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.

A Valediction Forbidding Cover Letters

In which I prepare to demolish a rightfully loathed tradition

Okay, I’ll get straight to the point: Cover letters should never be mandatory. At most, they should be optional. Ideally we would do away with them altogether.

This idea had been fermenting in my head ever since I began applying to Real Jobs/Internships as a college student, but I was finally able to pour it out like a nicely aged wine to a friend who inspired me with her latest cover-letter-induced woes. Said friend—intelligent, accomplished, adventurous, a master of career reinvention and yet unbendingly true to herself—had worked long and hard across at least two continents to sustain a fragmented family and now hovered on the cusp of another transition. It was senseless, I mused, for such a person to be held back by the inherent limitations of a cover letter. And, I realized as I mused, those inherent limitations could fill books far longer than the ones said friend had written.

No one relishes writing cover letters. No one I know, anyway. Not even writers…especially not writers. I see several problems with the process, and I make it a rule never to complain without proposing a solution.

For one thing, the writer is asked to strike a pretty unrealistic balance. You have to “sell” yourself while remaining humble, tout your strengths while not coming across as arrogant. This is a task for anyone, but particularly difficult for women, who are conditioned (often imperceptibly) to downplay themselves and their abilities. I recently asked another woman if she had ever heard the term “haughty” used to describe a man. The fact that she hadn’t says a lot—and of course that’s nowhere near the worst of the words, inside or outside a professional context.

For another thing, a letter cannot replace an oral or otherwise live conversation. I guess what I’m saying is to cut right to the interview and incorporate the questions and details that might otherwise be demanded of a cover letter, because the letter itself does nothing to convey personality. “But the cover letter is where you get to introduce yourself!” Except it really isn’t. The cover letter is where you tell the hiring manager what they want to hear, use all the punchy keywords they scan for. Very little of your own voice is able to shine through; the proliferation of templates even implies a certain prohibition of one’s own voice. (“To the hiring manager: I was [thrilled] to see your opening for a ________…” It’s essentially the antithesis of writing.

For a third thing, some people just don’t have the time. Take a single parent who works several jobs and is looking to advance their career. Their time is precious, and the amount they can spend applying to jobs probably scant. Must they be denied a chance simply because they aren’t at leisure to craft the “perfect” letter?

Now, all this invective does not account for those who rely on writing as their sole or primary means of communication. Employers would need to make provisions for non-speech-enabled candidates. Even so, the changes need not be drastic: the interview could take the form of a live text chat, leaving the candidate at liberty to submit the complex answers required in real time.

Besides, if hiring managers don’t go to the trouble of more than skimming these letters—as the career officers tell us, possibly in a somewhat subversive attempt to compel us to write worthy ones—then why bother at all? That’s what gets me, how little difference the most potentially personal part of the initial application makes in the end. We all know a direct interpersonal interaction is more fulfilling, nerve-racking though it may be at first. As I’ve said before, human beings are social animals—we’re bound to come away from a face-to-face exchange feeling more satisfied, like we’ve imparted aspects of our souls that would be lost in a formulaic letter. (Because we will have.)

Not to mention the many highly qualified job seekers who simply don’t excel at writing, or at fitting their writing into these parameters. I ask you, companies, is a cover letter truly worth “weeding out” the poor writers, thereby sacrificing some promising candidates who might in fact have everything you’re seeking and more? Running the risk of never seeing their souls?

‘Soul’ may seem like a strong word; most jobs don’t exactly put our souls on the line. But if we want to find meaning in our work, we need to be able to express our search for that meaning, and everything that has led us up to this point in our search, in as hospitable an environment as possible. Which, frankly, a cover letter does not provide. And because of all its shortcomings, it creates an obstacle within applications where it should create an opportunity. Job applicants are automatically antipathetic to the idea of having to slog through a cover letter—and the last thing you, the company, really want is to be stirring up antipathy and frustration where before there was at worst neutrality, if not hope.

Don’t kill hope. In an age of impending economic collapse, when we are prevailed upon to rethink the way we conduct professional life, we have the chance to end this hampering practice for good. Join the #NoMoreCoverLetters movement now!

