Dear Euterpe

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Dear Euterpe:

I spent this last Wednesday night having some drinks, playing Mario Kart and smoking cigarettes with some friends.  And as things like this often go, when a bunch of gabby people in their late-20s get together, our conversation eventually turn towards the reflective.

We told stories about our families – our memories of middle and highschool.  Some were light and carefree.  Some were of pranks pulled. Mine were almost uniformly dedicated to embarrassment and shame.  Do I revel in this awkwardness too much?  I don’t think I do.  Or rather, if I do… I don’t know how not to. I’ve spent so long embarrassing myself that I’ve appropriated it into an actual personality, and made the most out of something ugly – like putting funny sunglasses on a goiter.

Ever since our conversation the other night, I’ve had Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love” stuck in my head.  I am writing to you now to ask that you not only remove it from my head… but that you tear it out of history, please.  I hear this song a lot – usually whenever I’m talking to a girl I’m interested in.  I hear its clanky, scummy beat – like the sound of someone dropping dirty saucepans down a stairwell.  I hear Ms Waters’ (ugh) mossy, nasal voice as it brays out the song’s oddly disturbing lyrics:

“From the back to the middle and around again
I’m gonna be there til the end
100% pure love.”

I realize that to dance club audiences in the 90s, this was probably seen as entirely benign – or not even noticed at all.  But I’ve always found the lyrics to this song to almost border on threatening.  She’s dictating the terms of her freshly beloved’s life – she’ll always be there – he cannot escape.  She even seems to anticipate his desire to flee – but cuts him off:

“You’ll never have to run away
you’ll always have a friend to play
You’ll never go out on your own
In me you will find a home, home.”

You’re home now.  You can’t run away.  I’ll come find you.  You can run back – the middle – around again… I’ll always be there… like your shadow.  Forever.  Now come lie down… I’m just going to bandsaw the top of your head off.

It’s sick shit, Euterpe.  Sick shit, indeed.

Of course, for me, this song has a deeper relevance.  A deeper shame, really.  A feeling that I can’t escape either.  It’s the feeling I mentioned before – the feeling I get whenever I talk to a girl – the little imp who bounces about in my skull, laughing at me and leaving footprints on my brain.  I hear this song when I get nervous… because for me… this song is the sound of embarrassment, and it’s been on repeat in my head since Wednesday.

At 13, I was anything but cool.  In my defense, if we’re even accepting that such a thing as coolness exists (beyond the limits of Billy Dee Williams) I think it’s physically impossible for any 13 year old to actually achieve it.  At least… a white 13 year old.  Not to make it a race thing – but let’s face it… white kids are totally lame.

I remember a jumbled pastiche of what I was supposed to think was cool while growing up – Saved By the Bell, Eddie Vedder and Joe Cool (Snoopy in a pair of Roy Orbison sunglasses) – everyone knew about
these things; everyone had an opinion.  The only opinion I had was that I didn’t like any of them.  I felt condescended to by them – uncomfortable, and utterly childish when I stopped to actually lend them consideration.

I was an uncommonly innocent kid – polite, sensitive, strange.  Nerdy.  Very nerdy.  Braces and egg-shaped glasses, that I chose specifically because I thought they made me seem more intelligent.  I’m not entirely sure, but I think this may have been the point in my life when I wore Far Side t-shirts to school every day.  I had eight or nine of them.  The last thing I ever wanted to be was like anyone else – I didn’t ever want to join teams or clubs.  I didn’t even want to spend time with many other kids my own age.  I wanted to be an adult.  I wanted nothing more than that.  People took adults seriously – kids, they treated as… well… kids.  I think this might have a lot to do with why I chose to carry my comic books, personal organizer and videogames in a briefcase for a while.  How the Far Side t-shirts spelled adult though is entirely beyond me.

Not surprisingly: very few people liked me.  I had some friends, but we weren’t really close just yet.  I mainly stuck to my parents – they were my best friends.  Yes, I realize… that is utterly uncool.

