Sunday, April 26, 2015

Make It Yours

I got crushed.

I was in my late twenties and I had been interested in Ingrid for about six months before I asked her on a date. A clumsy effort that entailed following her from my apartment when she left my Christmas party, under the guise of walking her to her car because it wasn’t the safest neighborhood. So I walked a couple steps behind her, trying to catch up, red in the face from whiskey-spiked eggnog, for an effort that culminated in standing outside her car, her edging toward the driver’s side door while I stood on the sidewalk on the passenger side and asked if she would let me take her out to dinner sometime.

One of the more awkward minutes of my life followed in which she giggled and ummed and asked if she could get back to me, before settling on telling me she was “off the table.”

I let it go at that and walked back to my apartment while she drove away, and I was left to spend an inordinate of time wondering, for the weeks that followed, what off the table might have meant. If she were involved with someone else or not interested in dating or a lesbian. The most obvious answer: that she just wasn’t interested in me, and used those words because they were the ones to come to mind, because who ever really says what they mean anyway?

The answer that my best friend so helpfully volunteered: that maybe in a past life she’d been a stripper, and as a non-sequitur she was telling me she didn’t dance on tables any more.

I moped and stewed and lost sleep and wondered and settled on “Stubborn Love” by The Lumineers as an anthem. Lyrics like I can’t be told it can’t be done and keep your head up, keep your love sounding like a call to arms to keep the faith rally and re-try. Lyrics like it’s better to feel pain than nothing at all resonated with the melodramatic teenager within me who had accumulated years of broken heartedness, but still insisted on some romantic ideal.

And I wrote.

Months earlier, I’d written a short story in which I plugged in so many of Ingrid’s physical characteristics and mannerisms into the protagonist. Christmas Eve, when I had three hours to kill before I was due home for dinner, I set up shop in a Panera Bread, bordered by bustling big box stores, ordered a large cup of coffee and set to writing again.

I exploded the short story in every direction. Wrote and wrote and refilled my coffee and wrote some more until I had the first fifteen pages of what would become a new novel. And though Ingrid’s likeness remained in the story, and though an undercurrent of melancholy and hurt underscored every word I had written, just the same, something had shifted. I got into the car to head to dinner about twenty minutes later than I had planned. I listened to “Stubborn Love” once again and it read less like the projectile vomit of my emotions, and less like a song about Ingrid.

Instead, the song came across as anthem. Yes, about love. But about love for my work. For myself. For who I was and what I might be and what I might make of all of these feelings. One more play of the song and I switched to Christmas music, all holly and jolly and smiled a little easier when I got home.

Inside a period of four months, I had finished a draft of the novel, a collection of interlocking stories that circled one another and intersected and overlapped. It was imperfect. It would necessitate months more of revision, not to mention editing, neither of which I’ve addressed fully to this day.

But I had something.

And eight months later I saw Heather. We had met years before and interacted on and off. But then I saw her. At the end of a summer working together, we chatted and an Indigo Girls song surfaced on her Pandora station, and we talked about music. We talked about crushes and I told her about Ingrid and about “Stubborn Love.” We talked about astrology and spirituality and family and travel and surfing and regrets and proper ratio of fruit-to-wine in sangria.

A week later, we stood knee deep in the Pacific Ocean, holding hands on a beach in La Jolla and I kissed her for the first time.

Months later, I shared the novel with her. She read it and recognized Ingrid’s influence in it immediately--in a character with the same hair, who laughed the same way.

Around that time, I started hearing “Stubborn Love” more. It reached the radio station that played in the gym I frequented. It played over a memorial montage video when Mae Young passed away that winter. I heard it upon revisiting old playlists from the year before. Again, in a rental car along a lengthy road trip I shared with Heather, just as a drizzle settled in and the windshield wipers lurched into motion to clear the way so we could see the rows of tail lights and the curve of the lane up ahead.

And I held Heather's hand. I thought of how the sheer electricity of a new crush could give way to heartache. And how that heartache could give way to a new love. Truer. Surer. More complicated and more messy because it was, by every measure real. How feelings could translate to words on a page. How an overwrought, folksy, top 40 song might encompass all and none of this--its meaning dependent not so much on lyrics and guitar chords and bass rhythms, as it was on what I made of it.

Heather kept her eyes on the road, driving at the time. I squeezed her hand a little tighter, leaned over the console and kissed her cheek.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Jerry, Bologna, Gwar

Our lives have turning points. Moments when we realize that we no longer care for something or someone we once loved. When, even on a small level, we recognize a desire to change.

Rarely do these moments come in threes.

There was a point in middle school when I would watch The Jerry Springer Show. The fascination started, as I imagine it did for many fans of the day, as a grotesque manifestation of an impulse toward voyeurism, not so different from attending a freak show or many first encounters with pornography.

One of the dangers of such encounters is that they have the potential to become routine. Gawking at a “the other” can be a mode of escapism, not so different from a vacation. But stare long enough the exception becomes the rule.

I say all of this to get at the point that when I first watched Jerry Springer, I was in on the joke. That the guest cretins were desperate for attention and the audience was fixated on whatever scandal or abnormality might arise, hoping for violence or nudity if for no other purpose than the opportunity to pump their fists and chant “Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” But when I watched long enough, a conversion happened. I was no longer the critical outsider, judging the natives. I was chanting along with them.

I grew up on bologna. In a household in which so many of the culinary decisions came down to the least expensive choice, lunchtime often called for two-to-four slabs of the slippery pork-beef combo meat, piled between two pieces of white bread, the top one slathered in mayonnaise.

And I ate it.

Unlike a handful of foods in childhood that I found disgusting from the get-go (mushrooms, raisins, mac and cheese, au gratin potatoes—really anything that involved cheese in a liquefied state), I did not love bologna but was perfectly prepared to tolerate it, and thus I ingested on average two-to-four times per week for about a decade.

I never loved the band Gwar, but in a time when I was becoming acclimated to acts like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, AC/DC and even a brief fascination with Marilyn Manson, liking Gwar did not seem like such a leap, and I was transfixed by their cameo appearance on Empire Records.

The Turning Point
I rarely watched Jerry Springer at home, leery of a family that would have judged me, and cognizant, even then, that a show of this ilk is best enjoyed with the company of friends. And yet there came a long weekend when my family went out of town. So, that Friday morning, I fixed myself a towering bologna sandwich, far exceeding the recommended serving size of the package or my portion-conscious father. I turned on the TV and sat down to watch some Jerry.

Ten minutes into show, halfway through my sandwich, I arrived at a turning point. The bread had grown softer, absorbing the slimy moisture of the bologna on one side, bearing the weight of my fingers pressing inward from the outside. It grew pockmarked and mushy where I had held it.

And there was Gwar, making a special appearance on account of the “Shock Rock!” theme of the episode, centered on the band, its enthusiasts, and the messages they took from the music, and more specifically their live shows.

I grew nauseous.

The taste of the bologna. The people of Jerry. The band. I wouldn’t take these pleasures from anyone who enjoys them, but whether one source of disgust overwhelmed and caused my distaste for the other stimuli, or it was the gestalt of the three that turned my stomach, that singular Friday morning changed the course of my preferences, my aesthetics, and my eating habits. That’s not to say I gave up all things low brow, rock music, or unhealthy foods. But in these small, specific ways that visceral experience revealed three things that I could no longer appreciate, consume, or truly understand.

I turned off the TV. I finished the sandwich because food wasn’t wasted in my childhood home. But I can say that from that point forward, I never watched Jerry Springer, listened to Gwar, or ate bologna again.