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Nota Bene (On the Title)

Benvenuti al mio blog!

Or, you know, Willkommen, because that’s where I live now!

In which I introduce myself and explain the forthcoming venture

This blog will not begin with me. That honor belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart’s comic opera Così fan tutte follows two sisters’ madcap scheme to–what else?–marry their men of choice. The Italian libretto, written by longtime collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte (who *FUN FACT* lived for a while in the town adjacent to my Pennsylvania college town), is not among the texts I have studied in eight years of exposure to the language, nor in any opera studies class. But I did sing an aria from it at a workshop, and I can roughly translate the title to “All women do this.”

Really? All women? How disappointing. I mean, I know I take great pains to deceive everyone in my life into believing I’m devoted to one person before zanily swapping them out for someone else, but I figured that was what made me special.

In any event, I’ve modified the phrase for my agenda: the conjugation of the verb fare (to do) is now in the first-person singular. Così faccio io. This is what I do. I am like this–besotted with music, books, film, theatre, language, travel, and all things cultural.

A few other things I am: a brand-new Master (??) of Arts in English Literature, having graduated this past May from Central Connecticut State University; a singer-dancer-actress; an expatriate Berliner; Anglo- and Europhile; a voracious reader; an overthinker; my own greatest audience for my jokes and monologues; the biggest Beatles fan in almost any given radius; a true nerd; a high-functioning neurotic; and very, very Italian.

I do hope something in that list resonated with you. Even if not, cut me some slack. I’m new here. And the obscure tidbits and minutiae that occur to me might just have occurred to you too. The human mind is an extraordinary thing. It’s boring to explore it alone.

So give me a chance, why don’t you? Or if not, at least give peace a chance. That’s all we are saying.* Right?

*John Lennon is my number-one love. God help the man I marry, if I marry a man, if I marry at all.

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Is “I’m a Believer” a Perfect Song?

In which I pose a rhetorical question

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, patron of musicians (also poets, less relevant to the forthcoming discussion). On an unrelated-yet-related note, I listen to a podcast called Punch Up the Jam wherein the hosts and guests end each episode by offering an “unpunchable jam”—a song they feel is so good that it leaves little to no room for improvement. In comparing songs I might bring to the table were I to someday be a guest, I regularly return to the Monkees’ 1966 hit “I’m a Believer.” I bet it reminded the aforementioned saint why she got into the business in the first place.

Disclaimer 1: the Monkees actually have several potentially “unpunchable” songs, owing in my opinion to the confluence of organic and inorganic factors which went into the group. Disclaimer 2: you will not be able to accuse me of allowing my crush on Mike Nesmith to cloud my judgment, as he neither wrote nor produced nor sang lead on this track. So there.

No, the songwriter’s laurels go to Neil Diamond, as probably the jewel in the crown of his Brill Building days. Here’s the thing: I’m no great fan of Neil Diamond—“Sweet Caroline” and all that has never been my cup of tea—but his songwriting-factory output places him second only to the Goffin-King machine as far as I’m concerned. To contrast their contributions to the Monkees’ catalogue, put Neil’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” up against Carole’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Not too shabby.

Anyway, old Neil hit the jackpot with this song. It‘s gotten so much cultural saturation by now that it would be almost beside the point to parse out its every component. A while back I wrote about what makes an ideal chorus, and this chorus crossed my mind for obvious reasons: major chords, sunny triads, starting and stopping, the melody rising away from the verse and then falling to get us in place for the next verse. All ingredients in a recipe for success.

Except that the chorus can’t exactly be the highlight when the whole is so strong. The verse melody is heavy on the tonic—G, because we‘re in G major—and strikes that balance of being simple enough to easily get the hang of and interesting enough to have fun singing along to. You’ve got the combination of straight and bluesy chords; you’ve got the flattened F, which then turns into F#, the leading tone to bring us back to G. For me, the call-and-response bits (the “doo-doo-doo, doo-doo’s”) seal the deal. When you’re singing along, there’s a part for everyone. You feel included; you feel you belong to something bigger than yourself. And it clocks in at just under three minutes. That’s good pop sensibility.

You could also take more than enough enjoyment from just listening to Micky Dolenz. Because he’s enjoying it a whole lot.

After all, it’s largely thanks to the Monkees for being excellent interpreters of the song, as they were of pretty much every song they recorded. In fact, it was released in late 1966 and then stayed Billboard’s number-one single for all of 1967 (and that was kind of a big year for music). Even so, it’s a sturdy composition in its own right. A well-built ship. Which explains why probably the first time I heard it was at the end of Shrek, as covered by Smash Mouth.

But you didn‘t really need me to explain any of this. You’re singing it right now, aren’t you?

Image: look at them pondering my question

Marie Before Marian

In which I spotlight an entertainer who made (largely untold) history

My preexisting plan for this week’s post is serendipitously harmonious given the impending arrival of a Black woman in the White House. Because on this date in 1878, the White House welcomed its first Black musical performer, Marie Selika Williams.

