Welcome To Your Life

You might not remember this, but I do. It was our first concert. The concert that changed things. The show that got me hoping I had it in me to finally knock loose of my foundations and start building a new life. It’s funny how music and laughter can mix together, right there in the open air, and start to cement people together. Enough of either tends to smooth the gap quite nicely, despite the weird edges and crumbly corners.

The theater is old-new, a historic building that was just recently refurbished. It has the best shows in town, and I was ecstatic to score those tickets. It was pleasing to know that my other ticket would go to a friend who really loved the band the way that I did. They hurt my heart, but in a good way. I don’t know many people that understand me when I say things like that. At the time, I wasn’t sure you did, either, but since then I’ve gotten used to trusting you to know exactly what I mean.

The house lights hadn’t even gone down yet, but you’d already surprised me. I was so nervous when we walked into that theater space. The black floors and white walls made my eyes play tricks. The hollowness of the floors (I think there are seats underneath, but I still haven’t seen the theater in that formation) always makes me jumpy, too. On top of that, I hate crowds, and I strongly dislike meeting new people. It was set up to be a disaster. Even though we’d known each other informally for years, we’d never had a conversation. Just thinking that I’d be stuck next to you for the next couple of hours nearly set me into panic mode. But we each got a bourbon, and smalltalk turned to genuine conversation. You opened with your views on feminism, transitioned into geeky TV shows, and we were off from there. Everything that came out of your mouth was genuine and interesting. Your laugh reverberated in my lungs. Nervous energy disappeared.

We talked (OK, snarked) our way through the entire opening act. The set was pretty awful, and we were having fun talking about how hard the band sucked. But somewhere in the midst of talking about music we hated, conversation turned to music we loved: what we tended to like, how we first realized we loved sounds.

It’s funny, trying to write it here, but I know people who don’t adore music. For them it’s just a passing interest; they have the same intensity of feeling towards it as they would towards, say, picking up a Reader’s Digest at the check out counter. Sure, it’s OK, but the world is full of OK things. For me, and for you (but maybe more for you), music is essential. It ties our moments together. In hard times, it cradles us. In joyous times, it buoys us up. When we are alone, it offers solace. It is a mirror, a portal, our future and past.

You said that when you were young, you thought you didn’t like music. The music your school friends were into was just so-so. But then you discovered your dad’s records, and as the vinyl spun, it set off a chain reaction in your heart. I knew exactly what you were talking about, though that spark of recognition and that joyful discovery of my parents’ 33s were almost 10 years apart.

You threw out some names of the first bands you discovered; one name caught my ear, and my mind immediately began to wander back in time. It often does – I’m built to daydream, as you well know. I’m not sure if we spoke of it or not, but for a split second, I was 28 years away. And so the memory is tied to you, whether or not you were directly involved. I was four years old, with chubby legs and two scraped knees. (They were always scraped, as I was forever falling down. Did I ever tell you that I was horribly klutzy as a child? By comparison, I’m practically a ballerina now. I once cut myself with a spoon, and fell headfirst down the stairs pretty much daily until I was a teenager.)

I was in the front passenger seat of my mom’s green station wagon, glove compartment in front of me, window crank to the right. If I sat up super straight, I’d be able to see out the window, down the driveway, all the way to the gravel of Old County Road. But I slouched, because it was much more fun to try to melt from the seat, straight into the floorboard, like in a cartoon. It never happened, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try. Mum started up the car, then let it run while she sorted through the little plastic container of cassette tapes that she kept under the driver’s seat. A tape selected, she popped it in and took the car out of park.

“Welcome to your life! There’s no turning back…”

Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” from Songs From the Big Chair, released in 1985. There are a lot of songs in my mental collection that mean something. A song to fall in love to. A song to cry to. A song that makes me think of a particular friend, a song that reminds me of a place I love (more of these than others, I suspect, given how often my imagination drifts off on impromptu vacations to places I’ve visited before). Then there are the more expected songs – makeout songs, party songs, dance songs, drinking songs, “I’m really incredibly pissed off right now” songs…

But this was the first of them all. The first time that I listened and understood more. I didn’t have a word for what I was feeling, but now I know that sensation as bittersweet. I knew that Mum was really cool for playing music like this, and that I was small, but I’d get bigger. I knew that I didn’t want to go wherever we were going, but there wasn’t much I could do about anything (at all). The realization made me feel numb; being young was about coming to terms with helplessness, and plotting for the time when I’d finally have the upper hand.

Most of all, though, I heard one particular line: “holding hands while the walls come tumbling down”. I loved holding hands with Mum then (and still do), but I knew somehow that the song was talking about something else. I didn’t understand solidarity, and it would be years before I was so terrified and angry that I’d be able to grasp the importance of having an equal to help me come to terms with bearing my world’s weight. Even so, it filled me with hope. The song told me that things could never be permanent, but maybe I’d be lucky enough to share the grand impermanence with someone who’d understand.

