Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is one of those albums I’m probably not supposed to like. It came out in 1993, and I fell under its spell, listening to it over and over again during a period from 1998 to 2000.

Why shouldn’t I like Fumbling?

It’s a distinctively feminine album and features songs about love and heartbreak, yes, but also takes a rawer edge to address issues like depression, recovery, and the pursuit of inner peace. All perfectly valid and interesting themes for an album. None of which probably should have resonated with a teenage boy from the suburbs. And I can’t even ascribe my adoration for this album on my older sister’s musical influence because I discovered it shortly after she had left the house for college (though I reckon her introducing me to acts like the Indigo Girls may have paved my way to appreciate McLachlan).

All that said, Fumbling is on the short list of my all-time favorite LPs.

The album opens with “Possession”--an ultra-intense anthem about not only loving someone but positively craving and needing that someone, probably to an unhealthy degree with the repeated mantra “I won’t be denied.” It’s an honest love song that I imagine anyone who has ever truly been infatuated can connect with. As a hormonally driven teen who rarely went more than a few weeks outside the grips of an all-consuming crush, I fundamentally get this song and all its desperation.

The stark instrumentation of “Wait,” paints a portrait of a protagonist at the brink, opining,

You know if I leave you now,
it doesn’t mean that I love you any less.
It’s just the state I’m in
can’t be good to anyone else like this.

To this day, I don’t know that I’ve heard a song better encapsulating the mixed emotions of person under personal, emotional distress, trying to balance care of themselves with their love for someone outside his or her own body.

Before long, the album comes to “Good Enough,” the song that, to my recollection, got the most radio airplay, and that may strike the best balance on this album between broken, vulnerable, soft, and intense. The song harkens to images of childhood and abuse, but is most clearly a song about recovery through love--not the kind of recovery that happens in an instant or based in any particular action or development, but over a lifetime of understanding and doing the work to heal.

Hold on, hold on to yourself
‘Cause this is going to hurt like hell

“Hold On” may have turned out to be the most versatile track on Fumbling recorded as a dark, emotionally ripping song on the trials of recovery, but then re-recorded in a variety of different styles by McLachlan over the years. Though I maintain that the original cut of the song is best, there’s an argument to be made that the more uplifting, borderline gossamer take, highlighted on McLachlan’s live album Mirrorball is just as good for all of its reinvention.

McLachlan follows up with “Ice Cream,” which against the odds may have become the best known track from this album over a period of years for so simply, directly, and potently getting to the heart of what good love feels like. She deftly sings of ice cream and chocolate and all of these other indulgences, and sources of solace, with the hook that the lover she’s singing to has exceeded comfort food and arrived as the sweetest thing of all.

Peace in the struggle to find peace
Comfort on the way to comfort.

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy wraps up with the title track a haunting, plodding song about the unlikely discovery of inner peace. As the cliché advice goes, you have to love yourself before you can rightly love other people. This song is about that process, and the fumbling nature of it all that so few of us get right until we’ve had so many tries (if we ever really get it right at all).

if I shed a tear I won’t cage it.
I won’t fear love.
And if I feel a rage I won’t deny it.
I won’t fear love.

The repetitions in this song sound like a mantra and, indeed, it feels like the culmination of an album about the search for self, the search for peace, and preparation to fall in love with oneself and another and a whole world.

Sarah McLachlan is better known for her follow-up album, Surfacing, which featured tracks like “Angel,” “Adia,” and “Building A Mystery.” I like that album, too, but whether its the lingering sense of sorrow, or the cleaner production work, there’s something I find inherently more commercial and inherently less satisfying about that album, as well as McLachlan’s efforts to follow. On a different note, while I like her recordings leading up to Fumbling I leave each of them with a sense that she hadn’t quite found her narrative voice yet.

And so, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, for me, marks the apex of McLachlan’s career. It’s the unconditional, raw voice of a woman hurt and stumbling toward the other end of a long, dark tunnel. And for what it’s worth, it’s among my favorite albums ever recorded.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11, 2001

Tuesday, September 11, 2001. I woke up, ate two untoasted strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts at my dorm room desk, showered and went to my 9:55 sociology class. In that class, we watched a video that captured people protesting economic inequalities outside the World Trade Center in New York.