If we’re being totally honest here, I’m not sure if I was so dead set against ever fitting in – or if I’ve come to that conclusion now, only to justify my complete inability to do so then.  There might have been a sour grapes element to this.  But still, even if that were true, I was always friendly and polite to everyone.  Which is probably one of the reasons why they were so shitty to me all the time.  Niceness isn’t cool.

Popularity was something I simply couldnt understand – my mom always said I was the funniest, sweetest boy.  Adults thought I was amazing – so clever and bright – so witty and charming.  But when I’d repeat the
jokes I’d made that had elicited such high praise from my mom’s fancy adult friends, the kids in my middle school would look at me as if I’d suddenly removed my pants.  I didn’t do the same things they did – didn’t talk about similar subjects.  While they’d be playing baseball or foursquare – I’d be performing experiments, or pretending to be a lizard.  One time, my dad had given me an old tape recorder of his – the little ones that doctors used to use for dictation.  I remember loving it especially, because it looked like it was made of copper – that made it entirely precious to me – it was metal, not cheap black plastic like his.  He’d given me something rare… a golden tape recorder.  Now that I write that, it sounds so strange – but I can still feel the pride I had felt then.  I cherished that goddamn thing.

I carried it around with me during recess (this was back in elementary school) – I wanted to interview other kids… to find out who they were, what they liked to think about.  I remember approaching a boy who I’ll call Maurice – popular, athletic, grew up to be a complete dick – I asked him something benign… and his response?  He batted the recorder out of my hand, into the sand at my feet.  The recorder’s gears crunched on the sand for a moment, sputtered and died.  It was destroyed.  Maurice looked down at the recorder, then up at my decimated face.  Then he laughed and ran away.

Not then – not now – can I understand why someone would do something like that.  And people ask why I’m such a misanthrope… it’s because people are upright pigs with ballcaps on.  We are ugly, stupid, thoughtless and cruel.  Whew… sorry.  I’m sorry, I’m rambling – I’ll come to my point, and this song – and why this song has been in my head… and its relevance in my life.

So boys hated me… and girls… well, girls either thought I was a really nice friend, or they ignored me completely.  I wasn’t even remotely threatening to them.  In high school, this would be called “friend stage,” wherein the girl will cry to you, ask for your advice, fall asleep on the phone with you, but be shocked when you try to kiss them.  In elementary school, however, nobody has pubic hair – so none of this was quite so colored by sexual frustration as things were in high school.  I had crushes on every girl – I’ve never changed in that regard.  I fall in love for about five minutes with every girl I see.  But never, at that point, had even th slightest bit of interest been returned.  No, I’d moon about for many years before a girl actually returned my affections.  I think it may have been the Far Side shirts.

Fastfoward to 13 again.  I’m going on a cruise with my mom and dad.  I’m new on the boat.  Nobody knows me.  Since there’s so much water involved (snorkeling, waterfall climbing, pools, ocean, etc.) I’m not really wearing my glasses much.  I’m wearing shorts – which is unfortunate, as shorts are, at least to me, the sartorial equivalent of a suicide letter – but then again, it’s a cruise in the Caribbean AND it’s the early 90s… so everyone looks pasty and silly in neon shorts.

And then my mom convinces me to get my hair cut.

Up until this point, I’d been rockin’ the suburban, white-kid poindexter bowl cut.  And this was before hipsters turned stupid hair into cool hair, mind you.  So I looked virginal and stupid, before looking virginal and stupid could actually get you laid.

My mom convinced me to get a new look – so I went, and go something a bit cooler.  Okay, not really THAT cool – but it was much more popular for the time.  And then something really remarkable happened – I looked at my reflection in the salon mirror – no glasses – cool hairdo – no Far Side t-shirts… and I was cool.  Sure, my vision was a bit blurry, so I probably didn’t notice that the boy in the mirror was sitting next to
his doting mom at the time… but still, I looked cool.  Nobody knew me – they didn’t know about my briefcase, and my tape recorder, and that I’d pretend to be a lizard or a gargoyle when no one was looking (I still do it now… even though I’m almost 30).