Williams, née Smith, was a coloratura soprano who had been born in Natchez, Mississippi circa 1849 and traveled around mostly the western United States studying voice with the funding of some wealthy patrons. The idea of a Black artist having the support system to do this at the time is remarkable in and of itself. Especially having come out of the antebellum South. Even so, she underwent her training in “newer” areas of the country like San Francisco and Chicago and was not really received on the East Coast until after she had established herself thoroughly (and as one-half of a couple with operatic baritone Sampson Williams).

And what more thorough establishment than when she was invited to the White House to sing for President Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about the naming of rooms in the White House, but she performed in the Green Room, which I think nicely foreshadows the now-common term for preparatory spaces in theatres and venues. Anyway, the gig apparently went pretty well: she went on to perform up and down the East Coast, playing Philadelphia’s Academy of Music later that year and New York’s Steinway Hall the next year. She and Sampson toured Europe and the United States extensively over the following decade, even giving a concert for Queen Victoria in 1883. Personally would’ve loved to hear their rendition of “I Got You Babe.”

In all seriousness, she did end up with a signature song, E. W. Mulder’s “Polka Staccato,” which earned her the nickname “Queen of Staccato.” As any singer knows, staccato singing—particularly solo—takes exceptional strength and precision. She was obviously a distinguished talent in her day.

Which is funny, because I hadn’t heard of her until recently, say within the last few months. You’d think, in some vein of my interdisciplinary studies, that I would have come across a byte of information about an African-American woman making inroads in the fine arts, settling in a notorious social battleground like Ohio, sharing a bill with two other Black women singers at Carnegie Hall, and going into business for herself teaching private lessons in New York City in her widowhood. But no.

The one I did hear about—thanks to my family, not my formal education—was her successor Marian Anderson, who is often remembered for surmounting significant resistance and pushback to perform in certain spaces and claim legitimacy as an artist. To be fair, there is a more comprehensive body of work concerning her because of her era. I love Anderson and don’t think we even study her as much as we could. All the more true of Williams. If you also had never heard of her, here is your byte of information for the day, and your reminder that before there was Marian there was Marie.

Pass it on.

#BlackSingerWhiteHouse

Image: photograph by African-American pianist and activist Maud Cuney-Hare

38 Things I Love About “New Girl”

In which I take a leaf from a fictional Cece’s book and try being a little spontaneous

So in between, you know, momentous global events of late, I am in fact catching the odd episode of a show or two. Having recently finished New Girl (again), I just had to expound on what makes it a sitcom all its successors should strive to emulate and the criminally underrated classic it is.

To enumerate but a few:

1. A nuanced, sensitive, evolved depiction of male friendship that is also hilarious

2. The increased visibility of characters named Cecilia—okay, or Cecelia

3. Speaking of, Cece’s career arc from model to modeling agent

4. The principal characters’ substantial romances with people you know they aren’t going to end up with…and root for anyway

5. Schmidt efficiently (some might say ruthlessly) coaching Jess in the science of online dating

6. “I’ve never been an inspiration before. I don’t like it, it’s too much responsibility.” : Nick

7. Jamie Lee Curtis being Jess’s mom

8. Winston and the rest of Schmidt’s bachelor party singing “Alison” in a parking lot

9. The subsequent resurfacing of the song in multiple contexts

10. The Jar

11. A range of ethnicities being portrayed as attractive and desirable (but not fetishized)

12. A pair of unlikely mutuals blossoming into the Classic Winston-and-Cece Mess-Around

13. The reveal of Schmidt’s first name—a flawless moment in TV history

14. Jess getting excited about jury duty, because of course she would

15. The sponge pitch

16. The frankly very Lennon-McCartney vibe between Nick and Schmidt—Nick is lazy until finding his passion, writes a lot, and uses humor as a defense mechanism; Schmidt is ambitious, persnickety, and dramatic, and needs more hugs than Nick is comfortable giving; and they bond over having come from chaotic families

17. True American, where the rules always have a twist and no one ever truly wins

18. Coach’s absurd yet endearing self-confidence

19. The large-looming Julius Pepperwood

20. Jess’s baffled one-night stand describing Schmidt as “a stereotypical gay”

21. Various characters choosing, and feeling empowered, to leave toxic workplaces

22. Also the array of types of workplaces portrayed

23. Nick’s…admiration for Russell

24. Schmidt performing a traditional Indian dance in a spirited bid to impress Cece’s mom

25. Winston’s deep emotional connection with Furguson the cat

26. The Jewish heritage which Winston confers on Furguson, and Schmidt’s uncharacteristic willingness to go along with it

27. Multitalented enigma Robby McFerrin (yes, that’s his name)

28. Elaine reuniting with her soulmate

29. Jess and Cece’s well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous traipse across the college campuses of L.A. in an attempt to get the vote out for Hillary Clinton (whom Schmidt, a conservative who hates everyone on the ballot, refers to as “Hubbardy Bubby”)

30. The representation of local politics

31. Two women over fifty finding love

32. The episode where the whole gang catch a cold—and predict the Quarantine Age by cordoning off a “sick room” with plastic wrap

33. Winston’s impressively inept alter ego, Prank Sinatra

34. Jess hurting her eye and wearing an eyepatch to her wedding

35. Schmidt’s insistence on separating the Tahitian vanilla from the non-Tahitian

36. The fact that Jess is introduced as the quirky one, but her three roommates are proven the bona-fide weirdos by show’s end

37. “I can get a tetanus shot, but I can’t cure damaged suede.” : Schmidt

38. Gave me cookie, got you cookie

All relayed, need I add, by a stellar cast. Each of them embodies their role so perfectly—the removal of anyone would (and, occasionally, does) disrupt the balance. It’s a show where you are too focused on the things that make you laugh out loud to realize your cold heart is being steadily thawed out, your faith in humanity restored. Watching a group of such different people learn and express and accept one another’s ways of caring…if that isn’t just what the COVID-preoccupied doctor ordered.