I had ten minutes between classes to traverse the main quad and get to my first-year writing seminar--one themed around Shakespeare and how lessons from the plays could be applied to contemporary social issues. A pretty girl named Marie who I’d hung out with in groups back in the dorm came into the room and asked no one in particular, “Do you believe this shit?”

The other girl in class and I must have looked puzzled, because Marie clarified, “The shit at the World Trade Center.”

I hadn’t remembered Marie being in sociology class, but it was, by my standards, an early morning class, held in a large room in which it would have been easy enough to miss someone, particularly in my first month at college, when I wasn’t yet acclimated to much of anything. So, I made like I did on most occasions when a pretty girl saw fit to talk to me. I nodded. I said, “Yeah.”

The classroom filled in at a slow trickle before the professor showed up. From what I had gathered about Dr. Easton up to that point, she was an unflappable woman. All business. High expectations for her students. But this morning, she came in with her decorative scarf untidily wrapped around her, no handouts to administer, none of the textbooks pinned between her arm and chest. She told us all, “I can’t expect for you to pay attention to class today. Please go home.”

I learned about the terrorist attacks in bits and pieces along the walk home, snippets of overheard conversation. When I got back to my dorm, my roommate had, for the first time, hooked up his seventeen-inch cathode-ray tube TV, which aired footage on repeat of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers.

I had family in New York. No one working at the Towers, but one uncle who worked in Midtown. No one I knew passed away that day, but on a campus where thirty percent of the students came from The Big Apple, it was little surprise that plenty of other people did suffer losses.

The attacks would color my college experience. Critical essays would take new forms, questioning why the terrorist attacks had happened, whether they could have been justified, whether the United States could justify going to war, not against another nation, but rather an amorphous, ill-defined enemy hidden among less certain foes and allies. I succumbed to patriotic fervor, adding Lee Greenwald’s “Proud to Be an American” to the uneven collection of MP3s I listened to. By the spring, I had come to question rhetoric of war. I wrote my first attempts at political poetry and traveled to protests in Washington DC and New York City. I wrote a senior thesis--a novella set in the Vietnam War era that clumsily winked at, reflected, and referred to the commonalities between that time and that war and the period I was living in.

Like members of my parents’ generation could speak to memories of where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, the time and place of your life on September 11, 2001 has become the definitive marker for my own. I remember the high school friend who spoke of his willingness to fight if it turned out another country were formally responsible for the attacks. A friend of mine told me about breaking up with her boyfriend the night of the attacks--feeling the weight of the attacks, and a need to live her life to the fullest and only hold people close who she really wanted to hold close. Another friend told me about the steal of a deal that car rental companies had going--that with airports shut down, they waived the additional fees that come with one-way rentals to help folks get home, and he saved a bundle on a trip he had planned to take anyway.

I didn’t lose any family or friends. I didn’t go to war. At that point, I’d only taken one trip that required airplane travel, when I was twelve years old and my parents did all of the airport navigation for me. Thus, when I entered a time in my life when I did fly a great deal, seven years later, it was less a matter of growing accustomed to something different than learning a new procedure altogether.

Just the same, I remember being eighteen years old. Sitting in a crowd of people I didn’t really know, trying to digest what would turn out to be the defining cultural touchstone of my lifetime. I didn’t have any sense of what it would all mean or what might come next. Just the inescapable sensation that nothing would ever be quite the same.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

My Sister’s Boyfriend

I remember my sister’s first boyfriend in flashes. Sitting in the backseat of my father’s car when he picked up a bee that was freaking me out with his bare hands and tossed it out the window. Singing and playing guitar to songs by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Telling me that he wished he had a cool younger brother like me.

My sister had other partners. An absurdly tall guy who busted my balls before I was comfortable enough with him to appreciate it. A bearded computer programmer who drank a lot of Mountain Dew. An guy who flooded the bathroom when he showered at the house. The guy who turned out to be her husband who, quite thankfully, turned out to be the kindest, most balanced, funniest, and most stand-up guy of the bunch.