So elated by my transformation was I that I didn’t even think to protest when my mother suggested that I go to the cruise ship’s late-night after-hours club for teenagers.  Ordinarily a suggestion like this would have brought about great discussion and ire.  I may have been deeply uncool – but I knew even then that if your mom is okay with you going to some place – in fact, she even presses you to go – it’s definitely not a cool place to be.  In retrospect, she probably didn’t put that much thought into it… just wanted some time alone with my dad (the less said about that, the better).  I agreed to go… got all dressed up and headed out.

It was night time – I don’t know when exactly.  The nightclub was more like a spastically painted, all-purpose rec room with a giant television screen on the far wall than anything else.  A wet bar (now dry as a bone) leaned vestigially in the back of the room, and three boys futzed about it.. trying to coax some alcohol from its long barren taps.  The walls were dazzlingly patterned with abstract cut outs of brightly polished metal – wonky ovals and chubby scalene triangles jumbled around in 90s mosaic and reflected the odd beams of the spinning party lights, making the entire room a blinding mess of errant flashes, like hanging a disco ball in front of a lighthouse lantern.

By the start of the evening, there were probably 40 of us from all over the world all milling about inside uncomfortably.  It was like a sixth grade dance – the boys on one side of the room, the girls on the other.  Only that one creepy couple who started having sex at age 12 are dancing in the dark… and it makes everyone around them itch a bit.  Hoping to bring these two masses together, the overly demonstrative DJ decided to play a little game.  He mixed the boys and girls into two teams, and directed us towards the huge tv screen on the wall.  For the next 30 minutes we played a movie trivia game.  My team won – mainly because of me – because I have an insanely good memory when it comes to things like that.

People cheered and clapped my back.  People knew my name.  Nothing makes friends faster than utterly meaningless triumph (see: any high school athletics department).  One guy even picked me up and hoisted me onto his shoulders – no, I’m not kidding – and I slurped this newfound popularity up with great satisfaction.

The game ended, and it was time to dance… and I, high on my popularity, gave no thought to shaking my can.  A brief word on my dancing: it is unfortunate. Moving on.  I danced a little bit, lost in the throng.  Made friends with an older boy from the UAE, a chubby Filipino boy, and a mildly homely blonde girl who I’m certain is achingly beautiful now.  I think her name was heather… but that simply be due to the fact that I
remember a feather woven into her hair.  I’m probably making that up.  I don’t know.

I hung with my group all night – inventing stories about myself, and borrowing details from those same popular kids who’d spurned me back in school.  I’d put them to good use.  Soon it was the last song – something slow – what it was, I don’t remember.  Perhaps, “Your Eyes.”  And that’s when she approached me.

Mr. Happy.  That’s what we called her, due to the Mr. Happy babydoll tee she had been wearing.  We had all seen her earlier in the night.  She was clearly the prettiest girl in the club – a point emboldened by the growing entourage of less-fortunate looking girls who followed her, hoping I suppose to soak up the loose valences of her popularity.  She was red headed.  Stunningly redheaded – like magma.  If I saw her now, I’d see a gawky 13 year old redhead… but at the time she was ethereal.  Some fire-haired, ethereal moon mistress.  Or, better yet, a female gargoyle (my god I was such a nerd).

She approached me wordlessly, took me by the hand and led me into the dark to dance.  I remember looking over my shoulder to make eyes at my friends – my expression no doubt betraying my terror at the situation.  They looked so jealous.  And that’s when I started to get arrogant.  I’d never made anyone jealous before, but thanks to Mr. Happy the crimson-maned siren of Norwegian Cruise Line I was a new man.  A man undaunted by egg-shaped glasses and wormy sensitivities.  I’d be cool.  I’d go home to New Jersey and lay waste to Maurice – I’d supplant him in mere moments, and order my growing throng of peons and seconds fiddle to lop off that cursed hand that had so callously destroyed my tape recorder.  I would be popular – and all because this girl was in love with me.

Yes.  I thought these things (with some degree of poetic license taken, of course).