Oh, and say what you will about Zooey Deschanel—people tend to let their preconceived notions invade everything she does—but she creates in Jessica Day, slight cutesy-ness notwithstanding, a real empathetic character with problems and needs. I like her in and out of character. And not only because I wear glasses and am a brunette with bangs and play the ukulele. Some of those are coincidences.

ALL DAY.

Image: from the finale

PSA: USA

In which I say vote, yes

For all my talk of immigration and expatriation, I couldn’t have a more opportune moment to speak to an urgent matter in my home country:

Please, please, please, please, vote.

Tens of millions of Americans have already cast their ballots by mail, at a dropbox, or in person. At this point it is too late to vote by mail—and, as 2020’s latest red flag, false dropboxes have cropped up across the country. So the most reliable recourse left is to show up to a polling station in person between now and Tuesday evening. Neighborhood groups are mobilizing to help get bodies to the polls: do a little research to find out if you can make use of (or help out with) any such services in your area.

Once you’re there, vote down the ballot! This election is crucial for a number of reasons. It behooves us to remember that the most keenly felt policy decisions often occur at the local and even state level. Do your due diligence on those candidates. Read up on their causes, find out who aligns with what you want, and do your part to make your voice count in their favor.

After you’ve voted, try to enable someone else to cast their vote. Communities of color especially have always had limited access to voter resources and been victims of voter suppression in all its insidious forms. On top of the usual systemic issues, there has been inflammatory and foreboding talk from people currently in power, and I’m not sure to what extent outright voter intimidation will factor in. Heck, I’ll be thousands of miles away. But if you see someone struggling, reach out. That’s what makes a democracy.

There are plenty of ways “we the people” have a diminished say, or have never had a say at all, in American happenings. Voting alone is not enough. It is a necessary start. Get out and do it, however you can. Get that sticker.

Mole Day!

In which I redouble my vain effort to mark time with a chemical interlude

“Chemical interlude” sounds like I mean drugs. LOL.

Anyway, a happy Mole Day (scientific abbreviation: mol) to all! If you thought you’d never find something non-arts/humanities-based on this blog…well, I’m a multifaceted gal, and this is a legitimate holiday.

My observation of it dates back to my wonderful high-school chemistry class. As deranged as that sentence might sound, I not only learned from it but relished it—it clearly topped my parents’ experience by a long shot. (Maybe something to do with the United States almost switching to metric in the ‘70s—the whole will-they-won’t-they must have put them off.) I first learned of the scientific community’s establishment of Mole Day from my chemistry teacher, who was cool, so I decided to get in on the fun.

Thus, here I am, celebrating the mole. But what even is it? Glad you asked. A mole is a unit of measurement approximating 6.022×10 to the 23rd power—hence day 23 of month 10, between 6:02am and 6:02pm if you want to be a stickler. Also known as the Avogadro number, or constant, named for early-nineteenth-century Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro (#scienza!!!). The thing being measured is typically particles of a chemical compound, though you can technically have a mole of anything. One mole of bananas is probably more bananas than the world can hold at once.

What I like about Mole Day is that you don’t have to do anything for it. Just remembering that it’s there is enough. You will likely never have a mole of anything, not even seconds, so simply envisioning that amount of something may lend you some comfortingly broad perspective on the smallness of individual life.

I won’t dwell on it at length; after all, I haven’t got a mole of time. But as you go about your 23 October, remember the mole. And be sure to shout out the women you know in STEM fields. My chemistry teacher came to see me and my friends in the school musical, and my physics teacher had a Let It Be-era Beatles poster in her classroom. There’s hope for public education yet.

P.S. I would like to formally acknowledge the first anniversary of Così faccio io as of this past week. Thank you all for joining me on this journey. I hope you’ve taken as much joy, comfort, and satisfaction in it as I have—though I doubt anyone has as much as I have. *wink* Here’s to a year of further growth. Dare I say…a mole of growth… (JK that would be terrifying)

Image: ThoughtCo

A Far-Too-Close Reading of “Your Song”

In which I, well, never mind

This week we arrive at something that has been on my mind all year: the half-century of the release of one of the most special songs in popular music. I’ll execute a smooth transition out of last week by introducing it as the song that prompted Lennon to say, “Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we happened.”

I say ‘special’ because it is genuinely unlike any other very famous song I can think of. It came into the world as a B-side; it contains almost no complete sentences; it made a career—two, really. And it delights me while simultaneously irritating the hell out of me.

