and her name was Kim. Art Night, intermittently in town that summer from Chapel Hill, would play drums, despite not having drums or even really knowing how to play them.  We would be called Hot Bedlam because we all loved a dumb pun.

Kim suggested we have an actual rehearsal over at her ex’s house. He was also in a touring band, spending the summer on the big-panted, mall punk festival circuit . We three reverse Eurydice-d into the underworld, where Kim’s dreadlocked Orpheus had left all his gear—amps, mics, drum kit, whole shebang—in the egg-crated practice space of his basement. It smelled like sweat, stale beer, pot smoke, and boys. We smelled like goddamn fairy princesses.  I played Kim my song. We spent a couple of hours trying to play it together, and it felt revelatory. At the end of the after, Kim told me she’d learned the bassline to “Dirty Boots” and maybe we should try to cover it.

“I’m not sure I have the right equipment to do the guitar part,” I said, and recalled hearing a dude at a club years previous make almost the same comment when being shitty about the all-woman band on stage. Girls lack the right equipment to rock, right?  I wasn’t using equipment as anatomical shorthand. I just meant I had a dirt-cheap, secondhand  Mexican Fender, a practice amp my old roommate stole from the music building of my high school, and almost no skill. This wasn’t about being a woman or internalized misogyny, and everything to do with, me, like, not having the chops.

Kim’s ex came back from tour before we had a chance to practice again and raged when he head we’d been in his practice space. “Fuck him,” said Kim. “We don’t need his stuff anyway,”

Actually, we did, because we didn’t have it. And we probably weren’t destined for stardom. Kim and I were in our mid-twenties. I had a full-time job. Art Night had college two-hundred miles away. Kim had a kid. And aren’t you actually a writer, anyway? Hot Bedlam R.I.P.

Still, it was encouraging that we’d actually practiced. I’d been in a lot of we should start a band conversations over the years that died on the vine long before anyone ever picked up an instrument. We’d discuss band names, wax poetic about what we’d like to sound like (usually several stories above our skill level, which was, approximately sub basement), and experiment with band logo typefaces. I’d sit up late trying to remember guitar chords and be all, do you think we should try to write a song? And they’d be like, you know, the band thing is a joke, right? I mean, we are definitely not good enough to even try to be real.

I did, I guess, but I also didn’t. Why did it have to be a joke? I remember all the way back in high school,  when one of my classmates and I would play Liz Phair covers on hand-me-down acoustic guitars that we’d automatically cede to the boys once they entered the room.  They were better than we were because they’d been playing longer, but mostly they were more confident because the girls in the room always let them play.

“We’re not good enough for anyone else to hear us,” my classmate would say  And I knew she was right. But the boys weren’t really good enough either. They just weren’t afraid of being imperfect. They could be slobs and fuck-ups and the world would still mostly tolerate their Dinosaur Jr covers. If we were anything less than fantastic, they’d discount us as worthless, at best, a novelty, a chick thing, lacking the right equipment, if you know what I mean.

I tried to write something about this when I got hired to write record reviews online, a few months after Hot Bedlam’s one and only rehearsal. My editor sent the new record by a band I liked, a band of mostly women. I didn’t have that much to say about the record. It was catchy. It wasn’t terribly different from their first album. The site I wrote for was then known for its long, digressive reviews. I needed to fill out the word count and it is infinitely easier to somehow talk about a record anecdotally than it is to describe the way a thing sounds (name drops and free verse adjective collage the angular fuzzed out worn out boot-tread howl of sonic negation echoing through a wasteland of broken guitars, like the Stooges met Suicide in a no-wave alleyway and had a fist fight with early New Order or whatever).  So, I wrote about how the only thing I could imagine worse than being a woman and artist and utterly discounted by men, (and the women that only men to be arbiters of taste) was to be a woman and artist just  patronized and condescended to. Look at you. A woman! Making music! Isn’t that just the cutest!

Unfortunately, when I tried to put this down in a record review, I sounded like an asshole. I sounded like I was saying something about equipment. I sounded exactly like one of the dudes I was trying to school.

The review must have gotten a lot of hits, because my editor responded by sending boxes full of records by women for me to review, with the expectation that I could go all swaggering I’m not going to give you a pass just because you’re a girl without criticism because I was a girl.  The more negative the review, the more people read it, so I wrote a lot of negative reviews. I got some attention for it

The internet still felt reasonably innocent then, so I never worried that message boards devoted to hating me because I didn’t particularly care for an album would devolve into doxxing and death threats. I did, however, get one note that really stuck with me. It was a young woman, a guitar player and songwriter I’d reviewed, who wondered if I knew how hard she’d worked on the record. I know my songs aren’t perfect, but this isn’t exactly easy. I’d like to think I’ll get better. But there was nothing constructive in that review you wrote. It was just mean.

Was I mean? I called William, but he was on tour. And why do I need him to tell me whether or not I’m being fair to another girl. I came home that afternoon and sat on the futon my roommate left behind when she moved out. I plugged my guitar into the broken practice amp and spent the evening playing every song I knew (about twelve). I thought about writing that guitar player back, and telling her what she likely already knew: I’m not-so-secretly envious of you. I’d much rather make the thing than try to evaluate how well someone else made it. People are listening to you. They are paying attention to the art you make. Do you have any idea how cool that is?

“I think I’m bad at record reviews for the same reason I never went in for guys in bands,” I tried to tell Cranberries and Art Night. I had way too much residual sawdust and greasepaint in the blood to be content in the wings, endlessly supportive, watching someone else’s show. It wouldn’t be long before I’d see the seams in the songs, before I’d start taking them apart, before I’d think, I could do this  or maybe, I could do this better, even if I couldn’t really do it all.

They nodded, undoubtedly thinking I was a slave to ego. They weren’t wrong. “But why is that such a bad thing?”After all, Cranberries dated a guy in a band for years and years. And she had a killer voice, gorgeous and raw, the kind of voice that could give you goosebumps if you just happened to hear it when you passed by an open door, infinitely more powerful than his would ever be. I couldn’t figure out how it didn’t eat at her that she was the girl sitting on the amp and never the one standing behind the mic. All those practices she watched. All those shows. I used to fret about it. I even tried to get her to join another fake band with me. She left after one practice, for fear that she was offending her boyfriend. I was almost more furious thinking about it in retrospect, like, don’t you know how good you are? Don’t you know how magnetic?

