Wednesday, June 11, 2008


In preparation for the third part of a seemingly endless root canal that has, I hope, finally come to an end, I bought one of those little miniature IPods--the ones that sell for fifty bucks--and tried, the following day, to drown out as far as possible what was happening to me in the dentist's chair. Three and a half hours later, I had learned a few things: my patience for dental ordeals is exhausted by the end of the second hour of tugging and scraping; Rosie Thomas's sad, exquisite "Bicycle Tricycle," with its ambivalence about the past ("I won't look back / I've been here before"), is just too maudlin for someone whose hopes of chewing with both sides of his mouth have just been drastically--if, with luck, temporarily--reduced.

I never thought I was someone for whom music could be too maudlin. I've never loved Morrissey, it's true, but I found the Joy Division movie (Control) haunting. Give me Emmylou Harris's live rendition of 'Songbird' or even one of the spare piano ballads from Tori Amos's Boys For Pele and I'm as happy--to quote my friend D.'s mother--as a pig in shit. Likewise, I love Rosie Thomas for the tension between her usually melancholy songs and her comic alter ego, Sheila Saputo. But she couldn't console me in that dentist's chair.

Now I'm on the other side of the country, having put the little music player to use on my flight from Chicago to San Francisco, and I'm wondering how to account for the ways we console ourselves, as well as the ways we open ourselves to consolation from others. Of course I prayed pretty frequently at the dentist's and in the airplane, but the only times it seemed to do the trick--to open the window onto something else, something that would resolve or suspend my fear--were when I turned away from myself and, briefly, toward the folks I know who are having a tough time right now, a tougher time than a sore jaw and a sudden taste for soft foods. One of my grandfathers went under the knife yesterday, as did the close friend of a close friend of mine. I have no access to what they may have been feeling--God knows, they could have approached their medical ordeals much more blithely than I approached mine--but what I do know is that thinking about them, for a fraction of a second, was what drew me out of my own narcissistic trepidation. Is fearing for others the only way out of fearing for ourselves? Or--to put it more charitably--is hoping for others one way of rediscovering hope for ourselves?

Rosie Thomas's recent collaboration with Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens, These Friends of Mine, seems to support this: there is something that happens chorally--when voices lend themselves to other voices--that can't happen when we're left to ourselves. What brings me hope right now (but this could just be the Advil kicking in) isn't the reckoning with an individual past (even my own recent individual past) so much as the affirmation of a community where we can momentarily forget ourselves by being present, even at a distance, to others.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

When I fall

We're in the middle of a heat wave, and all the windows in the apartment are open, even though it's nearly 11pm. The music needs to match the density of this unseasonable air: so I'm listening to Lizz Wright equivocate beautifully, after telling her lover she wants to stay, "What if the water's cold / when I fall?" She's enmeshed in this textured Craig Street production that makes me think of the first modern jazz cd I ever bought, Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light 'Til Dawn, also produced by Street. I came across it in a mall in Columbus, Indiana, after my first year of college. I had no idea who Cassandra Wilson was, and it was impossible back then to listen to cds in the store before buying them; was it the cover photo of Wilson in rapture that did the trick? Lizz Wright's voice is warmer, a little less mannered than Wilson's, if also a little less supple. And I'm fifteen years older, thinking about the first lyric on Blue Light 'Til Dawn--"You don't know what love is / Until you learn the meaning of the blues"--and how I had no idea what love was then.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


I grew up in a part of the country that revels in comfort food. Several parts of the country, actually, but all of them united by a love of sweet tea; or was that a familial love more than a cultural one? (A friend's eyes lit up this morning as she talked about the tea she grew up drinking, the sediment of sugar in the bottom of gallon jugs.) Likewise, there's a kind of music that does the kind of soul-sustaining, basic work of sweet tea--or, for that matter, bacon--and tonight I found myself craving it. Musical comfort food isn't bubblegum; it has nutritional value; it's the kind of stuff that goes down easy while nonetheless putting you profoundly, not just superficially, at ease. Tonight it's Over the Rhine's 2005 album, Drunkard's Prayer, with Karin Bergquist's lilting, boozy voice assuring someone, "Put your elbows on the table / I will listen long as I am able." The song is overwritten by now--Karin and Linford, this is your fault, I'm afraid--with the history of a marriage's near dissolution and miraculous recovery. I can't not hear that narrative when I listen, but I also hear something else: the idea that when we talk, we're likely to be doing it at a table, in private or in public, with something caffeinated or alcoholic or more substantial (say, food) to keep us going; and that this--the coincidence of our bodies across the most elementary kinds of needs--happens whether or not our relationships are thriving, whether or not love is even the main thing on our minds.

Tonight I saw a friend (another friend, one with no relation, geographical or otherwise, to sweet tea) looking more exhausted than I've ever seen her--a long story--and I kept wondering how she even had the strength to raise her pint glass up to her mouth. But there we were, at a bar, buffeted by wave after wave of women--entire softball teams, I'm not kidding--and she kept managing to raise the glass. And there was some slim comfort in the mechanics of the gesture, in the rhythms of our bodies as they did nothing special but just kept on effectively keeping on, almost in spite of the substance of our conversation. It's that kind of bodily comfort that resonates for me, right now, with the comfort I take in Karin Bergquist's voice, as she sings "I'm looking forward to looking back / On this day," because it's not really the meaning of the words that matters--although clearly it does, clearly my friend must be looking forward to looking back--as much as Karin's voice, scooping and wheezing and opening those vowels out just when you thought they could only snap shut. Those vowels are addressed in a way that can't be reduced to the words they add up to: they are physically directed, present, sustained toward the listener. Sort of like a friend's body when, in the absence of consolation, all it can do is show up, keep company, raise the glass.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The mix cd as art form, token of friendship, and all around good thing

I'm listening to the third track on a CD my friend K. made for me a couple of weeks ago. It's Rilo Kiley's "The Good That Won't Come Out," with Jenny Lewis's world-weary delivery set against an ironically buoyant arrangement that becomes, toward the end, incredibly lush and loud. And what's beautiful, besides the song's abiding optimism (the good, after all, is there, even if it usually refuses to come out), is that this same friend did, not long ago, "fall down drunk in the street," just like Lewis sings. (It was, actually, more like stumbling onto a sidewalk while tipsy.) So it's a handy mnemonic device, even as the song also, I think, suggests that these embarrassments are redeemable and, in fact, that remembering them collectively--which is also to say, reminding ourselves that we've all been there, or will be soon--might be our best means of redemption.

Another friend, J., in town for the summer, made me another mix CD yesterday. Five songs, all of them by singer-songwriters, and one in particular is haunting me, Chris Pureka's "31 and Falling," which manages to sound a lot less cynical than the lyrics would have you believe: "God damn my wasted time," she sings, but what the words don't tell you is that her voice, at this precise moment, starts to soar.

These two songs are as different as the friends who gave them to me and the coasts they come from. Still, both songs revived my sense that the mix CD is more than just a nostalgic gesture; it's a vital way of connecting folks we care about to songs that capture some important part of us: guilty or embarrassed, melancholic or hopeful. Better yet, it's a way of taking the contradictions and compromises in our own lives and opening them to those in our friends' lives: when J. put a song about a ten-year anniversary on the CD she made for me, it was a window into my relationship as well as her own. In these kinds of ways, it's possible to hear other voices singing within or alongside those voices that are literally on the record.

So it's a reasonably lonely night in my isolated little town, and I'm taking some consolation from the company that these voices provide: the reminder that the world is bigger, and thankfully smaller, than it may sometimes seem.