I grew up listening to Elton John, but not to “Your Song.” From the outset I recognized Bernie Taupin’s presence and function, though I knew nothing about him personally. The albums I heard most often were Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: the latter was so familiar that I didn’t understand people who connected “Candle in the Wind” to Princess Diana, because I wasn’t aware there was a second version. I just went around secretly baffled as to how they could mix up Princess Di and Marilyn Monroe.

Besides, my favorite track was the one about the grey seal, an early cut of which coincidentally features on the same album as “Your Song.” But that album was anathema to me. In middle school I got into Honky Château via my dad—the highlight being “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” which I used in a class project on Romeo and Juliet and which remains one of my all-time favorites. (Wasn’t I the chipper twelve-year-old.) Also in middle school came my first conscious exposure to “Your Song” amidst our choir’s vast and varied repertoire.

My first unconscious exposure must have been Ewan McGregor and that opera singer guy wailing it out on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It was great in a stressful way. (I would react similarly to the film itself several years later.)

Back to choir. Keeping it real: I have a lot of anxious memories surrounding middle-school choir. To this day, hearing any of the songs we sang could be a trigger. It took me years to feel normal about “Walking in Memphis,” and I’m still working on this one—don’t even ask about “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Anyway, the first verse was split into a duet between me and another girl. I didn’t know if she was a newcomer to the song too, but I detected unknown variables galore. How was I supposed to interpret this first line? “It’s a little bit funny” how? Should I look at her when she sang the next line, or when we joined in unison starting at “I don’t have much money,” or ever? And the harmony on the last line was a little low for me—could I try it up the octave? Performing was, after all, my one chance to be cool. But would my choir teacher hate me for experimenting, or was he already disappointed with the lack of resonance on those low notes? I knew he counted on my vocal versatility. He seemed so chill about most things, so okay with life, which intimidated me. I wanted to impress him so bad. The situation was fraught.

All that worrying made for a solid distraction from the words being sung. So it didn’t hit me until long down the line what a scattered text it is. There are interruptions and corrections and self-putdowns, somewhat softened by an enchanting melody and a tasteful string arrangement (in E-flat major, for God’s sake—this score does not fool around). The recording sounds as if the composer-singer might even be reading the lyric cold, the way he sort of chuckles to himself at points. Like oh, typical Bernie. Or he could simply be stepping into character as an exceedingly self-conscious narrator, apparently not a far cry from his true personality. Who’s to say?

The lyrical oddities stay veiled at first, behind fairly straightforward sentiments about being unsettled by one’s own emotions and wanting to make a home with a loved one. But things start to go off the rails immediately thereafter.

If I was a sculptor—but then again, no—

Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show

I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do

What? What’s the best you can do? List other potential professions? Or does it refer to songwriting? Perhaps the next line—My gift is my song, and this one’s for you—is meant to be the conclusion of the thought. Even so, if he’s portraying songwriting as a humble and non-lucrative occupation, you’d think he would contrast it with some, well, lucrative occupations. A troubadour stands out more against a doctor or a lawyer than against a sculptor or a circus medicine man.

(See what I did there? Snuck in the site of Elton John’s first big-time show? It was a highlight of Rocketman. Moving on.)

Then we have the first chorus, ushering in some more substantial issues.

And you can tell everybody this is your song

It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done

Whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you mean, ‘done’? This all hardly constitutes a start! I guess it’s nice that you’ve given me a song, but in fact I can’t tell anyone about it—they’ll say, “Oh, how sweet of him to dedicate a song to you, what is it about?” and I’ll be all, “I don’t really know, honestly, listen for yourself.” And they’ll listen, and what are the odds that they’ll be able to glean an overarching message from what’s here?

Astoundingly, the Moulin Rouge rendition manages to skip the entire first verse. Which, as we’ve established, says exactly nothing. To omit it, then, leaves us with…less than nothing? How does this work? What can such a song do?

But okay, Lyricist Taupin, you get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you actually wrote the chorus last and meant us to ascribe retroactive significance to ‘now that it’s done.’ This ‘I hope you don’t mind’ bit is the first unimpeachable section yet: you’ve written a good couplet, and your composer-singer has set it superbly.

In any event, you’re obviously about to go on; far be it from me to obstruct your way. Second verse should provide a fuller picture, right?

I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss

Well, a few of the verses, well, they’ve got me quite cross

‘A few’ seems generous, considering your output thus far, but I’ll shut up. I do commend you on the use of the rather uncommon ‘moss.’ Next, a nice meditation on the sun—that’s an old pop standby for a reason.

So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do—

You see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean:

Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen

Hold it. Pardon me while I tear off my headphones and throw my phone across the room. We get three fragmented attempts to formulate this thought, only to learn that our fumbling narrator has forgotten the eye color of his addressee? This person who is supposedly beloved, for whom he would bother to craft a song? Which, with its textual meandering, is shaping up to be a non-song? That’s the last verse! There isn’t even a bridge! We have to take ‘done’ literally now!!

Think about if someone presumably close to you tried to compliment your eyes without remembering the color, and then was like, “but we’d totally live together if I could afford it!” You’d reconsider your entire relationship to that person. You’d think, maybe we don’t know each other as well as I thought.