She swore it didn’t bother her. I didn’t believe her

I was increasingly sure, though, that I shouldn’t be writing record reviews. “I’m worried I’m not being constructive,” I told William, when he came back from tour.

He didn’t say pop music criticism is not a writing workshop. I’m not sure ‘constructive’ is part of your job description. He did tell me I’d reviewed a band one degree of separation from his own. Which was weird, but not, like, “uncomfortable weird.”

“I don’t know how to respond to that,” I said.

I really didn’t. And that was the reason I gave when I wrote my last review a few months later. I have too many friends. I have too many friends dating musicians. I have too many friends working for record labels. I don’t know how to do this without it turning personal. So thank you for the opportunity, but

The truth is I quit because I was tired of being mean. I quit because I didn’t like having my opinions repeated back to me by assholes. I quit because I didn’t like feeling, increasingly, that I was the vehicle through which men could be snide and condescending about women in music while patting themselves on the back for being progressive enough for finding a woman who would do it for them. I quit because I wanted to have constructive conversations about art with other people that made it.  I quit because I still wanted to write things that read like my favorite band sounded, not things about why my favorite band disappointed me by not sounding the way they used to.

##

A few weeks ago, someone sent me a Washington Post story about a musician, a woman whose music I adore and have for decades.  The article ran in 2013, years after I stopped appending music critic to my resume. I hadn’t read it at the time. But the writer quoted me in it, a snarky line taken out of context, from a review of a 2002 record I liked. The musician was understandably defensive about the stupid and callow way I characterized her music and what she’d been trying to do.

I cringed and put on a recent record by the musician. I thought, I should write her a fan letter. I should tell her the truth, which is that I’m sorry about my asinine review and my season or two trying to convince people I was any good at being a rock critic. I’d tell her that I’m not-so-secretly envious, that I’ve written reams to the soundrack of her music, that I would give anything to write a paragraph that sounded like one of her songs.

And the beat goes on.

Last Gasp

Personal History

A few weeks into the 21st century, I woke up one morning unable to breathe. Or rather, I could breathe, but not correctly, not easily. My chest felt strange. My pulse labored. The act of taking in air and expelling it did not come without effort. I thought it might pass. It didn’t. I went to the doctor. She prescribed me an antibiotic and an asthma drug. She sent me to the radiologist, where the ballroom dancing wife of my parents’ best friend took pictures of my lungs. “They look normal,” the doctor told me. Normal. “Do you have anxiety?” Who doesn’t? I breathed into stethoscopes. I exhaled into plastic conical breath measuring devices. “You have an impressive lung capacity,” said the nurse. “Have you ever sung opera?”

“Do you think it’s possible that I have cancer?” I’d ask Mom, late at night, while we smoked cigarettes on the steps of the garage.  She didn’t, though the irony was not lost. I tried to cut back, even thought about quitting, but not smoking made me think more about the breathing, which made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I figured the worst thing about cancer, after the pain, would be not being able to smoke. Or maybe the worst thing about cancer would be knowing I caused it by smoking. One more thing on the tally of things I fucked up, I thought.

“Have you considered that it might be psychosomatic,” Mom would say. “If you’d go back to college, it would probably go away.”

This was the answer to all things, according to my mother, despite the fact that I couldn’t see what college had done for me save putting me in debt, giving  some real shape to suicidal ideation and making me long for a bunch of far-flung friends who were now understandably reticent to pick up my calls because I was a grumpy ghost haunting the corridors of my mother’s house and they had real, interesting lives. And after a while isn’t depression just a little bit self-indulgent. Like are you actually trying to feel better?  Maybe?  Possibly? “You just have to put yourself in a kick-ass mood and go out there and  fix it,” my mother would tell me, and relate, once again, the story of how she went on diet and leased a station wagon in 1986. I could not figure out why she kept telling that story to me. Maybe being a size 6 and leasing a 2000 Honda Accord will make me feel less weird about being alive? It wasn’t the craziest idea I’d heard. And besides, the longer I let her go about weight loss and car payments, the less time I’d have to spend explaining that I wasn’t sure I could even go back to college if I wanted to.

It was possible, I thought, that the breathing thing was psychosomatic. Being depressed was a lot like being stuck alone in a house with too much stuff in it. The stuff seemed to spontaneously generate by no action of my own, and whenever I tried to clear out a corner, I just blocked off another exit. My brain was like the Collyer Brothers mansion: unwieldy and dangerous, possibly lethal. There might have been cool shit once, but whatever it was had become so decayed, so damaged by circumstance that no one could say for sure whether it was worth saving at all.

ii.

I told Hollywood I was having trouble breathing and he quoted song lyrics at me. Appropriate. We’d met on a listserv for a sad punk rock band I’d once loved and barely listened to anymore. He thought I was a good writer; I thought he was funny and smart. We exchanged letters for a while. They were twee, self-conscious things. He wrote on an old typewriter, slightly less of an affectation in those days.  I wrote in block letters and illustrated in the margins pictures of a life that was close to, but not quite, mine. I lied just enough. I justified it because internet. I suspected he wouldn’t find the whole truth as charming as the one I put on paper.  I sent a written description of myself (reasonably accurate) and a drawing of my house (not the house I was living in). He sent polaroids of himself (cute), his apartment building in LA (u-shaped, hazy, palm-shaded). He might have been lying too, but when he finally started calling, his area code, at least, was right.

He made me describe the scene where I was to distract me from the breathing. I told him about the mountains, the glittering downtown lights, the cornices on the pleasingly shabby bungalow I shared with a roommate, my cloudy breath in the February chill, none of which I could see, by the way, because I was sitting on the top stair in my parents’ garage. “I almost feel like I’m there,” he said.  I tried to imagine him sitting beside me in the narrow space between the canoe and Mom’s car. I couldn’t.

He said he was moving to New York  soon. He’d been offered a network job. I said that sounded very impressive, because it did. “I’ve never lived on the East Coast,” he said. “I’ve never had a whole winter.” He planned to wear his grandfather’s overcoat, an old black wool thing, bought off a Lower East Side tailor in 1919, a few years before the grandfather went west. “Grandpa’s New York was a whole immigrant tenement thing. He did well in California. He thinks I’m crazy for going back.”