We danced, and she kissed my cheek (first kiss ever).  I spent the next day utterly dazzled.  I don’t even recall what we did – I don’t remember much of the vacation actually… other than my father in a bathing suit (the horror, the horror) and my mother winning five thousand dollars in cruise ship bingo.  We’re a wild family.

I returned to the dance club that night ready to find my new girlfriend.  “You gonna dance with Mr. Happy again tonight?” the pudgy Filipino boy asked.  Oh I’d do more than that.  I’d marry her there.  Captains can marry people, couldn’t they?  My parents would understand.

The evening went on – dancing, soda, pop culture trivia… any number of neutered pre-teen activities.  And that’s when I saw her… she was on the other end of the club, talking to a boy.  Not just any boy – but a tall, older boy.  A boy who was way better looking than I was – as he’d already trudged through the swampier period of puberty… unlike myself – a bilge rat with a spike haircut, and a voice like a dying rabbit.

I’d win her back – I had to.  I had to show her how cool I was.  I’d remind her, remind everyone how cool I was – how just the night before I’d been the one who helped win the movie trivia game.  I’d been the one hoisted up and celebrated.  I had been the one who Mr. Happy chose to dance with and kiss.  Motherfucker, I was popular.  Who the hell was this guy, with his pronounced adam’s apple and cool, backwards-turned ballcap and downy pubic area?

And that’s when I challenged him to a dance-off.

I’ve told this story a few times, Euterpe – never quite this honestly.  Before, I’d said that I had just done it on my own – or that I’d done it while trying to coax her grouchy, misshapen friend into dancing.  Those were lies.  This is the truth.  I saw him dancing with her – shimmied my way over – criticized his dancing… and then began my lesson.

“That’s not dancing!” I cried.  “You call that dancing!?”

And then I danced.  Oh how I danced.  Where was Terpsichore when I needed her?  That bitch.

How best to describe this?  I’ll put it this way:  What little I know of dancing suggests to me that one moves their body to the beat.  The hips – the feet – the neck and arms and hands – they all ripple and gyrate to the beat of the song.

I danced to the lyrics.  I pantomimed what brief snippets of lyric I could decyper – splashing my hands about in a failing attempt to represent “100%” – power-walking in a circle, back to the middle – and then around again.  Yes… it was to this song… this awful wretched song that I so proudly danced.  Face serious.  Eyes shut in deep, Jedi-like focus.

When I opened them… everyone had stopped dancing.  They all looked at me, horrified.  Mr. Happy’s face… oh I can still see it now… she looked like she hated me.  The way one grows to hate something weak – when your pity is so overwhelming that it turns into anger.  That’s how she looked at me.

I didn’t go back to the dance club after that.

I hear this song a lot, still.  It plays, like I said, whenever I’m talking to a girl.  I’ve gotten cooler since then – though, admittedly, not by much.  I’ve developed my own form of charm – a befuddled, snarky charm, I think.  But no matter who I get to like me – no matter what intimacy I kindle with a woman… I can’t escape the image of myself as I was – as I probably still am – a skinny, pallid dweeb, flailing madly in the dark… desperately trying to win the affection of someone who barely even knows he’s there.

I’d like to get this song out of my head – but I wonder… if it were to fade away, would I still be me?  As neurotic as I’ve become as a result of such shame – it’s still a part… hell, a pillar of who I am.  Can I still be me without this song?  I don’t know if I can escape it.  No matter what I do, how I cut (or don’t cut) my hair – no matter how hip my glasses become… will I always be that boy?

Crystal Waters’ threat becomes all the more threatening when I think on this.  She tells me that I’ll never get away.  That she’ll always be there.  That when I’m with her, I’m home.

Maybe I should just get comfortable.

– a.

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Written by wordsthatarent

March 14, 2010 at 5:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Ebb and Flow

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Dear Euterpe:

I had intended to send you a series of snarky letters regarding the awful songs you tend to jam into my head all the time… but lucky for me, sometimes you send me something lovely.  Today is one of those days… so I’ll open this whole epistolary blog with a thank you.