I came back from the memory to share one of the best concerts of my life with you. By the time we left that old-new theater, something of the old-new-ness had worn off on us, I think. After seven long years of barely saying “hi” at social events, we were finally friends. Eventually we were more.

We’re going to see Tears for Fears in a few days. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’re the one holding my hand.

Nerd Girl Meets Bad Boy (aka. Closing Time)

This is the second installment of a series I’m calling “Nerd Girl Meets…”. Two of the biggest themes in my life thus far have been the seemingly endless search for romantic companionship and the definitely endless search for great music. Love and music tend to go together in my life, for better or worse. Almost every person I’ve cared for has had a song that is forever etched in my memory, either as a defining factor of the person or a thematic element of the relationship. I want to share some of those relationships and their songs here, as a way of examining the moments that have made me, as well as a way of celebrating the soundtrack of my life. Even if it hasn’t been exactly perfect, it’s still mine.

Junior year in high school was a breakout year for me. I came into my own when I turned 16, and though I wasn’t one of the popular crowd, I was cute, geeky, and weird enough to catch peoples’ interest. There were plenty of girlfriends to pass notes and gossip with, and suddenly it wasn’t looking all that difficult to find boyfriends, either. There was one particular guy that really held my attention; always one for the bad boy, I’d singled out a dude named Henry who met all of my requirements. He had big, rough hands, spoke in innuendo, loved to make me laugh, and was just as keen as I to make out in the back hall by shop class when no one was looking. During the few months we were hanging out, I’d often sneak downstairs after my parents had gone to sleep just to call him up and talk for hours.

It wasn’t a great relationship, though, and that’s mostly because it wasn’t a relationship, at all. In the time-honored tradition of being an absolute jerk, Henry was gaming the system. I didn’t know it, of course. I didn’t even know he had other love interests, though there were rumors that he’d dated a particularly needy and possibly psychotic girl in the grade below ours, and that the breakup was dramatic and ongoing. The rumor mill was churning out all kinds of juicy gossip on Henry’s ex, including the fact that she’d threatened other girls to stay away from him in the past, and that she’d even talked about getting pregnant to force him to stay with her. At the time, I didn’t believe a word of it, but soon I started to wonder if I should.

Henry shied away from being seen with me at school. There was no explanation of why, and in my naive way, I just assumed that he wasn’t into PDA. He was cute, and I was really into him, so I just let him call the shots. We exchanged notes, snuck kisses, went on dates, and spent countless hours on the phone, but at his request, I didn’t tell anyone about him. Then, one afternoon after school, I got a phone call from the crazy ex. Surprisingly, crazy ex sounded kind of sane, and wanted to be friends. We’d never even talked before. Alarm bells (finally) started going off. I extricated myself from the phone call as soon as possible, and started reassessing my interest in this guy.

That weekend, I went out with Henry on a date. There was only one real option for a proper date within an hour radius of my hometown (for those of us with 10pm curfews, anyway) – quick dinner and a movie, 15 to 30 minutes of making out in the Walmart parking lot, then home again, home again, jiggity jig. In keeping with the tradition, we’d watched a movie, and were in the middle of making out in Henry’s truck outside of Walmart when “Closing Time” by Semisonic came on.

He was starting to get too handsy, and I wasn’t comfortable with doing anything but kissing, so I calmly disengaged. When he pulled away from me, for just a second I glimpsed anger in his eyes. He smothered it, but not before I saw that he was hiding himself from me. That was the moment that everything just clicked. I suddenly knew what was going on. Things weren’t over with his ex. He wasn’t willing to throw away his sure thing, a girl who would sleep with him, for a girl with no plans of losing her virginity. In the space of the song’s chorus, I suddenly understood everything I needed to know to get me through the shittiest parts of interacting with men for the next 15+ years. I also had a good feeling that I’d never go after another bad boy (at least on purpose).

Henry drove me home, dropped me off, and then never spoke to me again. There were no harsh words spoken, and no inklings of a breakup. He avoided me in the halls for a week or two, and I got the hint. Not long after, I heard that he and his ex were once again an item. For awhile, she kept up her weird habit of calling me up once a week to pretend that we were friends, so she could gloat about how much fun she and her boyfriend were having now that they were back together again. But it wasn’t long before those phone calls stopped, too.

