Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ill Communication

Sometimes when we’re out running errands Chloe will insist that I turn on the song with the really loud guitar, and we’ll cruise the West side of Carmel, Indiana, rattling the windows with the sattelitic downbeats of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” I’m not sure that Chloe really likes the song, rather just the idea that we’re doing something vaguely inappropriate, disruptive, and, well, loud. I’m happy to bring a little Adam Horowitz into anyone’s life: to cultivate the kind of silliness that, at the beginning of youth, one either embraces whole-heartedly or decides is, like, so lame (are you Capable or Gloria Ronsen?). Along with some of the best rhymes (Chachi and Joni / macaroni, flavor to spare / derriere) this side of Cole Porter, the Beastie Boys are the de facto court jesters of hip for white kids born sometime around 1977. They don’t always make sense, and it can be a bit of a struggle to tease out the exact words, but it sounds good, and when you’re rolling with your 10-year-old niece, that’s not such a bad trade-off.

My first-ever mix tape was a white and red TDK, ninety minutes of songs I did not understand and, at first, generally disliked. My sister, then a freshman at Boston University, witnessing full-on one Thanksgiving my extended Kenny G/Les Miserable obsession, sent along a broad-spectrum curative of indie-label rock. The Cure, Special Beat, Jane’s Addiction, The Smiths, Living Colour (early stuff), The Sugarcubes. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. I was fourteen and, thankfully, curious enough to spend that winter trying to figure out what I had been missing. If the music of Morrisey and Perry Ferrel did nothing for me, the unusual language that filled these songs really got me, and so I learned a new way to listen to music. Where, indeed, were the flip-flop-busted surfers with pepper-sunlit noses, the bucktooth girls of Luxembourg, the kings of the court who shake and bake all takers? I also learned early on a trick that serves me well to this day: when in a creative rut, consult an expert (or Big Sister).

Much has been written about the demise of the conventional mix tape, but no piece quite as honest or bittersweet as Love is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield’s 2007 memoir about his wife, Renee, who died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in her late twenties. Beth recommended it to me last July, and I’ve been reading it in stops and starts since. I like this book. It’s honest and heartfelt. Sheffield (now a senior editor at Rolling Stone) catalogues song after song from tapes he finds in his apartment, teasing out significant and insignificant events from the course of their eight years together. In the demise of the Feelies and Pavement, Sheffield locates a kind of wistfulness for anything beautiful eclipsing its moment, which dovetails nicely with his remembering Renee. Like a good mix tape, he suggests much of the raw background in connecting major moments; in literally transcribing side after side of cassettes, Sheffield pieces together the minutiae of a life well-loved and lived.

Toward the end of the first act of Avenue Q, Princeton gives Kate Monster a mix tape and she tries to figure out what to make of their relationship based on the playlist: “You’ve Got a Friend,” “The Theme from Friends,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” followed by “I Am The Walrus,” “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” and “Yellow Submarine.” Love doesn’t really conquer all at the end of the show, but that’s sort of the point of a musical like “Avenue Q”: forego the big answers and instead try to get to the heart of the right questions. It’s the anti-Les Miserables, one of whose show-stoppers (about Fantine’s conception and the perils of loving swarthy longshoremen), “I Dreamed a Dream,” is the first song I ever committed wholly to memory. Not unlike song-to-must-memorize #2, “The Humpty Dance,” it still rattles around my mind and pops up at the most unlikely of times, when it always feels a little cool and a little strange to bust out every last word.

One Christmas, Sheila asked me to mix her up a bunch of CDs, and that next spring as Aidan made his move into the world, we’d listen to the mixes while playing spades in Jeff and Sheila’s kitchen. They were house-bound with the new kid, which meant we saw each other many Friday nights, to drink wine, order in Thai, and play spades. Sheila and I always paired off against Katie and Jeff, and while our hearts were pure and full of good intention, rare was the night we’d make it to 500 first. Now when I play cards, I insist on partnering with Sheila, and it feels like a nice, subtle nod to good Chicago days. Katie and I could play together, but it was always a heck of a lot more fun to lay them down against each other.

Romania had great chocolates: 74% dark, with blueberry, strawberry, or lemon; roasted hazelnut in bittersweet cocoa; mint or toffee chips in chocolate thin as compact discs. In our apartment, I’d keep chocolate bars everywhere, and slowly make my way through them with my morning coffee, trying to get going on the day’s writing. Next week, I’m flying with Ben to Bucharest, where we will attend the end-of-year festivities at Georges Cosbuc High School, where I taught when Katie and I lived there. In addition to offering some much-needed emotional support, Ben will be realizing, in a way, Katie’s 30th birthday gift to me from last year. Shortly before she died, she had arranged for Ben to fly from Jerusalem (where he was interning) to Bucharest for a long weekend. Ben never made the trip, but the whole day that Katie died, she took special pleasure in teasing me about the gift: what could it be, why couldn’t I figure it out (here’s the clue: it’s something you haven’t seen in a long while but you think about all the time), what could I love so much that has nothing to do with TV or chocolate or poetry?

I’m looking forward to the visit. I have no idea what it will be like, but I think there will be a lot of good there: good people, former students, old friends, and then all the landmarks of the favorite year of my life. I have this idea that I want to make a giant tour of the city with Ben, to try to narrate to the uninitiated the unremarkable aspects of daily living that caused me to barrel head-long into loving the new city and living there with Katie. I remember on Katie’s first day in Bucharest she sent me an email in the middle of the night that said something like, “Yeah, so I’m pretty sure I’m done with international travel after this stop.” It was gray, cold, and she was wandering among some Communist-era construction that, even in it is heyday, no doubt left much to the imagination. My first day in Bucharest, Katie met me at the airport and we walked all the way around Titan Lake, then drank some sweet dark Silva beers in the beer garden where a few months later we sat trying to figure out whether she should take this full-time gig with IOCC.

I’d like to think that my life with Katie, as recorded on this blog, is a kind of metaphorical mix tape of geography and personal connections, highlighting the aspects of a life we made together, but right now it feels more like finding the complete recordings somewhere at a garage sale: I’ve got to get down to the basement one of these days and go through it piece by piece. This Friday it will be eleven months and next month it’s a year. When the breeze comes in silently to this room in suburban Indianapolis I sometimes think I smell petrol or pretzels baking below, and I remember climbing under covers when the apartment would finally cool down in the middle of the night. For me, tonight, the song for those nights would be “Catch” by The Cure, and I’d put it on repeat, but really that’s my song for my own memories. Katie would have preferred a couple of rag dolls on sticks, something by the Judds or Randy Travis, or maybe just They Might Be Giants: “Don’t Let’s Start.”


Stephanie said...

Here's trivia you probably don't know (or need), but They Might Be Giants have become children's music stars - they're HUGE on Playhouse Disney.
Oh, the humanity.
Ana Ng and I are getting older...

meropi said...

This was such a heart-warming post. You must make the finest mix tapes!

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