I thought he was crazy to think threadbare, eighty-year-old overcoat was the best choice for January in Brooklyn. I didn’t mention it. Him being in New York increased the small odds of us ever meeting in person. We couldn’t meet in person. If we did, I’d have to see the inevitable look on his face–the recognition, the disgust, the polite bank teller mask to cover the disappointment until he could get away—because I was quite sure I was nothing like he imagined.

“I read an article about Zadie Smith today,” he said. “I think you remind me of her.”

I was stunned. Had I said anything to suggest I was a glamorous, beautiful, prodigiously talented English novelist and not a fat, white southerner who dropped out of college and  lived with her mother in Appalachia. I really didn’t think so. And maybe he was just talking about writing, but  Christ, we can never meet in real life.

 iii.

Dad agreed to take little sister and her two friends from college to the beach for spring break. At the last minute, he asked if I wanted to go, you’ll have to sleep on the couch. I was used to sleeping on the couch; I was an oldest child with two demanding little sisters.

The warm, dense lowcountry air did wonders. I took long walks around the tidal flats on the back side of the island and spent evenings alone on a small veranda hanging over an alligator-filled lagoon. I spent days wandering around Charleston alone, spending money I couldn’t afford on records, chasing gold bugs in the wreckage of old military infrastructure out on Sullivan’s Island. It was a nice trip, if lonely. When I came home I believed myself cured.

Two days later, I woke again, gasping.

In the tubercular old days, people used to come to my hometown for its good air, the healing mountain environment to cure their ills and soothe their pains.

“What does it mean that I can’t breathe anywhere in this fucking town?” I asked.

Mom looked at me like she wanted to tell me to watch my language, but realizing that horse was way out of the stable, sent me back to the doctor for another round of inconclusive x-rays and antibiotics.

iv

My high school celebrated their centennial with a weekend of events in mid-April. I both did and didn’t want to go.  My senior year of high school had felt like wide-angle Cinemascope with me on the edge of Hudson River School scaled possibility. I thought, for a moment, that by returning I might conjure a bit of the old razzle-dazzle.

Dad, in a burst of unexpected generosity, bought my ticket (it was expensive) to the big gala. I found a noisy black taffeta ball skirt on a sale rack, and worried that I might be overdressed (I was), so wore it with an Archers of Loaf t-shirt and a glittery sweater. My friend Apollo, who would not be returning from the Ivy Leagues for the gala, charged his girlfriend and his little sister with transporting me to the event and keeping an eye should I find myself over-served at the open bar.  It was a purely chivalrous gesture, both sweet and patronizing, but I was genuinely grateful for the ride and the company.

When I walked into the  blue-blazered WASP wonderland under the circus tent on the back quad,  I realized that not only would none of my friends would be there, but that even most of the faculty I loved and cherished had long-since moved on. The only guy I knew even reasonably well got so wildly drunk early on that he was dismissed from the party and escorted off campus. I didn’t have anything in common with the rich, elderly alumni, who’d all graduated before the school went co-ed, so I sat with the teenagers, at the same dining hall tables, operating under the same rigid rules of tradition and etiquette I’d escaped when I graduated.  I received a series of dirty looks from the same Dean of Students that had once regularly sent me home for dress code violation because I laughed during the headmaster’s pompous introductions. She came over to my table finger raised, demerits at the ready, but could say nothing to tipsy, broke, underachieving, twenty-four-year-old me save “You should know better, Alison.”

I should have. I mean, what did I think would happen? I wasn’t sure school–not this one in particular, but school in general–hadn’t ruined my life.  I slipped out during the pitch for the annual fund and squished around the wet grass to the back of the arts building so I could smoke a cigarette on the loading dock, Sixth Form-style. I thought about trying the stage door, maybe seeing if the Steinway in the practice room was still in tune, but I worried indulging nostalgia would only make me feel worse about the what hadn’ts. I slushed back for another drink and was surprised to find people smoking openly behind the tent. I chatted with woman with a surprising Exene Cervenka vibe for a Boarding School Gala. She was the girlfriend of a new faculty member. She saw me as such a  kindred spirit (I was flattered)that it took her the better part of a vodka and three Parliaments to work out that I was, in fact, an alumna and not another just freaked out spouse

“You don’t seem at all like you went here,” she said. “No offense.”

I thought about telling her the school  had been different when I was there. Some confluence of weird kids, eccentric teachers, and administrative reshuffling meant the old boys and sports boosters didn’t notice that we were coloring outside the lines for a few years. I never knew what happened to that version of the school, but this place was not that place.  I puffed on a cigarette and ignored a current administrator croaked out a no smoking on campus. Inside the tent, I could hear an alumnus saluting a former faculty member I’d always known as a creep to the thunderous applause of several dozen good old boys.

It was also possible, I thought,  my version of the school, the one I remembered so fondly, never really existed at all. I felt a wave of the breathlessness and steadied myself. Don’t think about the breathing. Think about the music in the tent. Is that the Electric Slide? (It was)

“No offense taken,” I said to Exene. “I’m as surprised that I went here as you are.”

v.

I was at work on Tuesday when Dad called. He’d recently started seeing a new someone, a friend of my Aunt’s. She lived just over the mountains in East Tennessee, but her son lived in Asheville and the son had a girlfriend, Jordan, that Dad thought I should meet.

“She says she wants to start a literary magazine. I remembered you’d said you wanted to start a literary magazine too.”

Had I? That sounded like something I’d throw out at peak founder. I had a lot of ideas I’d air when I thought people could literally seek me sinking beneath the waves, theatre company, publishing house, record store, activism.

 “Anyway,” he said. “I said you’d call her today. I think you’d be great friends. Do you want her number?”

I didn’t really.* I imagined Jordan as some delicate linen-trousered nature poet currently enamored of the same New Age creativity guru my dad was reading at the time.  I was sure she’d be nice. Might not have a sense of humor, though. In reality, Jordan was a tall, lanky girl with wide-set, bright blue eyes, and a dreamy, highly expressive way of talking that I believed, for about thirty seconds, to be an affectation until I realized it was just the way Jordan was. Jordan was from Nevada. Like me, she’d found herself degree-less and directionless in her mid-twenties. Unlike me, she’d arrived at that state following an extended Parisian foray. She had a line of Arabic tattooed on her upper arm (it meant different things depending on who was asking) and a boyfriend, a congenial, oblivious giant, she’d followed the three-thousand miles east to Asheville.