I’ve never really enjoyed “Closing Time,” even though Semisonic is one of my favorite 90’s bands (in fact, “FNT” and “Secret Smile” are two of my all-time top songs). The song doesn’t give me bad memories, or make me feel bitter. Instead, it feels like flipping through the channels and suddenly running across a movie that you had to watch for a class project. Part of you recognizes that it’s a good movie, but the rest of you can only think of how this movie was once school work, and since school work is tedious, by extension the movie must be, too. The first chords make me groan internally. I’m immediately annoyed at this unfair ending. Or maybe I’m just annoyed at the 16 year old who was already going for losers in what was basically an attempt to not be the last one sitting at the bar when last call comes around. But hey, we were all there once. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Nerd Girl Meets Geek Boy – Take 1 (aka. Let Me Love You To Death)

When I was 15, I met a guy at summer camp. It wasn’t just any summer camp; at the time, I was enrolled in Air Force JROTC at my school, and during the summers I attended a special officer’s training camp at Fort Bragg. The week-long camp acted a little like a mini bootcamp. We slept in barracks, woke up at 5am to attend PT, slept/ate/drilled/etc. with our flights (groups of about 25 kids), and did all sorts of training exercises, like rappelling, doing a ropes course, crawling through the mud under barbed wire, running until we puked, that kind of thing. It was mostly pretty fun.

There were around 20 flights, named alphabetically; I was part of Bravo Flight. Weird to remember that, considering that it was almost 20 years ago. Even though there were teenage cadre who ostensibly held the reins for each flight, each group also had an adult advisor to make sure we didn’t go all Lord of the Flies out there in the summer heat. Ours was this really nice Senior Master Sergeant whose name I’ve long ago forgotten. Early on, he suggested that we all pick nicknames. There was Eggs, my best girlfriend at the camp. Before bed, she wore a beautiful red corduroy bath robe with a black velvet collar, and once she told us that she could squash a watermelon between her thighs. The SMSgt. started calling her Eggs after she puked during our post-breakfast drill exercise on the second morning of camp. Maverick was my camp crush – he even felt me up on the bus once. He had named himself after Top Gun, but I didn’t get the movie reference. At the time, I thought he’d named himself after the TV show character played by James Garner, and later I thought he might have been referencing that sweet early 70’s car, the Ford Maverick. I didn’t get the Top Gun thing until maybe five years ago. I used to be so blindly hopeful that other people I met might have imaginations.

My name was Flower Child. In early high school, I was really into everything 1960’s, but mostly mod/British invasion culture and fashion (you know, like Mary Quant, Twiggy, definitely crazy about anything Beatles-related and everything that Pattie Boyd wore during the Beatles’ stay in India…blah, blah, blah). But by the time I got to summer camp, I was also embracing Woodstock, Vietnam news coverage, the peace movement, anti-war protest art, everything Haight Ashbury, and of course, all things psychedelic. Almost all of my school outfits were deconstructed vintage 1960s and early 1970s fancy dress gowns – lots of floor length dresses in man-made fabrics, with flowing sleeves and floral motifs, which I then ripped up and sewed back together in weird ways. Still, I wouldn’t have voluntarily called myself a flower child, but the SMSgt. gave me my title, too.

He also named my other camp friend, Jody. Over the years, I’ve conveniently forgotten Jody’s real name, mostly because I was afraid that one day he’d turn into a stalker and kill me. (Which is still probably a possibility, and also a great reason to actually remember someone’s name, now that I’m thinking about it.) Jody had come to camp equipped with a book of marching songs called jody calls, and he took it upon himself to teach our flight a few of them to make running and marching easier. In particular, he taught us one that I still sing to myself when I’m running and feel like dying. It goes like this:

Call: “We like to party!”
Response: (We like to party!)
Call: “Party hearty!”
Response: (Party hearty!)
Call: “And when we like to party -”
Response: (And when we like to party -)
Call: “- we like to party all night long!”
Response: (- we like to party all night long!)
Call: “Your left!”
Response: “Right!”
Call: “Your left!”
Response: “Right!”
Call: “Your left!”
Response: “Right!”
Call: “Get on down!”
Call: “Your left!”
Response: “Right!”
Call: “Your left!”
Response: “Right!”
Call: “Your left!”
Response: “Right!”
Call: “Get on down!”
Everyone: “Get on back, get out of our face, Bravo Flight’s gonna rock this place!”

Sounds complicated, but actually super easy and really fun to yell together. Anyway, Jody taught us a few jody calls to keep us going, and it really did help unite us as a group. I’m just now realizing that it might have been my first experience in seeing how instrumental teamwork is to making music with feeling – even if it is just a silly marching song. During camp, I got to make out with Maverick a couple of times, but Jody was the one I kept in touch with. He was a geeky little skater kid, rather anxious and seriously smart. I hadn’t ever met a guy I could geek out with about books and poetry, plus there’s something kind of romantic about meeting a boy at summer camp and exchanging letters for the rest of the summer. Unfortunately, over the next year, things got weird. (Seriously, did you not expect them to? Do you even KNOW me?)