Thank you for Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

I first heard this piece (like most, I’d imagine) while watching the movie Platoon.  You know the scene I’m talking about – the one where Elias is running all slo-mo and crooked away from scores of VC… Charlie Sheen and that goddamn Barnes flying away in their chopper.  He gets hit again and again, but continues to run, until finally defeated, he falls to his knees.  His face an anguished knot, Elias, in an ultimate horrible gesture, throws his hands into the air, as if to implore the universe itself to take him home – to get him out of there – to explain why, and justify his torment… and I suppose, in the end, just let him go.  I’ve seen a lot of movies, Euterpe – perhaps never have I witnessed a finer pairing of music and image.  The scene is just perfect.  Beautiful and horrible and tragic.

(I suppose we could just CC this to Melpomène as well.  You know her better than I do… so if you wouldn’t mind, that would be great – I don’t want to seem too forward)

Sometimes I listen to Barber’s Adagio just so I can cry.  It’s hard for me to cry about real things – in fact, I don’t think I ever cry about real things.  I usually go to music or movies or literature to get my tears out – and funnily enough, they come easily.  I’m sure a therapist would have something to say about this… but I don’t need to pay $140 an hour to know that I’m fucked up.  Sometimes it pays to be neurotic.  Neuroticism: The frugal madness.

It’s hard for me to explain why this piece so readily disintegrates me.  It’s not as simple as the piece being sad.  It’s bigger than that – more complicated.  Or maybe it’s more abstract.  Barber’s Adagio is the sound of sorrow, to me.  The way it pulses so slowly toward its climax… only to fade silently away – the way it both screams and whispers, as though it were at war with itself.

Barber’s Adagio must be what it sounds like to die.  To cleave to each breath – to savor it – knowing with each rise and fall of your chest, that you’re one breath closer to no breath at all.  I suppose that’s what the piece brings to my mind – death.  But not death as an idea… more death as an action, or a series of moments.  The opening surge of the low strings… they’re like the unconscious realizaition of it… the instinct maybe… the little voice that whispers the truths we want to ignore.  The high strings I suppose are the conscious, then… the mind that refuses to go.  The will.  The part that fights back.  The part that makes us get out of bed, invent, love, fight, kill.  It’s the part of us that tells us to carve the world into whatever we want.  It’s the immortal part of us – the conscious mind – it’s the shard of ourselves that insists we create something, anything, in order to remain.

The whole piece seems to be a battle between the high strings and the low – the way they fold over one another like oragami – each end, each flap all crossing and condradicting… only to create something larger than themselves.

How like sorrow, then.  Something we both need to feel, and yearn to escape.  Something that both hurts and heals.  I’ve fealt real sorrow before.  I hated it.  But, if I’m being totally honest here… I have to admit that I loved it as well.  How lucky I am to be so fragile – so finite.  Something that can be… something that will be taken away one day.

I feel like I’m dying when I listen to it.  It never ceases to quiet my mind (which is admittedly very loud most of the time).  It pulls the breath out of me – makes my breathing deliberate.  It burns my eyes.  It hurts me.  That final stab – the climax of the piece – that evilly dissonant, overwhelming stab of the violins – the piece’s final white-knuckled grasp.  It just ends me.  The cellos have fallen away – all I have are violins and violas.  High strings.  The mind, the self realizing that it’s gone (if you’ll accept my admittedly overwrought and impromptu metaphorical interpretation of the piece).

Oh it just reduces me to pieces… breaks me down into the wet, spinning bits.  And then: silence.  Louder than anything that came before.  That black, yawning nothing… oh god.

And then, once I’m ruined and shaking – trying not to cry too hard out of embarassment and self-loathing, my mouth all twisted and ugly, my eyes all hot and wet… the low strings come back and carry what’s left of me away on the ebb and flow.

And strangely… when the piece is over, the encounter gone, the whole of me a vivisected, runny-nosed pile… I feel whole again.

Thank you, Euterpe.  Thank you Samuel Barber.

Oh… and happy birthday.

– a.

Written by wordsthatarent

March 9, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized