Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

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Springtime? Nope. Winter is Coming: Game of Thrones is Back, A Song List

TyrionLast year around this time I confessed (ok, reiterated) my own geekiness when I was hyperbolically excited about the fact that Night Riots has a song named “Berelain” after a character from Robert Jordan’s recently (and posthumously) completed Wheel of Time series. I must add, however, that my geek credentials are the real-thing: I get paid to teach about mythology and to write about ancient poetry.

(Well, the credentials are spotty. I mentioned earlier that I actually played a bard to the 21st or 22nd level in a role-playing game. At one point, I actually tried to write music for the fictional character to perform. I am so ever grateful that I don’t remember it and that the internet did really exist to record my follies back then.)

This week? I have been eagerly awaiting the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Now, as readers of this blog know, my brother and I occasionally get excited about television, but not too often. We both used to like The Walking Dead. We both really loved Breaking Bad. He gets into things like Doomsday Preppers while I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which he will not watch). But Game of Thrones is something that we share. And there is an important reason.

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The Reggae Road to Damascus: A Conversion Story

Everybody was crying, crying
Sighing, sighing
Dying to see the light
And when they see it, they see it’s not bright
Can this be right?
–Toots and the Maytals, “Pomp and Pride”

The Younger J has recently defended reggae as a genre (although perhaps not as much as about his love for pedal steel)—he will defend it against detractors and argue that it demands respect. I won’t debate this with him (because he’s right), instead I want to tell you another story. It is not a real story in that occurred in real time; it is the fabricated narrative of the mind—the tale of how I stopped worrying and learned to love reggae.

This is a story because it has a beginning middle and end; it is Aristotelian even in that the main character—me—undergoes a reversal and recognition. (There’s even a prophet in it, if we can call my brother that.) See, I used to hate reggae. I used to loathe it. It gave me psychic hives. Now I like reggae, I even love some of it. That’s the reversal. The trip to the recognition takes a bit longer.

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They (definitely are) Giants

“Don’t call me at work again no, no the boss still hates me / I’m just tired and I don’t love you anymore / And there’s a restaurant we should check out / where the other nightmare people like to go/ I mean nice people, baby wait, / I didn’t mean to say nightmare” from “They’ll Need A Crane”
Lincoln, 1988

One band’s music spans three decades of my life (and threatens to last even longer). They Might Be Giants, the geek rock originals, have a strange staying power. Few bands put out music that is so readily recognizable. Despite this, I don’t actively listen to the band frequently or play the part of a fan to any great extreme. Most playlists I make include one TMBG track, but weeks can go by without the two Johns passing my thoughts.

Not your typical rock stars

TMBG—Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell—are like friends who keep popping back into my life or relatives I genuinely like but never spend enough time with. Too much of my own musical awakening has their albums for soundtracks. So many of their songs call up strong memories—and always good ones. From simple memories like staying up late to catch their performances on Conan O’Brien to celebrating their success with the theme song for “Malcolm in the Middle” to the more specific moments below, I cannot deny them.

“She’s an Angel” (They Might be Giants, 1986)—I am in two places at once. In the auditorium at my high school where a friend has used this song as the backing track for the credits of his documentary (and I am floored by the contrast between verse and chorus). I am also in my room, listening to the song again and again as I moon over a girl (and I say ‘a’ because this scene could be (and was) recycled).

“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (Flood, 1990)—I am at “geek camp” where the counselors have perversely organized a dance for adolescents who are beyond awkward. We are cynical enough to mock “Jump, Jump” by Kris Kross, too self-conscious to approach the opposite gender, only to be suddenly liberated into a strange frenzy of joy running in circles when this song comes on. Soon after, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on. The scene suddenly and irrevocably changes.

TMBG function for many people (well, for a geeky set) as a gateway band from the safe rock of our parents, from show tunes, and from gag music. When I was young, my musical world was dominated by the narrow tastes of my parents and the church (with the exception of a brief flirtation with NKOTB). When my lack of coolness began to first dawn on me, I remember trying to fit in—by memorizing “U Can’t Touch This” and “Ice Ice Baby”. It was Weird Al Yankovic cassettes copied from friends that I first wore out on my father’s Panasonic personal tape player (followed by, unsurprisingly, every Monty Python cassette). The first ‘rock’ album I wore out was Flood.

“Fingertips”—Apollo 18 (1992) I am at an after-party in a private school student basement after my band has played our first gig. I am talking to students, strangers,  from other schools. TMBG come up. Someone mentions how amusing “Fingertips” is (a track made up of samples or ideas of song ideas). One of us sings the first part of it; before I know it a group of 5-7 of us has sung through the entire song (all 20 segments). We start again.

Road Movie to Berlin” (Flood, 1992)—I am on a bus traversing Italy from Naples to Venice sitting next to an older girl who has been giving me seriously mixed signals during the entire tour. She is way too cool to like TMBG, I think, but something about the constant riding makes her think of this song. I sing it for her from beginning to end. We don’t kiss that day, but eventually we do. When we return to the states I learn to play the song on the guitar. I never end up singing it for her (the relationship ended quickly), but for a while, my band covered it.