Jody lived in a small city about two hours away from me. For much of the next year, I sent him poetry and letters, and he wrote me back in short stories and plans for the future. We were both in JROTC for the sole purpose of having the military eventually pay for college. We both hated high school, wanted to see the world, wished people could understand us. But where my yearning to be heard expressed itself through 60s pop music and fantasy novels, his was darker, more primal, possibly just more male. I was yearning to open like a flower (and looking forward to the day when I’d subsequently be deflowered), and he was looking to jump into the ring swinging. When he found me, that frustration and anger underwent a softening and was redirected at me as a form of near-obsession. Pretty much every guy I’ve met since then who was hopelessly nerdy and ignored in high school went through something like this phase (whether the girl was real or not), so now it doesn’t freak me out so much. Then, though…eek. What really put it over the edge for me, however, was a mix tape.

During high school, “normal” for me was a mix of too many overlapping activities with which I still somehow managed to be bored and under stimulated. In the Fall, this meant performing in the color guard team at every home football game and attending every drill team competition within a 200 mile radius from my home town. In the Winter, there were color guard and drill performances during basketball games. Every weekend that I wasn’t attending a Quiz Bowl competition, I could be found doing something drill or color guard related with my other Air Force wannabe buddies. Eventually, at the end of my Junior year, my school hosted our own drill competition. Jody showed up with his school’s team. I was pleased to see him, if shy. He brought his skateboard, so he could show me some tricks he was learning. He also brought me a pair of green corduroy JNCOs that he’d outgrown and knew I’d dig, and the mix tape. I gave him one of my prom pictures, and at the end of the day, a kiss.

Once home, I put the tape into my tape deck, expecting music I’d heard before, or maybe even music that I hadn’t heard before but that I’d still find a way to like. Out of the speakers came this creepy gothic sound that built with intensity until it turned into harsh, wailing guitars and throbbing base. The lyrics were insane. It was obviously demonic in nature. The lead singer was talking about sweaty breasts, candlelight, sex, death. I listened to the song again, my trepidation building. My penpal was a psychopath, out for blood. He wanted to kill me, and just today I’d kissed him! What was I thinking?

Things did not go well from there. I wrote to tell him that we couldn’t be friends anymore, and through a series of letters and phone calls, eventually he came to terms with the fact that I was scared of him. We didn’t talk again for years, until he found me on MySpace when I was just finishing up with undergrad, and he was coming to the end of his first enlistment period in the Air Force. Conversation remained scarily obsessive on his part, and eventually I gracefully retreated.

But surprise! This post isn’t how a hippie nerd girl meets a goth geek boy and breaks his heart. It’s about how a hippie nerd girl finds out that she’s actually a witchy nerd girl, then goes on to fall in love with Type O Negative. Oh, and later find out that the goth geek boy she thought might kill her in high school turned into a legitimately creepy 20-something guy.

After ending my weird friendship with Jody the first time, I went on to have a pretty normal summer. I’d totalled my car in May, so from June through August, I rebuilt it from the ground up, with my grandfather and uncles overseeing my progress. In July, I met a boy and got kinda serious. In October, my grandfather died and I got drunk for the first time. In the following months, my family dynamic shifted considerably, I decided I definitely wouldn’t be going into the Air Force, and, oh yeah, I went full fledged skater goth. No skateboard, though – there weren’t any paved roads for me to practice on near my house. No, I’m not shitting you. Sometime in that transition to black lipstick and combat boots, that mix tape resurfaced and started to make sense. I suddenly understood that the words “let me love you to death” are about a deeply sensual moment, not about being ripped apart by a vampire during sex. Which still sounds kind of interesting. But not really. But maybe. I dunno. As I was saying…

Over the years, I eventually started adore Type O Negative. As I’ve gotten older, their lyrics have made more and more sense to me, and have grown to encompass layered meanings – for me, the sign of truly powerful songwriting, even if it is kind of cheesy in its own way. Today, when I hear Love You To Death, I see the story of a man who’s fallen in love with a powerful woman. He loves that power, and is drawn to it, but not weakened by it. He finds comfort in how well he knows her body, and how confidently she inhabits her skin. But he also wants to build on to what they’ve achieved together, to strengthen their emotional bond through physical action. He’s not saying that he literally wants to fuck her until she dies. He’s talking about the joining of life forces, dying together and rising anew. It’s gorgeous. It’s seriously romantic, and by that I mean romantic in a very serious way. Definitely not something you put on a mix tape for your long distance crush at 16, though what 16 year old could possibly come to terms with their first love not being as real as it seems at that precise moment?

Wherever he is, I hope Jody’s found his dream nerd girl. I’ve been through a few more geek boys, myself, but you know what they say: You’ve got to kiss a lot of geeks before you get to love one to death. Or something like that 🙂