And now a reprise of “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words…” I mean, barely.

Last but not at all least, I’m befuddled by this: did Bernie write the whole lyric with the intention that it was for Elton? Because when Elton then sings it, it sounds like he is singing for Bernie. Was Bernie directing a song toward himself all along? Or is it addressing some unspecified other? The fundamental nature of the narrative, the truth we’re meant to take from the title, is in question.

WHOSE SONG?? WHOSE IS IT???

Part of me wonders how these lyrical shortcomings slipped by so many studio people—and then I hear that intro, which might ultimately excuse the offenses of the ensuing content. Efficiently atmospheric, winning us over then and there. A pretty extraordinary four measures. (In the same vein is the intro to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” except that the rest of the song doesn’t need excusing; structural quirks aside, it has a conceit and full sentences! wow!)

I’m not asking Bernie to be Bob Dylan (in fact I would discourage anyone from trying). I don’t mean that only sophisticated texts merit success. Hell, the band America wrote a hit using two chords and lines such as “there were plants and birds and rocks and things,” and they didn’t even name the horse. But this, while not much to go on, is still more than what Bernie gave Elton and us. I wonder if he meant it to stumble as it does, or if it just turned out that way. I wonder how long he spent on it; it’s urban legend by now that Elton spent about fifteen minutes on the tune. What a testament to the strength of that tune—and it is a wonderful tune—that “Your Song” has achieved such distinction with so little to its lyric.

Come to think of it, it was originally the B-side to “Take Me to the Pilot,” another song that succeeds possibly in spite of a strange lyric. No doubt we could fill hours and volumes parsing apart Bernie’s wordsmithing motivations.

I suppose what we have here is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something to it that makes me feel—has made me feel, ever since that neurotic twelve-year-old took it on—like all will be well in the end. Plenty of people over the past fifty years have felt that way. Maybe…you guys, maybe it’s become our song.

I’ll see myself out.

*deep breath* …how wonderful life is… *Ewan McGregor yell* while YOU’RE IN THE WOOOOOOOOOOOOOORLD

Dedicated to Haley, one of the best parts of that middle-school choir, for being a longtime friend and teaching me to chill the hell out.

Image: the captain and the kid, from Esquire

80 Years

In which I renew my vows

I fell in love with John Lennon a few months after turning thirteen. This might not sound like much to people who grew up in an era when everyone and their cat classified themselves by their favorite Beatle, a question that echoes through subsequent generations. But it was pivotal in my life (literally). Despite never having been in love, I knew it when I saw it.

It grew out of a birthday present to my dad: he had requested the new 40th-anniversary edition of the White Album. I wound up listening to it as often as he did, if not more so. It piqued my interest in this quartet of clearly-defined individuals who were nevertheless attuned to one another, intent on high-caliber collaboration. Right away I wanted in. There’s a reason “Back in the USSR,” track 1 side 1 disc 1, ranks among my top five Beatles songs.

My research into their oeuvre and their lives and their essence initiated a sacred tradition, a voyage across the sea of art and artists that capture my attention, many of whom did so by being adjacent to The Beatles. This practice has sustained me ever since. It’s thanks to these men that I do the analysis and appreciation for which I am (with any luck) notorious. They were my gateway to the unknown. Somewhere in the course of that research I gravitated toward John specifically; I can’t pinpoint the precise moment, but then it was all over for me. I read about teenage concertgoers in the throes of “Lennon-induced ecstasy,” a term I hereby co-opt to describe my emotional state amid the heady rush of discovery. Gone were the days of feigning interest in the contemporary pop stars of my friends’ fantasies—I had somebody now, somebody to introduce me to that part of myself.

I, like Joan Didion, do not use “love” in a colloquial sense. Not with John. It has been a deep and consuming involvement which set me on a road that I am traveling to this day. He was the alpha; he will be the omega—not to, uh, compare him to somebody else…

As I cannot trust myself to do him justice without running the risk of rambling like a fool (on the hill), allow me to simply list a few of the traits I admire in him. One for each of his years on earth.