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New Car, New Sound System, New Music: Tennis, “Marathon”

Recently, my wife decided that she needed a new vehicle. And not just any new vehicle: she decided that with two kids it was time for something other than a sedan. So, at the beginning of the new year, it was minivan or SUV or bust. And none of this made either of us too happy.

Anyone who has read much of this blog has witnessed my brother or I mention cars–the Ford LTD station-wagon or Tempo, my lovely Buick LeSabre, the hellbeast Chevy Caprice and stereotypical blue Toyota Prius, for me and my brother’s love/hate for his Impala and irrational exuberance for his Subaru. Like many Americans, we have led lives that make cars necessary and whose necessities are translated into a commercialized communication of class and value. To say that we weigh down cars with overdetermined meaning would be an understatement. In our lives growing up, a person’s car was an immediate snapshot of their entire person.

Again, then, it would be an understatement to say that car buying is hard for me before I even leave the houseNot only do I worry what the car I drive communicates to absolute strangers, but I get almost dyspeptic with anxiety about the implied if unspoken judgments from friends and family. To say that my wife and my current relative financial stability (if not good fortune) makes me uncomfortable is merely to restate the definition of the word. And, of course, my wife’s feelings about cars are completely the opposite.

Add in to this mix the horrors of car dealerships, model varieties and salespeople and you’ve got a potentially toxic year-destroying brew. So my wife and I negotiated: no more then three weekends. No more than five test-drives. We individually read ratings, compared lists, enlisted the help of a car-fanatic friend and quickly decided against the middle-aged surrender of a minivan. My wife’s car–a Honda Civic hybrid, possibly the worst car Honda ever made–left her desiring something better, both mechanically and aesthetically.

She bought an SUV. And a nice one. It is not a vehicle I can drive comfortably–given my deep-seated class issues–but the first time I drove it alone with the kids and got to test the sound system for real (my wife likes he music too soft for my taste) I fell in love with the Bose speakers. This car has beautiful sound. As with many new cars, it came equipped with XM Radio. I flipped the dial and heard the song “Marathon” by Tennis:

This had to be one of those moments of obscene serendipity. It was a Saturday morning, we were all mellow, and the sun was blazing in the way that the winter sun will. The chill in the air felt a little less sharp with the background of this piece, a solo-performance built on a classic 50s/60s doo-wop progression with some surf-rock licks. The some doesn’t grow quickly, but it lingers and fills the space until it ends and it feels strange that it is gone.  The ethereal vocals were a bright and nice complement to the brittle sun and suddenly everything just felt, well, right.

The lyrics of the first verse are about surprise and foreboding:

Coconut Grove
Is a very small cove
separated from the sea
by a shifting shore
we didn’t realize that
we had arrived
at high tide, high tide
barely made it out alive

When I read them now it seems obvious that the tension between the anodyne simplicity of the music and the menace of the lyrics should unsettle me–but the fact is that it doesn’t.  I am used to tension; I am accustomed to paradox; and I have no problem with the compromises and inconsistencies that over time make us all hypocritical versions of our earlier selves.

I don’t know if I will love my wife’s car but it doesn’t matter. Life–in all of its tension and insistence–has been good to us of late. I’ll just be happy with the music that comes on the radio when these speakers sound so damn good.

NKOTB Fan: A Confession

Now that my brother has ‘outed’ me, I have no choice but to embrace and then explain my identity. Yes, it is true, I was (although, unlike my sister, do not remain) a New Kids on the Block fan. The Younger J, out of kindness or because of the failure of youth’s memory, does not paint the picture in its true horror. I was not just a fan, I was a fanatic.

I had NKOTB posters on my wall. I had a fine collection of NKOTB pins, collectible cards, and every album (up to Step by Step and including the Christmas album). I watched their specials on TV; I envied my friends who had the concert tapes. I missed out on their concerts, but they would certainly have been revelatory experiences.

I definitely had this pin

As you can probably imagine, I took some abuse for this love. When I wore my pins to school, I heard sneers and catcalls. (I may have been pushed into a snow-bank, or two.) But, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, because I had Donny, Danny, Joey, Jon and Jordan (well, not really Danny, who liked him anyway?)

How did this happen? How did I fall in love with one of the most annoying, overproduced, pop-crapular ‘bands’ ever? How did I, who came to exhibit such fine and discriminating taste (please understand the sarcasm), start here? Three answers: crazy parents, isolation, and girls.

First: the Parents J, well, mostly the mother, were a little extreme in the 80’s. They went from free-loving, getting stoned in small airplanes, driving across the country in snow storms with an infant, to attending church regularly, forbidding television, and exiling violent toys in a few years. As a young kid, I could not watch MTV (I saw “Thriller” at a babysitter’s house and FREAKED out), could not own G.I Joes (until I prevailed upon them in my first ever rhetorical triumph); even Nickelodeon was considered too vulgar (there was something about “You Can’t Do that on Television” that made my mother crazy).

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I broke up with a Girl over Limp Bizkit: Music. Status. Identity.