I adored her. I knew it immediately. Some friendships are like that. It’s a love at first sight thing that has nothing to do with the visuals (we were hours into our conversation before it dawned on me that Jordan was pretty, even objectively so), and everything to do with knowing you’ve met a person you can say anything to.

We exhausted ourselves on coffee and disclosure, our favorite writers, our mutual affection for Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. I drove her home to her apartment, an unairconditioned garret with slanted ceilings and door frames too low for her oversized boyfriend. We sat on her sofa, taking in the fleeting gasps of cold spring air from her open window, drinking lemon dieter tea bought she’d bought bulk from the discount grocery outlet, and listening to the same scratched Jacques Brel record on repeat. I tried to tell her about the breathing thing. She was completely sympathetic.

We went out to sit on the hallway stairs, our smoke hovering over us in the stale air. Someone from downstairs complained about us smoking in the building, but they were too lazy to come up and threaten us, so we ignored them, and lip-synched along to J’Arrive. I tried to exhale in time to the music. It seemed to help.

 “You know,” she said, “everyone I talk to seems to love this place. I know this is your hometown, but I don’t really like it here.”

“ I don’t either,” I said. “I never have. And I can’t tell you how nice it is to be able to say that aloud without someone making me feel bad.”

I think I cried driving home. I did so for several reasons:  because of the way the stars were glittering over the Parkway bridge, because “Horses” is such a good record, because I hadn’t realized how profoundly lonely I’d been until I wasn’t anymore

vi.

I want to tell you that the moment I met Jordan was the moment I started breathing normally again.

This is not true.

In the end, it turned out my parent’s still-new house hid secret reserves of sheet rock dust behind the walls and above the ceilings. My bedroom, a little one at the end of the upstairs hall hall  above the laundry room, was unnaturally dry and dark, a repository for what was left behind during the construction three years before. The bedroom vent was located in the ceiling my bed and it blew a fine dust down at me all night long. The reason I breathed easier the less time I spent at Mom’s house wasn’t psychosomatic at all. All the great theories, the myriad schools of psychological thought applied to what had been believed to be an imaginary affliction, were useless. It was a boring dust allergy, though it took another round of exams and well-meaning medical professionals wondering whether the whole thing couldn’t be sorted out if I’d get more exercise and they upped my antidepressant dosage   I could tell people were disappointed by my prosaic diagnosis. But I was sure it was Freudian. I bought some Claritin. I opened the windows. My stepfather cleaned out the vent and bought a cover to redirect the airflow. I stopped dreaming I was drowning every night.

It would take a while longer to convince myself I wasn’t.  It was a start, though.

_________________

*Family-based matchmaking, platonic or otherwise, is a total crapshoot. Sure, it had been how I’d ended up meeting both Ivy League in the fifth grade and my best friend freshman year of college (thanks, Mom), but it had also been how I’d ended up on a blind date with a dishonorably discharged Marine, who was the song of my grandmother’s neighbor, Evelyn. That guy had spent the first ten minutes railing against minorities and trying to touch my boobs and the next hour guzzling Michelob Lite direct from pitcher and his shirt  so he could “make his tattoos dance” for an enthusiastic cadre of like-minded cretins in the O’Charley’s bar. When I called Nana to tell her I needed a ride home, she said “Evelyn has always said her grandson had a fragile constitution. She worries he might be too sensitive for this world, poor thing.” And I looked over at my swain, delirious and draped shirtless over a bar table like a beached whale, surrounded by, like, six Woo-ing Limp Bizkit fans, and could only think, that thing on his shoulder, is that a White Power tattoo?

Do The Collapse

Accidents

I took a spill on Saturday. I was in the greenway in my mother’s neighborhood, a couple of blocks from its so-called Town Center, a mixed-use artifice that is not, absolutely not, a mall, so don’t even think about calling it that.[1] I was distracted by cluster of rabbits, surprisingly docile, given their proximity to both a highway and the lunch crowd at PF Chang’s. I stumbled, skidded a bit over the trail and went down like I was sliding into third base, leaving a bit of my left side (palm, elbow and shin) on the asphalt as a souvenir. I popped up quickly, assured the joggers pointed toward me that I was fine, fine and continued on. One man, walking, said, Great fall. Nice Recovery. Then, I’m a doctor, as if I’d demanded credentials.

I thanked him. It’s weird to get complimented on falling down well, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. I’m the sort of person that falls down a lot. Everywhere. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter what kind of shoes I’m wearing, or how fast I’m going, or what I’m doing when it happens. I’ve fallen at all varieties of altitudes, seasons, and events. On two continents and in at least six countries. Among my favorites: down the grand staircase at the Boston MFA (inside), up the staircase at the Met (outside), down the stairs in a suite in Venice, outside Kilmainham Gaol (Dublin), outside Buckingham Palace, crossing the Seine, crossing the Thames, crossing the Arno, in the middle of Grand Central Station, on stage in “Blithe Spirit,” processing, robed, into chapel with the choir (high school),  and all the way down the front stairs at my mother’s annual formal Holiday Party when I was about twenty-three years old,

I don’t know why I fall down all the time. I suspect it has something to do with my depth perception (not great) or maybe the fact that I’m the kind of easily preoccupied, inclined toward daydream and  regularly accused[2] of “not having the common sense to come up out of the rain.”  I know I’ve been falling since I was a very small child (first major spill was through a glass top coffee table. No, I don’t remember it). I was late to both walking and riding a bicycle, a pariah in ballet class, and I never could do a cartwheel, even when I was five years old.  I’ve never been a real paragon of either flexibility of coordination, even before I got to be a tall-ish fat person afflicted with lots of non-aerodynamic curves. I was always fine in water. But as I am not a mermaid, I’m forced to make my clumsy, unintentionally slapstick way on dry land.