Any Tom, Dick, or Karen; Any Tom, Karen, or Dick

In which I face the facts (i.e., the cold-hearted cynic I am inside)

This title cleverly references not only a number from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, but also the one-time husband of Karen Carpenter, Tom Burris. He serves no other purpose in this post. It came as absolute and very recent news to me that she had ever been married. Who the hell tries to marry Karen Carpenter, anyway? She is a FREE SPIRIT.

*TW: eating disorders*

Okay, kids, I’ve been listening to and reading about the Carpenters quite a bit, and I have to talk to someone about it. And get some things off my chest. Having been raised in an ardently pro-Carpenters household, I just sort of accepted them as inherently “good” and never came to grips (until now) with how, in all honesty, they perplex and frustrate me.

Before I remotely criticize them, I must disclaim that no one can make me feel more guilty for said forthcoming criticism than I make myself feel, on account of the tragedy surrounding Karen. The story of her illness and death upsets me deeply, not least because I’ve known people who struggle with similar disorders and because these disorders still garner much less visibility than they should. (And this is forty years later!) I won’t even go into the fact that it was a careless remark by an early critic which gave her the notion that her appearance was lacking. She deserved so much better. I think the circumstances that killed her were the last and most egregious demonstration of how no one truly listened to her or considered her needs—starting in her childhood when the family up and moved cross-country to help her brother chase fame and fortune. She learned to roll with the punches, to the point of being rolled over by others, and to literally make herself as small as possible. By the time the people who could have done something started to pay attention, she was used to denying that anything was wrong, and it was too late. It’s heartbreaking. And how must it have been for the millions of girls (like my mom) who grew up idolizing this woman, wanting to be her? What must they have taken away from the sequence of events? What damage still reverberates?

All this to say that Karen, with her singing and drumming, is the only part of the whole Carpenters experience that I unequivocally like. That and Richard’s piano, I guess. The layering of voices doesn’t do much for me—in fact, I wish Richard would shut up altogether, because his sister is interpreting. (Aside: she apparently referred to herself as a “drummer who sang.” ExCUSE ME???????)

As for the songs themselves…well, I enjoy about two-thirds of every Carpenters song. There is always some bothersome element to spoil it. (Who does this Cecilia think she is, Lester Bangs?? Hang on, hang on, let me talk.) Take “Hurting Each Other”: beautiful, yes, and pretty immaculate up until the final verse. “Can’t we stop hurting each other?” This is what creative writers call telling instead of showing, the classic rookie mistake. Entirely unnecessary, too, when the rest of the lyric paints a clear picture of a couple who are having a rough go of it. Ending it after the second verse might feel like a premature cutoff, but as is it goes on too long for its own good, diluting its own message.

Or “Rainy Days and Mondays.” They always get you down? Really? How original! Again, the fault lies with the lyricist; convince me that Saturdays depress you and you’ll have my respect, or at the very least my ear. Lovely melody, though, and of course Karen can sell it.

Or “Top of the World.” Actually, there’s very little that’s redeemable about this one. The lyric is out of touch with any kind of reality, and Richard’s arrangement doesn’t help. For the best rendition of this song, see here: it’s got a much-needed harder edge.

(Those of you who haven’t cancelled me, thank you for sticking by, I know I’m making it increasingly difficult.)

Or “Goodbye to Love.” Again, big fan of the verse structure, but not of the coda with the fuzz-guitar solo. Am I the only one who can’t reconcile that bit with the rest of the track? It strikes me as a bizarre departure from the torch-song tone hitherto established. And given that it’s the closing section, you have to work to remember what came before. Not one of your more brilliant moments, Dick.

Or “Superstar.” For God’s sake, girl, your first mistake was getting involved with a guitarist. You must realize what loose cannons that lot have historically been. Going on (and, once more, the blame falls to the songwriters), the first verse is fine and then the second…disintegrates. “Loneliness is such a sad affair.” REALLY. WHO’D A THUNK. After which “again” is rhymed with itself. Twice. Perhaps the lyricist wandered off mid-composition? (They should have recorded the other “Superstar,” from Jesus Christ Superstar. Wouldn’t that have been something?)

Or “Sing.” Here’s the kicker, because, you know what, I kind of really like this song. That statement alone will cost me all my credibility, especially among my kin, but hear me out. It stems largely from a crushing relief at having finally pinpointed it after probably a decade of being plagued by those la-la-la-la-la’s. I withered away, wondering “what is this melody??” until chancing upon it one day with the identifying information I sought. Also, I do love the horns—undeniably great orchestration. I know full well it’s dumb, but you gotta be dumb now and then, right?

Insert jibe about my being dumb all the time. Moving on.

I don’t quibble with “It’s Going to Take Some Time.” Solid song, solidly arranged. Not that I should be surprised, as I just found out Carole King wrote it. Ooh, and I am fond of “For All We Know”; I sang it in high school choir, the performance of which was unexpectedly heartfelt (remind me to tell you that story later). Both far from the most saccharine offenders.

Speaking of saccharine, “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Huh. I wish I could remember the person who said that every Burt Bacharach melody sounds like the second oboe part. You need only hear this one to understand the accuracy of that evaluation. I’m no devotee of Bacharach either—but that’s another post.

Anyway, you get the gist. I tend toward the belief (as my dad does with Queen—by the way, happy birthday to Freddie!) that they were too good for most of the material they recorded. From my outside perspective, their repertoire reflected and enabled their general infantilization, which seems an insult to their musicianship. I have no idea where their artistic vision ended and the press coverage began; even so, these two were objectively not allowed to grow up, and it infuriates me particularly that Karen was kept in a schoolgirl box. It could have been the whole sibling-duo thing, I suppose, but this ultra-conservative, sexless image wasn’t doing them any favors. Can you imagine if that sultry contralto voice had had some even slightly suggestive material to sing? Something along the lines of “Big Spender,” for example? Every warm-blooded man in America would have exploded. And we women could’ve used that.

But the ‘70s were before my time. Maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe I’m way off the mark.

Now, to end on a constructive note after alienating my entire readership, a sampling of tunes they (and specifically Karen) could easily have recorded:

  • “It’s Lonely at the Top” (writer: Randy Newman)
  • “The Girl from Ipanema” (writers: Tom Jobim/Vinícius de Moraes/Norman Gimbel; they actually did record an instrumental take back in their Richard Carpenter Trio days, and what a missed opportunity that they didn’t feature Karen on a vocal)
  • “Time of the Season” (writer: Rod Argent; let’s hear their twist on some British Invasion artists and not just the Beatles!)
  • “Something” (writer: George Harrison; okay, you want the Beatles, here’s a Beatles track for you—though I can’t knock their take on “Ticket to Ride”)
  • An album of Great American Songbook standards (I’m talking Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day”…)
  • “Video Killed the Radio Star” (writers: Trevor Horn/Geoff Downes/Bruce Woolley; think about it, this is basically a Carpenters song already, and it’s a quality song! Have you listened to it? I’ll grant it its own post someday)

and, an anachronistic addition,

  • “Pompeii” (writer: Dan Smith; those drums—Karen could’ve gone ham!)

When Richard ultimately joins his sister up there, I hope it’s him at a grand piano and her alternating between a microphone and a drum kit, playing an acoustic gig for all eternity. I’ll be sure to tune in on the scratchy transistor radio they give me at the gates of hell.

Image: you probably have seen this one, and I cannot find the source, so just take my word that I was not present for this photograph

Why Is Love So Hard?

In which I indulge in a little armchair psychology

Distinct non-philosopher that I am, I’ve lately had occasion to dwell on the idea of love and why that idea often differs so drastically from the reality. (Nothing in particular has happened; in fact it’s what hasn’t happened that constitutes, as a friend of mine so succinctly put it, “the bummer.”) To that effect, this week’s thoughts will center not on the stuff of art or culture themselves, as is typical here, but on one of the classic forces which inspire us to pursue and enjoy all that stuff.

Human beings are social animals. We came to collective consciousness by connecting with one another and then secured our survival by banding together. For most of our existence, everyone has been a necessity to everyone else. So it kind of boggles my mind that we have such trouble admitting that necessity. Surely there is no need to resign ourselves to loneliness. Since we’re so vulnerable anyway by physical standards, why can’t we open ourselves up to emotional vulnerability and communicate our wants and needs to our loved ones?