  1. His face. An exquisite thing. The eyes, the nose, the jawline. It made me a believer, not sure in what, but a believer nonetheless.
  2. His beloved Buddy Holly glasses, which he broke out occasionally before acknowledging a true need for corrective lenses (the round specs are iconic, but these send me right into space)
  3. His hair, all the time, in every phase (positively incontrovertible)
  4. His Dylan hat
  5. Oh right, the psychosexual tension between him and Dylan—hey, great minds…
  6. A voice with the consistent power, in song and speech, to make me go weak at the knees
  7. Re: the above, the edge in his singing voice and the softness in his speaking voice
  8. His pursuit of his own writing and extra-musical creation, because he enjoyed it and wasn’t about to let a phenomenal career derail it (and the fact that one of his most recognizable contributions to the world is a self-portrait doodle)
  9. His rhythm guitar, the sonic glue holding the band together
  10. His self-deprecating humor, probably more infuriating than endearing—I too know the feeling of inadequacy, but in what extreme must you experience it to write sincere songs about being a loser, to doubt your skill at singing or playing or whatever it is you’re doing, when you are objectively one of the best of the best in your own time?
  11. Re: the above, the endless bewildering mystery of him and his mind
  12. His enthusiasm for things: records, books, films, games, people. At the end of the day he was a nerd and a fan, just like me.
  13. Every single thing he does in A Hard Day’s Night
  14. How he agreed to perform with Elton John at Madison Square Garden after losing a bet that his own song (“Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”) wouldn’t go to number one
  15. The way he survived being torn between two tempestuous parents at the age of five
  16. His affection for Brian Epstein
  17. The look of him in photographs, both right there in the moment and far away in his own world
  18. The melody of “Girl”
  19. How he stood up for himself and his beliefs, up to and including returning his MBE
  20. His penchant for naming inanimate objects
  21. How angry he was, how incandescent with rage, in a manner that frequently went unnoticed, in a time when anger was not fashionable
  22. The Bed-In for Peace
  23. His habit of revealing his deepest self one moment and veiling it behind a stoic veneer the next
  24. The fact that, in spite of losing his childhood, he never lost his inner child
  25. His buddy-comedy friendship with Harry Nilsson
  26. His tolerance of a lot of other fellow musicians
  27. How he would forgo verbal compliments in favor of demonstrating the impact you had on him (looking at you, brothers Wilson!)
  28. How, every so often, he apologized in the best way he knew
  29. The way he was influenced by the women in his life
  30. How he did so many things, including things that were wrong, with flair
  31. His invention (or, I’ll grant, co-invention) of the modern press-conference wit
  32. The way he talked to people like Maureen Cleave, said whatever he thought, committed to it, and didn’t care
  33. How he was always thinking about something
  34. How he tried to learn from his mistakes, even if he wasn’t always forgiven
  35. His efforts to normalize therapy
  36. The fact that his soulmate was his songwriting partner
  37. The simultaneous hostility and vulnerability of “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.” The lyric might run counter to a philosophy of women having agency and stuff, but I am defenseless against that falsetto.
  38. The heart-rending example he made to the effect that love cannot fix you, that you cannot expect someone else’s love to fix you nor your love to fix someone else
  39. The way he did his best to love anyway
  40. The fact that my first Real Job took me to Germany, in a reprisal of his and his bandmates’ trajectory, bringing me closer to him

To think we have reached the end of an equal period of time without him…or that we will have, two months from now…that isn’t a feeling I can put into words.

He was broken, he was damaged, he often made life difficult for the people he cared about. I doubt he was ever truly happy. And yet. He is proof that, as another titanic artist said, nice is different than good.

Meanwhile, here I sit, at a loss as to how to write anything about someone who means everything. What this all amounts to is an elaborately imagined love affair that is still a constant, a comfort, a real thing. The real thing. Even if, in fact, nothing is real, of which I find new evidence daily. And he represents more besides, a larger force. To throw my lot in with him is to throw my lot in with music itself, which I’ve done without a second thought.

I’m not saying I could never love another man. I’m saying I will never love another man quite as I have loved this man. I’ve spent nearly half my life now loving him, and I would be a fraction of what I am if not for him.

Happy 80th birthday, John. It’s always you.

Image: one among my many favorite snapshots of him, 1964

Write What You Know?

In which I question the sagacity of some so-called sage advice

We writers have long had the adage “write what you know” lobbed at us, supposedly an encouragement to use our lives as fodder for crafting powerful stories. I started hearing it soon after expressing any sort of long-term interest in creative writing.

It’s been a newer revelation to me that a debut novel (specifically) ought to adhere strictly to this idea. And frankly, I disagree.

First off, I don’t believe it’s possible to write from a perspective which is not even tangentially informed by your own. You may not be a widow who has slyly dispatched her husband, but your time in the world may have cultivated a cynicism which you convey in your narrative about this widow. True, I am at work on a novel narrated by a young woman; and true, she shares some of my experiences and passions; but her life has gone in a drastically different direction, against the backdrop of a drastically different era, and therein lies the heart and plot of the story. Still, her voice is necessarily shot through with mine; aspects of my personality filter into hers, intentionally and unintentionally. Your perspective is the only one you’ve got, and you can never entirely escape it. In a way, you’re always writing what you know.

Second, I don’t acknowledge an obligation to write about something just because you’ve experienced it, or exactly as you’ve experienced it. For quite a while now I have chipped away at the premise–probably fated to be a novella or a long short story–of a group of know-it-all graduate students trying to prove themselves at an uppity school in Boston. This environment is somewhat familiar to me, though several major details differ, the most major being that the protagonist is male. Changes heighten the excitement and ambition of the process: I have set up my worldview and opinions as a series of guideposts on the journey, not as a destination. The arc of your life need not be the destination of your work. If you want it to be, you’re perfectly entitled, but you should not feel obligated.

Besides, you’re living your experience at this very moment. It’s there regardless. You can write with a conscious eye to that, to tell the story of yourself; you can write to inhabit another body or atmosphere, to imagine a wildly altered trajectory for yourself; and these do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Not to mention that no matter how utterly riveting a life you think you’ve led, you’ll tire of rehashing the same stories over and over, especially when you’re starting out. Take some time off, explore other narratives and situations, and then return to your own life with the retrospective wisdom of age. There’s a better chance of success, or at least of telling an old story in a new way.

