I finished reading Rob Sheffield’s Love Is A Mix Tape last night. This book is just amazing, fantastic, honest, especially his writing and thinking about being a young widow (from Ch. 13, “How I Got That Look,” through to the end). I’m glad that it took me so long to read this book, at least, in part, because many of the conclusions he arrives at felt very familiar. Either Rob Sheffield is a kindred soul or the things that young widows decide about grief and senseless death tend to be of a kind. Maybe both statements are true. He mentions, toward the end of the book, how in the eight years after his wife, Renee, died of a pulmonary embolism, he has met another young male widow exactly once, at a random party in New York City. Toward the end of the book, he laments the short and long-term life changes that Renee has not witnessed: all of the songs that Renee would like but will never hear; the eclipsing of mix tapes by mix CDs; the panic attacks, withdrawal, and not sleeping; the disappearance of powerful women from radio music; the contrast between the 90s and the current decade. I like best his extended riff on the word “widower,” a word toward which I have felt no small amount of hostility these last twelve months:
“Widow” was bad enough. widow, widower, widowest. Widow’s walk, widow’s weeds. Grieving, merry, professional, peak, golf, grass, black. When copyeditors at the magazine need to cut a word at the end of a paragraph because it wastes a whole line, they call it a widow. But “widower” has that nagging “er” to remind you that you’re not a bereaved spouse, but a failed husband. You failed your wife by not saving her, or not dying along with her or before her. You’re a widow with an asterisk. (p.161)
Recently, I read this interview/conversation between Ben Gibbard and Mark Kozelek, in which Kozelek talks about Katy, his ex-girlfriend and muse (his word), who died several years ago from cancer. Kozelek says that it’s a day-to-day challenge, deciding now how much he explains his new writing about Katy to fans and strangers who do and do not know his story. Kozelek has a beautiful ballad on his new album, “Moorestown,” that I’ve been listening to a lot, which captures that sense of how grief is often just finding a way to live simultaneously within old and new moments. This morning, I was writing a poem and I stopped when I got to this line, “Even the days have started repeating themselves.” A friend warned me recently that the second year isn’t any easier, that the second birthday, holiday, anniversary, etc., all tend to be as miserable as the first. I’m sure that that’s true, but right now I’m taking a little solace in feeling like getting through the first year is something.
In June, I downloaded from iTunes all of these happy, daffy songs, full of optimism and ecstasy, including “Shiny Happy People” by REM, which until recently I had assumed was all about, well, sparkly contented individuals. Then I watched the video again, read a little online. Turns out Michael Stipe kept the song off of REM’s Greatest Hits compilation because the song had become so wildly popular and misunderstood as a feel-good anthem, as to obscure the original intention of the song, which was to criticize the tendency of pop media propaganda to gloss over basic flaws in political institutions. The origin of the phrase “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” is adapted from a Chinese propaganda poster from the early 90s, just after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, upon which Stipe meant the song as a kind of commentary. All the same, AOL Music ranked it the wussiest of the 111 Wussiest Songs of All Time, noting that “the finished product was no trenchant political statement from a human-rights warrior exercising the power of his celebrity. Instead, it was an anthemic lobotomy, precisely the kind of pop puffery the band meant to skewer.”
I like the video, and I get it, but I definitely needed more context, and to be at a different place in life (it came out when I was 14), to get it. REM’s appearance on Sesame Street, singing “Furry Happy Monsters” also works for me, both as a song about understanding feelings and as a gentle commentary on what other, lesser kid-positive media sometimes encourages. I’m posting both videos below.