Regular falls have left my appendages a regular mass of scrapes, bruises, and various unsightly blemishes. A friend once told me I had scars like an athlete, which is almost hilarious, up to an including at least one traumatic brain injury. I’m used to people making all sorts of assumptions about my current and former hobbies. Cycling? Mountain Climbing? Boxing? Rugby? Base jumping? Just Sunday, a teenager at a coffeeshop asked my most recent injury—a large wound on the left shin, shaped a little like Illinois—came from skateboarding. I was hugely flattered. Imagine me on a skateboard! That’s so cool I’m almost intimidated by my imaginary self.

When I took up running (long distances, quite slowly), for real, about ten years ago, I got a perverse thrill out of the injuries derived from actually doing something, and not from the ordinary day-to-day of being a human being locked in a pitched struggle against gravity.  I could say, this knee injury comes from training for a half-marathon, instead of, I broke my toe reaching for the shampoo in the shower.

Years ago, one of my best friends wrote a piece about my propensity for spills. She, too, flattered my prowess at falling, and used it to illuminate a greater, metaphorical point about life. She credited me with having a style, some honed talent at the moment of plummet. And I’d like to tell you have I have a strategy for the descent. Relax. Go down easy. Aim for something soft. Car safety specialists advise trying to relax before you crash, because it’s the tension that causes the worst damage.  You know, let go. And if we’re being metaphorical about it, enjoy the ride and don’t worry too much about hitting the ground. My spiritual advisor suggests that there’s a nice view of the stars from the gutter. And I can back this up, sort of. I did once fall in a gutter (not a metaphor) in Austin, TX and coincidentally saw Ethan Hawke cross the street.

But as someone that falls often and repeatedly, let me assure you that you rarely have the luxury of choreographing the way you go down. In fact, half the time I try to take my own advice, I end up this avalanche of wind-milling arms, splayed legs and face first on the sidewalk, hoping like hell I haven’t broken an arm or knocked out a tooth. To be clear, I don’t fall gracefully. I fall like Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford.

On the other hand, I do get up quickly as possible, smile, tell whoever saw me I’m fine.  Laugh at my own clumsiness. Thank them for their help if they offer, wipe off the dirty, make sure nothing is broken and keep calm and carry on until I’m out of sight or back at home or in a place where I can check to see what’s bleeding without grossing anyone out and wince and whine and sulk about the fact that of course I have no skin on my shin now hours before I was  going to wear my new dress to a fancy party and try to look, like, you know, pretty, which is to say, not visibly scabbed and bruised, but like I’m the sort of woman that can swan—not swan dive–into the room, with real poise. I get over it, because I don’t really have a choice, do I? I put on a face. As good as it’s going to get.  I wear my new dress, and wait patiently, graciously until the first time someone comes at me with  some clever riff on Good lord, what happened to you?

You want the real story or the good story? I ask and tell them I stumbled on the running trail, or came down hard while saving the world from space pirates, or both, knowing that I’m only minutes, hours, days, from the next fall, the next tumble, the next calamity so there’s no use being afraid when it comes.

______________________

[1] It’s a mall.

[2] Often by the very same family members that believe in things like astrology and trickle-down economics, but whatever.

Nana at Twilight

Personal History

I went to spend most of July with my grandmother when I was ten, which was great because this big fancy new mall (much bigger and fancier than the one in Asheville) had recently opened and They. Had. Everything there .

Nana took me out there a few days after July 4, and we spent almost the whole day shopping. I scored a small wardrobe a of layered peach and white summer outfits (totally on trend but made me look exactly like a fat Dreamsicle). Nana went to an expensive boutique, where they sold mostly bedazzled, heavily shoulder-padded silk bomber jackets and sweater coats and I think she bought five.  Afterwards we went to this black and chrome salon down by the multiplex (itself still a novelty) and had our hair done. Nana let me get a real perm which was A DREAM. On the way out of the mall, Nana and I both put on our sunglasses—her big round Jackie Os, my small dime-store knockoffs–and I thought we both looked very cool, so we had dinner just us girls at a new place with mozzarella sticks and spinach dip so you just knew it was sophisticated.

We drove home during the violet hour, the downtown lights starting to flicker on one side of the expressway and that giant neon star glowing at the top of Mill Mountain like a psychedelic fascinator.  Nana hardly ever let me open the car window, because she didn’t like the wind and worried it might upset the cautious way she ashed her cigarettes into a crystal ashtray and not out the window, like a tacky person. That night, though, she permitted it. And I pressed the button  and let the warm summer air unsettle my new curls, as I checked out my sunglass-ed reflection in the rearview.  Nana turned on the stereo, which was only ever Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits in those days unless it was Pavarotti, and it was right at my favorite song on the tape, the duet with Donna Summer.

“I find this song very aggressive,” said Nana, finger poised to fast forward to “Evergreen”

“I love it it. It reminds me of New York,” I said, even though I hadn’t yet been to New York.

She let it play. I pretended we were headed to a night club, the sort of place where women wore chiffon dresses and shiny silver sandals, the sort of place that, by 1986, didn’t really exist anymore.   A shimmer of pink went up on the hill, someone’s leftover fireworks, and the air smelled like jasmine and roses and Virginia Slims, but that was probably just Nana.

I remember telling Nana that it was my favorite time of day– that last purple gasp before nighttime and all of its promise of secret thrills. Nana wasn’t entirely convinced; she was more of a morning person. But it strikes me I always liked that time of day because it reminded me of being with her, one of my very first memories, in fact, of wandering through the shimmery, carnival wonderland of the old Myrtle Beach Pavilion on summer nights, her elegant ringed fingers knitted tightly through mine as I stared up in wonder at the gilded swings, the carousel, hotel towers like columns of stars on the very edge of the world before the great endless gray blue sea and all its endless possibilities, as if to keep me in check, for now.

She’d smile down at me, winking, a conspirator. Don’t we always have the best time together?

I’d nod. Yes. 

When we got back to the house, it was fully nighttime. We came in and found Poppy reading in his chair. He told us we looked beautiful. He brought in every single one of our many shopping bags without complaint.

He asked if we’d had a good time.

She winked at me

Of course we did.

We always do.

_________

Postscript(s): Nana’s under the weather on this particular shimmery, hot July evening, so she’s on the mind.

I should note that Nana is indirectly responsible for me getting to meet Donna Summer in person. She was everything, by the way. Almost as much of a goddess as Nana herself.

Greatest Hits

Uncategorized

Sometime around the beginning of my eighth-grade year, the most popular girl in my class came to school in a tie-dyed Beatles t-shirt and Birkenstocks with her brand name soccer shorts. And suddenly, seemingly overnight, all the girls that had been crushing on George Michael started talking about Jerry Garcia all the time. It was 1989, but at Asheville Junior High School, anyway, the sixties had properly begun.

There were a lot of reasons for this sudden historical blip. It was the 20th anniversary of everything that happened in or around the summer of 1969: Woodstock, the Manson Murders, all our parents’ failing first marriages, the one time the ex-cop that did the Just Say No presentation in your public school district tried pot with his buddy Dave before an Iron Butterfly show but Dave got the acid-laced pot and he will spend the rest of his life in a padded cell believing he is a tall glass of cold orange juice. This is what happens when you do drugs, kids.  Also, we were all about thirteen, on the precipice actual full-fledged teenager-ness and all the sex, drugs and rock and roll that implied, which meant we were at least 80% focused on the possibility of achieving sex, drugs and rock and roll at all times. What decade better illustrated the beautiful and liberating promise of sex, drugs, and rock and roll better than the 1960s?[1] Certainly all the TV movies promised titillating nudity and freedom and much easier access to weed than any of us could work out at the time. And after so many years of popped collars, boat shoes, and tight-rolled jeans, it was as if adolescent America woke up one morning and collectively questioned whether it was ever, truly, hip to be square? Or was that just some lie our ex-hippie parents told us, so they’d feel better about voting for Reagan that one time? (It was)

In any case, the 60s thing was like an infection that roared through the school and left the cafeteria reeking of patchouli and Pink Floyd fans. The kids who’d actually grown up with weirdo commune parents and totally arbitrary dietary restrictions (a not-insignificant population in my hometown) started getting invited to parties and treated as sages.  There was were shocking  number of beads and Baja jackets. The boy who’d scandalized the cafeteria the year previous with his Dead Kennedys t-shirt showed up with round, wire-rimmed glasses the second week of eighth grade, and the girls in Social Studies were all ohmigod, John Lennon.

I’d cut my hair short over the summer to dispense with the remaining bits of spiral perm and quietly adopted a wardrobe of mostly black, following my crash course in New Wave via punk rock Nanny the spring before. I was definitely into fashion but not on trend, certainly any trend that involved crocheted vests and tie-dyed Duke University t-shirts (I mean, seriously). I still wanted to talk about New Order, or, in a pinch, Neneh Cherry or those new Madonna videos, because they were kind of awesome right? I mean, I’d just learned the word ‘transgressive’ and I was dying to  use it to discuss “Like a Prayer.”  And suddenly everybody was flashing peace signs and going on about hobbit-infested Led Zeppelin songs.

As far as the sixties went, I thought maybe I liked The Beatles, a musical opinion about as uncontroversial as I like beaches and fun. Unlike the rest of my generation, I hadn’t grown up on the Beatles. My parents were big music fans, but neither liked nor listened to much of what was traditionally understood (at least in those days) as “classic rock.” Nowhere in either of their record collections would you find a single Beatles LP.[2]  When pressed, they both said they liked “Rocky Raccoon” (kind of a deep cut, but okay) , and Nina Simone’s cover of “Here Comes The Sun,” which my mother played so much when I was toddler that she warped the track on the record.

I thought maybe I’d give The Beatles more of a a shot, because it seemed like something I should know about. So when the next occasion came that I was dropped off at the mall and left to wander with Irish Name through the oddly calming, peach soap scented teal excess of late 80s suburban retail, I slipped into  Record Town and  pulled out copies of The Beatles 1967-1970 and The Beatles 1962-1966 on cassette. I had enough money for one and recognized more songs off the former. “Maybe you should get the other one,” I said. “We can copy them and trade.”

Irish Name looked dubious. Irish Name always looked dubious. She pointed out that the buying a tape would mean she could not afford embroidery floss, and without embroidery floss, she could not make any more friendship bracelets. I looked at her arm. She had on about seventeen, plus a couple skeins worth of thread wrapped around several pieces of hair. I didn’t think she needed any more embroidery floss. “It’s for your own good,” I said.

“What if I don’t like The Beatles?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes and  said something like  “Seriously, Irish name? Everybody likes The fucking Beatles,” relishing  the f-bomb, even if it did come out with a bit of lisp through my braces

When I got home from the mall, I went up to my room, unwrapped the tape, and put on my headphones. I hit play and lay back the pillows, feeling the cross breeze between my two open bedroom windows, as those dreamy, muffled flutes kicked off “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There were abstract strawberries printed between the leaves and vines of the wallpaper. They looked extra red in the golden hour light. And I remember thinking, well this is just about perfect, right before I finally realized for the first time, why the man at the had the supermarket deli counter had sung Alison Fields Forever, when I walked past. Oh, cool. And before I even to the second track (“Penny Lane”) or even second verse, I tumbled head first into  my first real music obsession.

%%

Does everyone go through an intense Beatles phase?  It certainly seems that way.  The song, then maybe the Greatest Hits, then the individual records.  Maybe Sgt. Pepper first because it’s Sgt. Pepper and you expand out in either direction, getting to the White Album on a birthday or special occasion because it’s a double album and expensive.  Maybe you got to “Happiness in a Warm Gun” a little faster if you’re younger than I am came up with the internet. You also had Wikipedia to read up on the individual songs instead of checking out books in the library and combing through back issues of magazines. Maybe you Google-mapped Liverpool, street-viewed Penny Lane, followed Paul McCartney on Instagram, and saw all the pictures of all the eras without having to spend your babysitting money on  some overpriced scam of a fan rag in the magazine racks at B.Dalton But I don’t mean to uphill, both ways in the snow you. An obsession is an obsession, no matter what speed technology allowed it to be played at.

