you asked me for my stories, i didn’t ask you for your blues (but i needed it)

Listened to the rest of Hozier today, wondering if perhaps I’d heard some other song that’d filtered into the dream. If so, it passed beneath my conscious radar. But damn. I don’t like a lot of lyrics. I react to music as to religion–presume to stick your nose in the air and tell me what to believe, and that you know the way, and you and your songs are dead to me. So the more targeted lyrics–where he’s not singing to us, to me, he’s singing to or with some other extant person–warm me more to them.

“To Be Alone,” though, struck me instantly as so familiar. And after a few listens I put it together–it rang bells of Junior Kimbrough. Covers of most of whose more popular songs I heard in Tokyo, in what was at the time the only blues bar in Japan. A friend–I tried so hard to be his friend, and his wife’s too–idolized Kimbrough and would tell us, in English and Japanese both, stories of Kimbrough’s life, as well as he had put them together. R.L. Burnside, too. I always sat a little apart, a little back and away, because I didn’t know anyone as well as they knew each other, and I was highly conscious of it and didn’t want to be seen as thrusting myself upon them. But listening to people–locals, sometimes friends of friends or sometimes too just people who wanted to see the novelty of a self-conscious foreigner with a guitar and an amp risking a paying audience–stamp their feet and clap their hands to, say, “Hard Time Killing Floor” was jarring. “Do you know what this is about?” I wanted to yell. “Do you have any idea? Do you even understand? The sound of it, you like it, but do you care–and if you do, if you care so damn much, how is your country still the way it is? How are you the way you are?” Sometimes the guitarist would privately smirk about this. He knew most of them didn’t understand the lyrics and would’ve grown uncomfortable had they known racial injustice was being discussed. He tested it once–he paraphrased the spoken-word parts of Hard-Time Killing Floor (he felt uncomfortable just speaking them as though the words were his own)–and bland smiles came out, the “go away you foreigner”-type smiles you see all the time. He didn’t try that again. Once, when drinking, he asked me to write for his publication, and I was thrilled for the few days until I saw him again and realized he’d forgotten all about it; he’d mentioned it in a spurt of liquid camaraderie that evaporated with the alcohol. But in the intervening days I kept coaching myself to bind it all up. Bind it all up and only judge a little, just a sliver, just one thing at a time; if they see how much fury this place fires in me they not only won’t publish it, they’ll stop inviting me to these alley bar gatherings where someone else’s borrowed pain spills out in my language, and I can hear it again. I did not want to lose that. Better not to write a thing than to lose that. I wished he liked me enough to have asked me sober, but I’d rather be a welcome stranger than a known pariah, and I’d rather be silent than have said something that would end my invitations to those rare blues gatherings.

The predatory discord of “It Will Come Back” raises the hair on the back of my neck but rings those same bells. I dislike discord now but I could settle into it then; it for obvious reasons felt more sensible and in sync with the world around me. On tracks where they bring in the cello it reminds me of Andrew Bird; some others sound more like the Black Keys and even, amusingly, Badly Drawn Boy (see: “Someone New”) “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene,” though, fills me with such glee that my boss, passing my desk as I grinned happily listening to it, paused and smiled, and when I yanked the headphones out asking if she needed anything, she smiled wider and said to go on, I could put them back in.

“Jackie and Wilson”…in second grade, I wrote in sharpie on my pencil case “be what as it may, I will always be the same,” feeling guilty even as I did it because I knew, I knew, if not from experience then very much from books, that that was such a lie. “Jackie and Wilson,” enjoying it as I do, fills me with that same kind of guilt. You can’t raise kids like that anymore and if you try they won’t love you for it…they’ll come of cultural age and reject you…and moreover how is this girl supposed to spend her time, just patching up your crazy mess all day and running her hands through your hair? But still…the whole warm charade of it. The guilt, listening to that song, is sweet and slow like honey.

I had tried to like blues before Japan. Usually because someone I respected liked it. But I couldn’t. The slow drawls, the avoiding of the subject, the incontrovertible emotions…the connection to religious rhythms I could not forgive, secular though their present usage might be. But I listened to more music abroad than ever before. Both the blues greats and my friend’s self-conscious covers of them, as well as more recent evolutions like the Black Keys and the Dead Weather. And I strung “Sooner Or Later (God’s Gonna Cut You Down)” through my ears like a lashing cat’s tail, not entirely healthfully.