I mean vulnerability in all its forms. Asking for help. Being honest about our feelings. Even—and this one is, I think, severely underrepresented—making it clear that there is an absence of feeling, or that something is happening that we aren’t comfortable with or don’t want. Or, in less extreme circumstances, expressing a desire just to be left alone for a while.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to remember the last time I was able to communicate any of these things to the people I really needed to communicate them to. As that guy says in that movie, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” Regrettably, failure of this sort often costs us our friendships, romances, families, business partnerships, and so on. Unhealthy or nonexistent communication around a Big Issue can mean the instant end of said relationship; but you’d be surprised how quickly breakdowns around seemingly trivial things can accumulate until some small mishap becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Actually, you probably wouldn’t be surprised, because you’ve almost certainly experienced some iteration of that firsthand.

It seems to me that at the heart of all this botched communication is good old-fashioned discomfort. We don’t want to say things that may hurt others, and we don’t want to face the facts that may hurt us. But what has been hammered through my head time and time again (and I suspect I’m not alone) is that not communicating hurts everyone more in the long run. I once had a friendship breakup in which we discovered that we had each been withholding things from the other and thus growing to resent each other more and more, to the point that the cons outweighed the pros of staying friends. It really devastated me, and one of the hardest parts to accept and move on from was that it could have been prevented if we had addressed it sooner. By the same token, I had another friend who called me up one evening and said, “You know, you’ve been kind of a bitch this week.” She didn’t technically have to say it—I knew full well—but I was not yet mature enough to know how to talk to her about it, and she in her trademark forthrightness took it upon herself to pick up the slack. Her willingness to put it out in the open enabled me to make amends and be more mindful of her needs going forward. So, you see, she really did have to say it. However unpleasant you fear the conflict is going to be, the unpleasantness will accrue interest the longer you delay. And the chances are, in the moment, that it will not be nearly as bad as you fear: as a matter of fact, you might feel altogether relieved to have the chance to work through a problem with someone who is important to you. Communication demonstrates importance.

On that point, if someone with whom you try to communicate doesn’t invest reciprocally, it invites you to wonder whether you are indeed of any consequence to them. This is its own brand of pain. I had one such experience recently, which is sort of what got me pondering love and communication in a larger sense. Why do we bother with people who, if we truly unflinchingly read the signs, for one reason or another are not bothering with us? Why do we hang ourselves up on a vision of connection—platonic, romantic, the list goes on—which has no apparent hope of coming to fruition? It’s so easy to waste time this way. And certain genres of film and literature only exacerbate these symptoms, painting the long-suffering unrequited lover as noble and ideal and worthy (in fact expected) to be rewarded. If we as a species hope to acquire any permanent proficiency at communication in relationships, we must divest ourselves of this damaging mentality. Still, in the immediate aftermath—in the eye of the bummer—we need to sit with our feelings and, if possible, lean on those good solid people whose care and company we can rely on. That’s what I am doing, and it goes a long way toward restoring my faith in balanced, healthy love.

Then, of course, there are the situations which turn toxic. Here, communication levels up from important to crucial. I’ve come to discover that there are few things I hate more than the silent treatment. At long-ago low points I would try it, and I would never last. I prefer a shouting match. I prefer slamming doors. I even prefer, if the opposing parties aren’t in the same physical place, a wall of text. Any of these methods expunges the emotion in the heat of the moment, clears people’s heads, and provides the possibility of a reasonable conversation after the fact. Clamping up just about guarantees the misery of everyone involved plus the people adjacent to them. I’ve witnessed it: the erosion takes years to repair at best. Perhaps that’s why I find myself unable to do it, and why I’ve sometimes found myself speaking hastily. I might regret saying something, but I always regret leaving something unsaid.

(This is not to say that some relationships do not deserve termination. Abuse or manipulation are not to be tolerated if at all possible, and people experience emotional trauma every day either by cutting off people who are unable or unwilling to fulfill the supportive, loving roles they are meant to fulfill, or by staying in inhospitable or dangerous relationships for lack of somewhere else to turn. These are emergencies which demand continued combative effort from institutions and systems, though we as individuals can and should educate ourselves on them.)

I mean, when you think of it, what are most love songs about? The things people do, don’t do, say, and don’t say to/with/about each other. Communication is the very foundation of love and relationships. It’s a bitter human truth that the thing which is most essential to a full life is also extraordinarily precarious and fallible.

I guess what I’m saying is…talk to people. Listen to them, too. Love is damn impossible, as is the rest of life. Try to be understanding, and try to be there for someone who needs someone. In the final analysis, all of us need all of us.

Warren Beatty Reacts to “You’re So Vain” (A McSweeney’s Castoff)

In which I house a homeless monologue

Here follows a piece which was rejected by not one but TWO online humor mags, one being the illustrious McSweeney’s Internet Tendency of Boston. Given the double distinction, I felt it merited self-publication. It is, I think, no meaner than the song.

It was a yacht party, Carly. Not sure what you expected of me. I was trying to make a good impression, which frankly was none of your concern given that we’d broken up a while ago. So maybe I erred on the excessive side. You know, we can’t all grow up in high society, flirting our way through those kinds of shindigs every other weekend. And what does it say about you that I worked my way into a class that you were born into and I’m more famous? Huh? You want to fix me with your judgment funnel, fine. I’ll funnel you right back. And not in a sexual way this time.

I mean, I didn’t know you were going to be there. And if you’re suffering from any delusion that I cared, well, you can get your head out of the clouds in your coffee right now. Believe it or not, there were other important people in my life while we were together, and since then all of those people have been bumped a spot higher on my list of priorities. I commend you for punching up, but I do not need that kind of negativity clouding my aura.

You seriously think just because you fit your side of the story into a catchy little pop song and enlisted your new BFF Mick Jagger to help you melodically bash me that I’m suddenly going to regret the choices I made? Well, you thought wrong. Also, that album cover looks like the paparazzi caught you coming out of a Wegman’s.

Oh, and as to what I was wearing: the scarf was a gift from my good friend Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew, right before he faked his own death so he could resurface later under a different name and make movies about stealing historical American documents. And the hat was an antique! It wasn’t even supposed to dip below one eye; that’s just the way it fell! Attributing all that to strategy—honestly, you give me too much credit. I had to keep checking the mirror to make sure I could see well enough not to fall flat on my face in the middle of the dance floor and endanger everyone in the vicinity. My head is smaller than you’d have it be, in multiple senses.

Hmph. Probably think this song is about me. Don’t insult my intelligence. It could only have been about me. That isn’t vanity, it’s a basic familiarity with my own life. If anything, you’re the vain one for belaboring the point long after the relationship ended. Move on, lady. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a communist movie to write, direct, and star in.

Image: No Secrets (1973), the album containing literally the biggest secret

Album Review: SONGS OF INNOCENCE

In which I celebrate an uncelebrated curio

Surprise!

You thought you’d left this album in the dust, huh?

Apple product users will remember it as the one that automatically streamed when U2 released it nearly six years ago. As an involuntary addition to millions of music libraries, it was also largely unwelcome; people griped about wanting to delete it and generally didn’t give it a chance. The physical release a month later moved only 101,000 units.

I kept it. I figured a U2 album must be at least okay, even if I wasn’t a die-hard fan. Still, I didn’t listen right away, but absorbed it bit by bit over the course of years, returning every now and again out of a semi-conscious desire to know it better. All the signposts of my ‘getting into’ an album were present: the instant hook (“Volcano” followed by a gradual incorporation of the other tracks. Then on Twitter this week, I mentioned the long gestation of my relationship to the record, which was met with a request for a review.

So here I am, giving an album that is not new the mulling-over it deserves. (Or the mullin’-over…the Larry Mullen-over…)

My instinct was to associate the title with Songs of Innocence and Experience (the 1789 poetry collection by that guy William Blake), an instinct supported by the Innocence + Experience Tour in 2015 and the could-have-been-predicted follow-up album Songs of Experience in 2017. I’ve always liked Blake, so I appreciated the reference, not least because I understood it, which was already more than I usually got from this band.

Understanding has long been my problem when it comes to U2. It’s not that I don’t think they make good music or even that I don’t like it; I just have yet to figure out what any song is about. They’re all kind of about religion and kind of about Ireland and kind of about existence…(I admire Bono for refusing to be boxed in by conventions of concrete language, but at what cost?) In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a lyrics person, so if I can’t engage with a lyric I need to do some work to make a connection. Now, given how U2 excel at instrumentation and arrangement, I’m often distracted from the lyric I’m unsuccessfully trying to parse apart by the ambient sound. A sound I feel like I can fall into and it will wrap itself around me. You know, ambient.