Note: I find myself beginning a chaotic and promising semester. I can’t say I won’t blog as much, but I can say that it won’t be as consistent. I can also promise that after two years of writing pretty heavily, we may re-post some oldies (but goodies?) on and off. Here is one of my favorite (because every horrible world is true). Yes, Bakhtin and Limp Bizkit. 

“There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meaning, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all)—they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue…Nothing is absolutely dead.” –M. M. Bakhtin
“I did it all for the nookie / C’mon / The nookie / C’mon / So you can take that cookie / And stick it up your, yeah!!” –Fred Durst

I once broke up with a girl because of Limp Bizkit. Seriously. And this wasn’t some ephemeral or disposable relationship. We had been a couple on and off for over two years throughout high school—which is, in high school terms, practically being married. How did this happen? What does this say about me?

The mid-nineties were a heady time for music lovers, especially for adolescent malcontents. Before the debuts of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten when alternative music went mainstream, college music stations, independent record stores and word-of-mouth were the primary avenues to “coolness” for those who were otherwise barred by ability, class or disposition from conventional approaches. Even more crazily, for a brief period the worlds collided—in the mid-nineties, nerd chic was all the rage. At my high school, football players new Weezer’s “Sweater Song” and cheerleaders wore Dinosaur Jr. Shirts. Which, of course, made isolating and securing the “cool” that much more difficult. Today, the internet, with its damnable democratizing power, can put anyone “in the know” within a few mouse clicks. Social networking disperses “cool” like fluoride in public water. Does this dispersal make it too diffuse? How do geeky adolescents gain the higher ground any more?

Even after Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” won a VMA and bands like Butthole Surfers and Jane’s Addiction were in the day-to-day rotation on MTV, there were still subsections of alternative music that remained on the margins. Sometimes, late at night, you might catch a They Might Be Giants video; but seminal bands like the Pixies and real warriors like Fugazi were still part of the realm of the select few. During these years, what and who you listened to helped to define who you were; or, whom you chose to allow people to know you listened to was an important part of the creation of self-identity. To be lame was to listen to anything in the top forty.

My circle of friends was organized by the (1) aesthetics of the obscure and unknown (Red House Painters), (2) the almost-cool but turning mainstream (Green Day), (3) the ironic but still earnest obsession (Elvis), (4) the almost lame but sort-of acceptable mainstream (Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler), (5) ‘connoisseurship’ (Pre-1990 R.E.M.; U2’s Boy but not Joshua Tree and certainly not Achtung Baby), (6) the geeky but cool (Dead Kennedys), (7) the intentionally offensive (Gwar) and then me. I couldn’t commit to one pose long enough because of my fear that any purchase on ‘coolness’ was temporary. So, I decided to hate everything (or at least almost everything).

Wanted to be Frank Black, but was really Fred Durst

The girl in question in this story just loved music—she could listen without irony to Madonna and Michael Jackson in 1994 (which, for those of you who don’t remember those days, was an accomplishment). But she also espoused the insider’s pose of knowledge as she proudly claimed to have bought Live’s first album before they were cool or as she included Fremke and Smashing Pumpkin B-sides on mix-tapes. I guess in the end it was my own continual uncertainty and insecurity that did us in. If someone loved everything and showed no disdain when it came to music, how could her opinion on more important matters (read: me) have any significance?

In truth, the relationship had been heading south well before the Limp Bizkit incident—I was going to college and, in my own mind, had stayed with her primarily because of convenience. But, when on some weeknight at her house I sat at the kitchen table and saw the brand new Three Dollar Bill Y’all$ still in cellophane, I lost it. Now, this was one album before the world learned about what Fred Durst did for the “Nookie”; two years before violence and sexual assaults at the nearly apocalyptic  Woodstock ’99, but from even my tangential knowledge, I knew that Limp Bizkit was musically impoverished, tonally challenged, wannabe hardcore.

To wit, I have no problem with hardcore, but without an ethical and aesthetic center, it is nothing but noise. Again, great artists don’t necessarily need to be musically talented. But, in retrospect, a phenomenon like Limp Bizkit was the death knell for mainstream alternative rock (if that oxy-moron makes any sense), the only nostrum for which was the several years of boy-band pop hell that descended around the same time. To give Durst his due, he was a great showman and his cover of George Michael’s “Faith”, for the time period, was genius.

In all honesty, at the kitchen table on that evening, I knew very little about Limp Bizkit. I knew I didn’t like the name; I knew I didn’t like the cover art; and I had a vague idea that ‘posers’ and ‘losers’ liked them. I asked the girl about it, perhaps hoping that it was a lame gift for or from a friend. But, to my chagrin, she said she bought it and added that she was really excited about it. I said “what?” She told me that they were “cool”. I don’t have the best memory about what happened next, but it may have started with “we need to talk”.

Of course, none of this reflects on me too well. And it shouldn’t. If anything, she was being genuine in pursuing what she liked regardless of external associations (and, regardless of my standards of ‘taste’). I was judgmental, narrow-minded and an overall prick.  I broke up with a girl over Limp Bizkit; all I can say to console myself now is that at least I didn’t “do it all for the nookie”.