Plus you know what they say about truth being stranger. If you come firing out of the gate with a fictionalized version of something crazy that happened to you, your workshop will tear it to shreds. They’ll never believe you, and not because your narrator is seductively unreliable. Do you want your young writing persona to be fundamentally untrustworthy? That reputation will take years to undo. You’ll be the Boy Who Cried Murder-at-the-DMV. Or something.

What is my point? Don’t box yourself in. I see no rush to place undue parameters on your writing, especially if you choose to take the plunge and undertake the daunting task of a novel, which really does not need extra stress heaped on in an attempt to remain faithful to a life script. Go where your gut tells you. Let your mind free itself of all attachments to identity, and wonder at where you end up.

That said, whatever identity/identities you adopt in your work, do the requisite research. Even if you know something about something, you don’t know everything about something. Readers can instantly sense when you are unsure of what you’re talking about. Stephen King may have more or less been his own protagonist in The Shining, but I bet he had to read up on axes/old hotels/Johnny Carson.

Now stop stalling and write already!

The Apple of America’s Eye

In which I look at an old legend through a new lens

In an example of excellent seasonal timing, today is the historian-approved birth date of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.

Remember him? The guy who planted all those trees? Yeah, you know him.

He was born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, to…to…you know what, I can’t do this, guys. I just can’t. I’m sorry.

I had such a nice autumnal story in mind, and I can’t bring myself to go through with it. How can I? How can I expound on any kind of American legend when the country that spun those legends is showing through like the thinnest of paper? When the house is crumbling, and the rot in its foundation exposed, and the powers that be responding with apathy at best and violence at worst? I just don’t have the emotional energy. I fear that Johnny, who had to work hard enough to spread a message of community and peace and love and apple trees in his own day, would look at us today and marvel at how the task went from difficult to nigh-on impossible.

This is the latest manifestation of a bitter malaise that has plagued me at intervals for months now, flaring up at certain times. As it has plagued millions of Americans, I suppose, alongside the medical plague that is plaguing us. The most recent episode is occasioned by the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the news of the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor’s murder. These events themselves are upsetting enough, causing many to feel effectively abandoned; but the implications of the far-reaching effects of these events are even more harrowing. The jeopardization of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision; the potential loss of the last vestige of women’s right to bodily autonomy; the determination that the value of property—and the lives of white neighbors—outweighs the value of a Black life; the judgment that the police are entitled, even encouraged, to kill and brutalize and terrorize Black people with impunity…

And all on the eve of a true life-or-death election.

Undoubtedly we have entered dystopian territory, the stuff of the books we devoured as adolescents. I told a cousin last week that it has never felt so wrong or so right to be outside the United States. Every explosion of doom-and-gloom news further complicates my expatriate existence. To watch my home country descend into madness—and, in some places, spontaneously combust—overwhelms me with guilt that I am safe. Guilt that I have any part in American-ness, and that even my stateside family are protected by their skin color and their generational wealth. Nothing outlandish, nothing compared to the billionaire class (I beg you not to get me started there), but the comfortable advantage of time. I joked when I was younger that my ambition was to be identified by my European ancestry, by the ancestral language I was learning to speak, and not by my citizenship. Even then, the strongest portion of that ancestry attained whiteness for themselves in America by stepping on more widely marginalized and despised groups, by exploiting the racism woven into the fabric of the New World, by clawing their way to the top. Italians are white in America today as they were not white a century ago. Guilt there as well.

Now I am ashamed to be an American. And then ashamed to be ashamed. I strain to take pride in the country that raised me and cared for me and gave me the resources that allowed me to go elsewhere, but that is becoming increasingly unrealistic with every glimpse of the torn, struggling communities for which it has not cared, never cared. Communities pleading for their lives. The very idea of pride, meanwhile, is twisted into virulent nationalism to propagate a genocidal agenda more boldly than ever before. Can a love of country coexist with a disgust at these conditions? Rage at the cruel systems built to serve one class and subjugate all others? Was any prior generation so confronted with this question? And if so, why are we trying and refusing to learn the same lessons?

The story of Johnny Appleseed concerns an ordinary person who, through willpower and kindness and patience and tenacity, was allegedly responsible for the proliferation of apple trees throughout the as-yet-unsettled western United States. But then I think of how settled those regions in fact were, by people who were forcibly evacuated from their land and herded away as a new government tried every tactic it knew to destroy them and their traditions. And so, as much as I wish I could wholeheartedly embrace the story, I can’t help but count it as perhaps just another story we told to make ourselves feel better.

I’m left at a loss. I want to believe in America. I want to not abandon it in its hour of need. But if I am an ocean away, signing my little petitions and making my little donations, listening as more and more of my fellow citizens perish from systemic negligence and aggression, haven’t I already done it?