What decided me on buying this LP (usefully it comes with a CD for import into portable devices), is the chord that repeats on “In a Week.” I don’t like duets, even more so when a very different voice suddenly appears on an album where I’d become accustomed to, and grown to long for, that other specific shape of sound. And then someone’s girlfriend shows up with these soft tones that clash so much with my experience of actually being a woman, and I slam the “skip” button.  But! But. The roundel construction, and the return to that one chord. The macabre nature of the lyrics still return to that one warm chord, for which I will gladly pay. For even the idea of that kind of warmth.

these shattered privacies

I dreamed I was visiting my old high school, where in the interests of security they had gotten rid of all doors and walls and replaced them with strong cloth hung vertically from the ceiling, with little more than arrowslits for doorways–you pushed the cloth forward to make the arrowslit wide enough for you to fit, then it fell “shut” again although it was never actually shut. Horizontally, to the cloth, they’d affixed rusty steel girders, as a kind of homage to the walls they used to use back in the day. In some new wings they’d affixed tree trunks sawn in half instead–the trees that had once grown there, before they built the new wing over them. I was wading through this sea of kids who didn’t think anything of their cloth walls–how you could hear everything, see everything. This was normal for them and I was outraged on their behalf. There was some event lurking just before the oldest of them would have matriculated–some new Columbine–that had led to the changes, I knew. But I was still furious for them and was angrily slamming out a blog post titled “these shattered privacies” as I walked. The “walls” kept no sound at bay and some low-level functionary was threatening me with death for typing so loud. Others of my age, people I vaguely remembered, were also visiting incognito like me, and encouraged me to keep typing, to piss the administrator off, to make her pay for the total loss of privacy these kids were experiencing and didn’t even realize was wrong. But I was afraid of the functionary and kept walking, at some point putting in my headphones, whereupon a song came on that, in the dream, was by Hozier and provided biting commentary on the situation (even though I only know the one song by him/them and it wasn’t that one–so it was devastatingly perfect even though that’s all I remember about it).

I was searching for kids who were angry, who found the situation unjust, and there were none. And I ended up leaving feeling ashamed and a bit of an old fogey poser, like I was trying to rabble-rouse “kids these days” who had no interest in my cause and who no longer saw the world the way I did. Who had become immune to what I saw as a violation of something basic. It sounds more constructed, typing it out like this, but at the time I didn’t have the context of knowing that this is how the world works. I was just sad, waiting to cross the street at the light I remembered hating as a teenager because people would yell nasty things at you as they floored it around the corner and away from the school. I was still afraid of them yelling things at me and put on some Brigitte Bardot movie on my phone, to drown out any yelling. Yelling that wasn’t actually going to happen because I wasn’t a target anymore, just some anonymous and vaguely depressing adult.

not your storybook


They are quiet about it now, out of deference to  my mother’s illness. But for years, I understood–in a slow dawning revelation that accompanied puberty and eventual adulthood–that love my parents as they might, my extended family (and select, less-close friends) found aspects of my parents, as a couple, perplexing. The trips to tiny hardscrabble mountain towns instead of beaches. The lack of demand for, or even expectation of, extravagant love gifts in the traditionally gendered line of things–flowers, menswear, fancy wine, sports equipment. My father built models. My mother assisted. Painting, sawing, making plaster and lead casts together–these were the activities they pursued, when we kids weren’t requiring attention. That, and watching Xena Warrior Princess.

I didn’t realize the disconnect between my parents and their related observers until I had to protect them. Someone decided I was old enough, at 18 or 19, to start mining for information–how was their marriage, anyway?   So-and-so was worried about them–how “were things?” I was so taken aback by the both the artlessness of the question and my own outrage over the idea that I would sell my parents out like that, that it took me a moment to conjure up a deflection. But I did, and continued to do so, swallowing the disgust. Did you really think I’d rat on them like that?  I wanted to snarl. I had intuited, from the careful way my mother spoke sometimes around our relatives, that there was a gossip mill whose grinding wheels she wanted to avoid. It wasn’t until I was approached for fodder that I understood the legitimacy behind her unease. I was, to be sure, a sullen, cantankerous teenager, thoroughly selfish and self-absorbed. But I was also fiercely loyal, and attached to my loyalty a furious kind of pride. Go snuffle at someone else’s doorstep for your schadenfreude, I thought disdainfully. Proudly.

It was not that way with my sister. She wanted our parents to be different, “normal.” She idolized the parents of all her significant others and made a big deal about becoming their friends and singing their praises. “His parents are going on a cruise. Why don’t Mom and Dad go on cruises?” I’d give her a blank look. “They hate tourist boats,” I’d reply. As if being trapped on a floating freak show filled with too-wide Hollywood smiles and the same entitled, lobster-tinted snowbirds held any appeal for me either. But my sister was insistent, long past the age she should have known better. She hated the model-building, the small town trips, the swords and chakrams on the walls. She wanted our parents to be cut out of some magazine and pasted into her life like the pretty people she taped to her notebook covers. Or the parents of her boyfriends, with their manicures and their golf clubs and their hollow conversations. “His mom will find me a real prom dress. Mom just doesn’t get it.”