Mine took about a year before I got to the point that I could authoritatively tell you my favorite Beatles record (Revolver) or happily bore perfect strangers with the stories about lyric puns and anecdotes about George Martin. It was at least a few months before I started dreaming up elaborate, embarrassing alternate histories in which a wildly talented, fantastically beautiful, impeccably Mod avatar of me became both a muse and a musical collaborator (in later versions, she would also have a thing with Bob Dylan before touring with Bowie, and then moving to New York to hang out with Warhol and Lou Reed and  whole crowd at Max’s Kansas City because of course, she would), because the worst thing about getting into music as a teenage girl is realizing how few interesting parts there are  for you in the story if you’re not interested in visualizing yourself as wife  or groupie, and the girls that are interesting usually end up getting blamed for ruining everything.

Irish Name tried to keep up for a while. She dutifully dubbed her tapes for me. She really liked “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But she was a reasonably sane and normal human being, for whom music was something you sang along to on the way to school or played in your bedroom as ambient background noise. She didn’t need to know the precise mechanics of how “Day in the Life” worked. She wasn’t interested in every song that inspired “Norwegian Wood” and then every song it would go on to inspire (she wasn’t even interested in whether the lyrics were about arson or not). She didn’t need to borrow my copy of “The Lives of John Lennon,” and no, it wasn’t just because her youth pastor told her it was libel or sinful (or maybe both).  Even Ivy League, my friend most likely to follow deep into nerd territory, started glazing over when I did the whole but did you hear that? That sound? Wasn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever heard? Want me to play it again? Should we start a band?

 It might have been Ivy League’s tacit reminder that I might be better off occasionally shifting back to what are you wearing to eighth grade formal that kept me in check. And to be clear, I wasn’t only about the Beatles, even then. I did theatre. I was way into Gothic novels. I was in love with John Cusack and River Phoenix. I might have addressed my diary to Hey Jude for a while (true), but I still copied Cure lyrics, and made field trip mix tapes with R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, the B-52s, and “Vogue.” I was learning how music worked, in  its mechanical sense, via weekly piano lessons that had only, in the last year, started to pay off with these beautiful, complicated pieces that made me feel like an actual musician and not just a wrist and fat fingers pounding out scales. I was starting to arrive at conclusions about what I liked, whether it was music or books or art or ideas. For the first time I could remember, it didn’t feel like I was just parroting the opinions of a person I wanted to be like, but establishing the foundations the person I thought I could be.

It’s weird the think of The Beatles catalog—this hugely popular, almost universally beloved pop cultural monolith—as tool to refine a  very personal notion of taste and identity. But because it’s The Beatles, nobody really pays attention when you dig around for your own thing. There’s always lot of other people in those stacks. And it doesn’t really matter if any of them agree that with you that “I’m Only Sleeping” is the secretly the best song on “Revolver.”

Being a music fan, once you strip away the conversations about gear and process and cultural import, is still a subjective, emotional thing. And when you’re a young woman listening to pop music, there’s always some part of you that is the “you” in the songs written by men, which is (or at least was) most of the songs, and often times picking a new favorite is like getting seduced by the best pick up line. At fourteen, I figured out that I kind of liked ones that came with a a little grit under the nails, a suggestion of danger, some  barely restrained anger, because, like, my baseline is always a little furious, even, maybe especially when I’m feeling flirty, so we’ll have that in common. I don’t mind if a clever song gets a little fresh every now and then, so long as it can turn a phrase (all definitions). And, if  you’re going to trot out a dumb platitude or make some hokey declaration in the chorus, you better come out strong and  make me believe you mean it. Because I listen to a lot of music, guys. I’ve heard it before and probably better. Like, Otis Redding better.

I spent a lot time trying to sort myself out  by trying to figure out who my favorite Beatle was.  It never went well. I wanted to say it was Paul.  His was the face I stared at most often on the poster—the only band poster, incidentally, on my bedroom wall. Paul was cute. He wrote cute songs. He seemed nice-ish, for a probably egomaniacal rock star. Elvis Costello liked him. The cool kids were always into George, because George honestly seemed like he never had to try very hard to be the coolest.  Being into Lennon was such a try-hard, rookie move, mostly predicated on the whole saintly, hippie Jesus thing that felt sort of post-Beatles and definitely post-assassination. I hated “Imagine” (and the accompanying video, which I hold at least partially responsible for the enduring popularity of white wall-to-wall carpet among Baby Boomers).  Also, he was abusive, neglectful, and mean. A not-great friend. A seriously bad boyfriend. But, my favorite Beatles songs[3] were mostly more on the Lennon side of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. And I  liked the smirky round-faced Lennon that was too clever by half in early interviews, the guy that introduced, then sang “Twist and Shout,” in a way that perhaps made the Queen Mum blush. Even then, at fourteen, I was beginning to realize my personal weakness for bastards probably meant that most of my favorite artists would end up being problematic men.  Why would my favorite Beatle be any different?

Just after spring break of my eighth-grade year, family friends in England sent me a Beatles t-shirt in a box postmarked from Liverpool, which I found thrilling.  I wore the shirt to school with red plaid miniskirt, footless tights, and a floppy felt hat I thought was a bit Dorothy Parker but was actually a lot “Blossom.” I felt like I was  communicating a solid, I can appreciate this music of the  60s without betraying my own carefully-curated, O% earth-tone aesthetic. I might have even pulled it off. The  popular girl, the one who’d kicked it all off with her own t-shirt the semester previous, even complimented mine between classes.

She told me that her parents were taking her to see Paul McCartney in Raleigh over the summer. She was thrilled. Paul  was her favorite Beatle. “Who’s yours?”

“Yoko,” I said, and from her expression, immediately realized this might be why I’m going to have a hard time making friends.

 %%

My parents were  slow to pick up on the intensity of the whole Beatles thing. That was partly on me– I always thought letting people in on the things you liked the most was a recipe for disappointment or disaster. So I was in high school by the time Mom started sticking Beatles-related tchotchkes in my Christmas stocking. By then, I didn’t listen to the Beatles all that much anymore. It wasn’t that I didn’t still like them–of course, I still liked them, I also still liked beaches and fun– but there was so much else, a whole musical universe expanding every time I turned on the radio or went to the record store or met a new friend or went to a show or read the reviews in the back of the magazines.  There was Glam and Punk and Disco and Hip-Hop. There were The Kinks. There was The Clash. There was David Bowie. There was Prince. There was Public Enemy.  There was My Bloody Valentine and The Pixies and PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth. There were some real solid daily benefits to being in boarding school with a bunch of fellow music-obsessives in the early 1990s.