Through the darkness and complexity of the American myth, through the despair it inspires us to grapple with, it remains true that we can rely on the apple. The apple is a symbol of regeneration and resilience, a historically condemned fruit that defiantly continues to nourish and cheer. Goodwill—an apple for the teacher. Health—an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Necessary and precious diversity—different strains, colors, textures, flavors, some better for eating and some for baking, able to be made into cider and pies and donuts and applesauce and much more. It is one of the most natural forms of sustenance. It grows, and it helps us to grow.

Whoever Johnny Appleseed really was, he believed in the apple. For me, there is no option but to do the same.

Eat an apple today. It might not make a difference, but it might. In any event, we can hardly hope to set about the work of saving ourselves and our democracy on an empty stomach.

Image: from Howe’s Historical Collection

Voter resources: register and vote from overseas.

Girl Next Door

In which I set something straight

It came to my attention during a family phone conversation that I have misinterpreted the “girl next door” trope for most of my life. This stock character often appears in visual media as the primary love interest or counterpart (apparently) to the boy next door to her. The premise being that the narrative belongs to the boy, and she is a part of it, if not an entire objective unto herself.

That tracks, right? That computes, despite being problematic? Well, I always interpreted it to mean the girl who is “next door” to another girl, providing the quirky diametrical opposition to the standard beautiful ingénue. There’s the girl whom you expect to be the protagonist, to garner our sympathies, to win the day; and then there’s this chick whom, if you like her, you like for her individuality or noncompliance. Example: in Mean Girls, I was calling Janis Ian the girl next door while the rest of the world must have been applying the term to Cady Heron.

To all my K-12 classmates who considered me a Smart Kid, now you know the truth.

Anyway, this interpretation was influenced in part by Saving Jane’s 2005 song “Girl Next Door.” It’s narrated by an insecure, out-of-place teenager who admits to resenting her popular, well-adjusted classmate. She frets for one (1) line over the possibility of losing her own boyfriend to this classmate, otherwise simply ruminating on the girls’ general lifestyle-based rivalry. Though it’s a one-sided rivalry, as there isn’t much of a comparison:

She’s the prom queen, I’m in the marching band

She’s a cheerleader, I’m sitting in the stands

She gets the top bunk, I’m sleeping on the floor

She’s Miss America

And I’m just the girl next door

A clear precursor to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” except that the desire centers on social currency, status, and self-assurance, rather than boys.

I’m pretty sure I had this female-relationship-centric idea of the trope before hearing the song, but it did a lot to reinforce it. Because, honestly, romance wasn’t on my mind until (I suspect) relatively late in the game among my peers; that goes for both crushes and actual serious involvements. I was still too busy getting comfortable in that peer group, still too busy trying to make friends. I was on level one for a long time. As we progressed through school, I identified groups of girls with whom I wanted to be in, girls who represented the safety-in-numbers surety and cool that I craved for myself. It made sense to me that the world was theirs to take or leave, to shape how they thought it should be, and that I was othered, apart, “next door”–sometimes literally shunted to the side. They were the heroines. I was…TBD.

Not that I thought of the situation in quite those terms until one afternoon when I was twelve, in a theatre program where a small cohort of us (all girls) played a typecasting game. One girl would walk in as if to an audition, and the rest would act as a casting team, blurting out knee-jerk reactions to the types of roles we saw her in. Of course, it wasn’t entirely blind, as we had worked together for a while–some of us for several consecutive years–and had previous perceptions of one another’s abilities and histories. Still, appearance-based as it was, it was kind of a twisted activity.

When I got up there, the ideas volleyed at me were consistent with what these people knew of me. Bookish. The brain of the group. The one who figures things out. And then: A sort of…girl next door.

I don’t know how they defined it. My self-doubt and self-deprecation took the sum total to mean not the girl we’re all rooting for. Ironically, I already had–and have since–played my share of protagonists, people at the heart of the stories being told. It should have sunk in that the character need not be a doe-eyed, short-skirted/high-heeled Mary Sue for the world to be hers.

For some reason, it had not sunk in yet. Only later, much later, would I come to understand what that twisted little exercise revealed about the girl next door. She is no less a heroine than her clean-cut-nice-smile alternate. Just a different kind of heroine. And I was living proof, both off- and onstage. Plenty of protagonists, not one ingénue. Never the girl who is led or coerced into danger. Always the girl (or, often, woman) reacting to trauma, repairing damage, rebuilding a life. Hell, my first role was a widowed mid-nineteenth-century schoolteacher relocating to a foreign court where even a modicum of respect is hard-won. And that was at the ripe old age of nine.

A few more cases I’ve racked up:

  • Two princesses–one born, one made–who lose everything and are forced to start over and do what they can to survive
  • A girl who goes into business giving people advice in what is certainly one of the greatest megalomaniacal displays in musical history
  • A girl who resists any and all change until nearly being transformed into a doll, meaning it has taken a brush with death for her to accept the idea of moving house
  • A storyteller who exists outside the bounds of her tale but also participates in it

These women have been through some shit. They know too much. They are of varying ages, stations in life, and time periods, confronted with the overwhelming terror of the world before being equipped to deal with it. They are laden with more baggage and armed with more strength than they bargained for.

Who lives next door to them?

Image: Maybe Janis is the girl next door to Cady who is the girl next door to Regina. That movie stretched the trope to within an inch of its life.