But for all of the people in between, and all of the passage of time, I suspect I’ll always remember Jim.

I caught glimpses of his relationship with my sister, always cognizant that what I saw was the tip of the iceberg--tidbits gleaned from when Jim hung out at the house or rode in my father’s car with us; half of conversations when my sister talked on the phone in the same room as me; and, rarest, but perhaps the most valuable, those moments in our respective teenage lives--me just entering that phase within the walls of junior high, her in the thick of high school and looking ahead to college--when she confided in me that the two of them had their own pet-words that they shared as a private language; when they performed together, him on guitar and vocals and her on viola in lieu of accordion to perform Nirvana’s “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” at the school pops concert; when I learned that they were kind of sort of engaged.

They came from different worlds. My sister a perpetual honors student and overachiever; Jim a kid who placed into gifted programs in his youth but was prone to skipping homework if not school altogether, and thus just made passing grades. My sister followed him into the percussion section of the marching band. Jim followed her into Model United Nations conferences and onto the yearbook staff.

The two of them got together, broke up, and got together a number of times. In between one such stint, I caught a sliver of conversation between my sister and one of her girl friends in which she questioned why she had wasted so much time with Jim when her new boyfriend was so much cuter.

I took offense. Not only on behalf of Jim, but all the more so for the fact that their relationship had represented a certain ideal--funny teenagers who were into alternative rock music, Monty Python, and Muppets in more or less equal proportions. They represented a kind of cool that I aspired too when, even then, I was conscious that they weren’t necessarily cool by conventional high school standards.

More than any of that, they had seemed happy together.

I tried to articulate all of that to my sister. She told me that I couldn’t understand then, with the implication that I would someday. And, to be fair, with the benefit of eighteen, nineteen years since, I have enough experience that I can understand what she meant; and enough of a nostalgic heart that I suppose I’ll never really agree with her sixteen-year-old self.

Jim and my sister got back together toward the end of high school, but broke up before they each started college, and I never saw him again. Anecdotally, I’ve heard he dropped out of school after a year or two. That he still played guitar for bands in my hometown. That he married, had a child, and divorced.

When I was home for Christmas one year, my father told me once that Jim had called the house. That he sounded drunk and was looking for my sister. That he had trouble understanding my sister didn’t live there anymore--that she hadn’t for over a decade. Later that Christmas night, I recall sitting at a friend’s house, sitting in the dark, sipping whiskey, watching the ever-changing lights of a fiber-optic tree. We chatted about old times, and when he got up to use the bathroom, and I became transfixed with the lights. I imagined myself like Jim, sitting in the same space I had ten, fifteen years earlier and wondering where the time and everyone I once knew had gone.

A year and a half or so later, my sister emailed me, my mother, and father to share that Jim had killed himself.

She expressed her uncertainty about whether she’d attend his funeral. She worked as a school teacher at that point, and was a week removed from starting up for the year. She could make the trip, but it would mean rushing to New York and back down to North Carolina in a flurry that would set her behind before she had even started the semester.

I went into over-eager mode. I offered that she could fly to Baltimore and I’d drive her back home from there, then drop her off at whatever airport she wanted to get back to her new home to ready herself for work. Though she was very kind and polite about it, I’m sure she recognized the plan was half-baked and declined.

One of my sister’s high school friends who had played music with Jim and off over the years started a project on Kickstarter, on which he’d record many of the old songs Jim had written, and weave in some surviving recordings of Jim himself singing. The project was fully funded and a few months later, I received my copy of the CD, complete with an old pencil sketch of Jim’s face that my sister had contributed for the liner notes.

I don’t expect my sister, much less I would have any meaningful relationship with Jim if he were still alive today, and it’s strange to think of that cool older kid, and know that I’m now older than he’ll ever be. Just the same, when I look back on those most awkward years in my life, Jim remains one of the brighter spots--a musician, a clown, and an unlikely friend.