At the end of my junior year of high school, I was walking down out of class one afternoon when my mother and future stepfather pulled up and staged an abduction. They drove me about thirty miles down the road before they told me where we were going. “To see Paul McCartney.” Mom and Stepdad beamed. “Aren’t you thrilled?”

I was. I would have been thrilled at any chance to skip part of the school day. And Paul McCartney. I mean, the Beatles had been the center of my world, absolutely foundational. Seeing Paul McCartney was amazing, important musical milestone, even if it was different than it would have been two years earlier, even if I did so at peak seventeen year old, ohmigod, I’m so embarrassed, PARENTS!

We had a great time at the show. Future stepdad was a fan, and sang along to every song, telling stories on the way to and from seeing the Stones and the Who, off hitchhiking from Raleigh to Seattle in the summer of 1968. Unlike my parents, he was was committed classic rock fan. I remember thinking, if I’d had you around during the junior school 60s redux years, I might have actually known who Neil Young was or sussed out the difference between Lyrnyd Skynrd and The Allman Brothers much earlier. Of course, then I might have skipped my own meandering path. I might have suffered through an embarrassing Doors phase. I might not have spent junior high school taking the long way through the Beatles discography on the way to whatever came next . . .maybe hip hop, maybe indie rock,  maybe working in a record shop, maybe writing a song.  

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 A couple of nights ago ,after a conversation about a movie I probably will not see, I had a hankering to pull out the old records. These days, that’s as easy as hitting a button on an app and boom– the whole discography, plus the singles and outtakes.  I don’t remember the last time I listened to Beatles albums in a concentrated way, but the experience feels a lot like returning to your old favorite vacation spot and forgetting how much cool shit you get to see along the way, with all the fine details crackling under the surface. I just listened “Lady Madonna,” a song I frankly find annoying, but Sunday Morning creeping like a nun? That’s kind of a killer line.  Next up is “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I think I might take it on the headphones and sit out on the deck at  summertime golden hour.  If I close my eyes at just the right moment, I might be able to fit in a little time travel before dinner.

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[1] For starters, the 1970s.

[2] They did have a copy  of the first McCartney solo record, and bafflingly, a still shrink-wrapped copy “Double Fantasy,” that both claimed to have never seen before in their lives.

[3] Like you thought I wouldn’t list them. Come on. I didn’t spend fourteen years at a record store for nothing.

  1. A Day in the Life
  2. Happiness is a Warm Gun
  3. I Feel Fine
  4. I’m Only Sleeping
  5. Paperback Writer
  6. In My Life
  7. Tomorrow Never Knows
  8. Hard Day’s Night
  9. Norwegian Wood
  10. Twist and Shout
  11. Eleanor Rigby
  12. Baby, You’re A Rich Man
  13. And Your Bird Can Sing
  14. For No One
  15. This Boy
  16. Things We Said Today
  17. I’ve Just Seen A Face
  18. Dear Prudence
  19. Come Together
  20. Across the Universe

On Pride

Uncategorized

I’m a cis woman and I’m heterosexual-ish. I have moments. I have slightly more than incidental tendencies, according to some one or another Kinsey scale test I took in college. There is Samira Wiley.  There was Katherine Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlett” and a fair number of 21st century women  who look a little like Katherine Hepburn in “Sylvia Scarlett.” There is the  fantasy version of me that I do not and will not ever look like. She’s a lanky, androgynous gamine who looks good in both evening gowns and tailored suits with glam rock make-up and flirts devilishly with basically any and all that cross her path. What is the slightly more feminine version of rakishly handsome? Whatever that is, that’s what she is.

Actual me is 99% childbearing hips, and zero flirt game.  What’s the more feminine version of schlubby? Frumpy, perhaps? And actual me is mostly attracted to men, a wide variety of men. Even if, half the time, I couldn’t possibly tell you why. Even if, most of the time, those men find me befuddling if I’m doing anything other than discussing records, books, history or politics. Even though all the conventional trappings of heterosexual romance—marriage, babies, antiquated power dynamics, division of labor, uncomfortable underwear, Coldplay–are not things that have ever really appealed to me.

People—typically other straight people—have regularly made assumptions about who I am and what I’m into and who I like for most of my adult life. I don’t mind being read as queer (although it’s a touch awkward when it’s someone you love, lovingly encouraging you to come out of the closet, and you have to be like, actually, Dad . . .) As a woman, especially a woman among lots of straight men, sometimes it’s even a convenience. I do correct people, though. I do correct people, in general, not because I’ve taken offense, but so I don’t end up inadvertently appropriating some plotline that does not belong to me or giving advice that’s not mine to give.

 This past Friday, a pick-up truck slowed in the lane beside me as I was walking home from the salon. The driver honked and when he had my attention, the man in passenger seat rolled down his window and snarled, with real committed hatred, Fat Dyke, before zipping off down Rosemary Street.

It was a sunny summer afternoon. I had a fresh new haircut and a gorgeous pair of giant sunglasses, the color of pistachio gelato. I think I looked more than a little fabulous. Fat dyke is such old news of an insult, and has been lobbed at me so many times, in so many permutations, from so many people, since at least grade school that it’s almost weird when I don’t hear it for a while. But that day, it happened that I was standing between the rainbow-flagged streetlights in the center of town on the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

And all I could think was how impossibly tragic, how unimaginative, how ugly and boring, that somebody, even thousands of somebodies can still think that gay (or some derivation of) is an aberration, an insult, a way to alienate people because of who they are or who they love. It would be pitiable were it not for the fact that the world is crowded with religious zealots, regressive bigots, and the legions of righteous assholes who still believe they do the lord’s work through violence and repression.

It really doesn’t seem like it should be so hard to exist in the world, to love who you love and be who you are, without qualification or apology, without fear or prejudice, without constant worry that any hard-won civil rights may be ripped away at a moment’s notice because those assholes in the truck are electing cleaned-up versions of themselves to write laws and appoint justices to the bench

I am not all interested in letting those guys have more of a say in our lives than a dumb comment out a passing truck window. And to be clear: I’m here for whatever, whenever, however long it takes to make that so. You can call me whatever you want. I  promise won’t take offense.  I’m sure I’ve heard it before.

Happy Pride, everybody.