Even the relatives who rooted for dirt on our parents received a higher grade in her eyes. “They, like, do partner yoga and stuff. Mom and Dad should do partner yoga.” As if Mom would want to subject herself to the fat-shaming of a yoga class, or as if Dad’s injured body would even bend into a pigeon pose? But it wasn’t so much that my sister saw problems in our parents’ lives she wanted to fix. It was that she wanted to show them off as prime specimens of Parents, to be trotted out among other Parents as matching accessories. Part of a set. I choose you, storybook mom and dad! Gotta catch ’em all!

I found that very, very hard to forgive.

Because, growing up, when my mom told me not to care about what other people thought, I listened.  Sure, I internalized body image doubt as much as the next girl, but when people jeered at me or whispered about me, I clamped my jaw shut and blocked them out. I got good grades. I ran. I understood that my dad really did know more than most dads about history and politics and that, especially as a student trying to do well enough to explore worlds far away from home, I could use that, and did. And when I wasn’t fighting fiercely and admittedly with some relish with Dad over everything I could think of, I was grateful for his not giving a shit about what the neighborhood parental cliques thought. For our house not being full of relationship self-help books like I’d seen in other houses–for my parents not needing it.

This came up because I found all of Xena available to stream on Netflix. And it’s hard for me to hear the intro song and not cry. While my MIL was telling her daughters not to eat so much because fat women don’t get married, my mom (in answer to my query about Renee O’Connor’s body change from season one to seasons five and six) was telling me to wait and enjoy my body in my thirties, that it would behave the same way hers did and that it would be fun–that I had a right to that fun. While my future FIL was slamming my husband into a fridge, my dad was providing running historical commentary on the Cleopatra story arc. I have tried to explain my parents before, using Xena as a lens because it’s a cultural touchstone people remember.  And inevitably, all they do is laugh. Your freaky parents liked watching the lesbians, huh? That’s kind of weird. I get a little wild. Well so am I! I snap. And they didn’t t raise me to feel like I have to apologize to the likes of you for it! 

When the show ended, my parents thought the ending was bullshit. Xena’s soul locked away past all hope of reincarnation (which by now had happened something like four or five times), doomed never to see Gabrielle again, even in the afterlife.  “They’ll fix this,” my dad said. “You watch. They’ll do a movie or something. They’ll get them back together.”

They didn’t. But my parents believed enough in love to think they should have. Which is more than you could say about most of the shitty suburban marriages that surrounded us with their perfect nails and shiny riding mowers and their agonizingly contrived Christmas card mailings. I’ll take Xena and Gabrielle over the Cleavers any day. My parents felt the same. I will not accept your pity for their difference any more than for the hardships they now face. And I will not give you gossip in which to wallow like a hog in a slops trough. I love them too much.

great villain blogathon delay

Greetings all,

I see through a pingback that I’m getting hits for the Great Villain Blogathon. My apologies! I’m pretty sick right now and will get that post up soon. In the meantime, stay away from people who are sick! You don’t want what they have.

Apologies again!

memo

Dear Nose,


If you want to stay on my face,
You’d better get your shit together
And stop getting stuffed up
And oozing
And waking me up in the middle of the goddamn night
To remind me you are there.
You’re on notice.

Signed,

Your benefactress and overlord

preach it

“A sustainable city, ultimately, is one in which women feel safe. But we should not feel safe because, as my teenage self did, we can pretend we are alone when the streets are silent and empty. We should be able to feel safe because we can believe that the other people who inhabit those streets are not only not trying to hurt us, but also are working to create an environment in which women are not seen as prey. Everyone in a community is responsible for changing the kind of thinking that would lead a man to see an unconscious body, or a girlfriend who is clearly saying “stop,” or a friend who has had too much to drink, as a fair sexual partner.”

The first two paragraphs were the norm of my college years. Very late, pitch black, totally alone and completely comfortable in it. The same town is now routinely plagued with assaults reports punctuated by the occasional Take Back the Night march that still leaves women afraid to go out late. Even though the stats on partner assault remain as high as they always were.

In Japan, too, I made a point to skip the trains and go on foot or bike to many destinations, so I could actually see the city I lived in. I tried to stay in sight of the trains so I could know where I was going–since this was before the age of smartphones and people would literally flee if they saw a foreigner approaching with a question on her lips–and I walked through baseball diamonds carpeted with wet leaves, twisty little paths through back gardens, sleeping campuses, monolithic apartment buildings–all without incident. It was on a train, surrounded by witnesses who saw what was happening to me and did nothing, raised not a hand or a voice, that turned out to be dangerous.

“So while we often see cities and streets as threats to our well-being, the real threat — a culture that teaches us that women’s bodies are for consumption, even when those women are friends and wives and girlfriends — is far more insidious.”