And this record brims with ambience. Each song has a groove that invites you to slip in before you realize it. You are, as “Every Breaking Wave” puts it, “helpless against the tide”—in fact, marine themes (ocean, beach, sand) pervade the whole, creating an undertow in which you can’t help but be dragged along. Additionally, the orchestration and sequencing give the impression of an ebb and flow, a rise and fall; instances of building (vocally/instrumentally/both) and of sudden release, exploding into revelation. We listeners are caught in the current. Heck, we may be drowning and we would never know.

These factors—combined with the lyrical through-line of giving in and giving up, bowing to the nonsense and the madness—ironically produce one of the most integrated and linear statements I’ve heard from U2. Here are the highlights.

Favorite track: “Volcano”

As I mentioned, this was my point of entry: friendly, accessible, a straight-up rock & roll song all the way up to the affirmation “you are rock & roll” in the bridge. The deep, propulsive bassline seized me from the beginning; the guitar, especially at the chorus, is brash and joyous in the dissonance it causes against the bass and vocal melody; the drums are heavy on the two and four. It’s danceable, helped along by the rhythm of the lyrics—a bit of a throwback to “Vertigo,” now I think of it. Coming at the album’s midpoint, this track is the axis upon which it revolves, and it’s bold and fun enough to shoulder that responsibility. I also just love the line (as linguistic and musical phrase) “Do you live here or is this a vacation?”

Favorite line: You’re breaking into my imagination / Whatever’s in there is yours to take. : “Song for Someone”

On an album full of ear-catching lyrics, of which this song boasts several—reminiscent of the Smiths, if only for the repeating plea not to let the light go out—this is the jewel. Part of the beauty of these moments is their brutality, their jagged edges, the violence bound up in them. Bono often draws subject matter out of the ugliness he has witnessed in his environment (the album closes with a number called “The Troubles”). In this case the aggression of the image is juxtaposed against a jarringly gentle delivery: the narrator adopts a stance of passivity, making no effort to resist even the invasion of his own mind.

Favorite chord progression: “California (There Is No End to Love)”

You know what a sucker I am. This is another high-energy track, with a driving, tripping drum line and lots of power chords. The “Ba-Ba-Barbara, Santa Barbara” intro is a nice tip of the hat to the Beach Boys; here ends any indication of the Wilsonian influence, though the overall effect is strangely similar—a sunny, breezy mix, the sonic equivalent of racing up the PCH. A listener’s interest is held by the equal-parts-major-and-minor chordal structure, the way the latter half of each verse differs just slightly from the former half, and the same with the refrain. I forgot how much I liked this song until I returned to it.

Other moments worth listening for:

  • The chant-like chorus of “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”
  • The melody, like a divine inspiration, of “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight”
  • The mile-a-minute image effect of “Raised by Wolves”
  • The central line of “Iris (Hold Me Close),” rising like…something out of the ether (not sure of the exact expression, but you know what I mean)
  • The moment you stop trying to determine what “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” has to do with Joey Ramone
  • Basically everything, because Bono really lives up to his namesake phrase at fifty-four

Belated as this meditation may be, someone had to do it; the album has been detrimentally overshadowed by a perhaps ill-advised marketing strategy. I don’t believe it deserves to bear that mark forever. On the other hand, barreling into our lives the way it did might have been an attempt to render its lyrics literal and teach us the value of surrender. To paraphrase “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” complete surrender must be the only weapon we know.

Image: cover of the Island/Interscope Records release, 9 September 2014

A Love Letter to José Carioca, Rio de Janeiro

In which the past catches up with me

My dear Joe,

We met at least twenty years ago, so I’ve always considered you a friend, but it’s different now. Aside from the standard byproduct of aging that causes one to see the hallmarks of childhood in a new light and with a new appreciation, I happen to have spent much of this year cornered in my apartment by the impossibility and/or fear of travel, calling on the far reaches of the internet to transport me to those childhood haunts. See, we have these things called streaming services and—oh, but all this means nothing to you in early-1940s Brazil. The point is it led me back to you.

And boy, am I glad. You haven’t changed a whit, you’ve only shown me how I have. The diligent animators paint you to life in the final few minutes of Saludos Amigos, and Donald Duck encounters you and wonders who you are and what’s going on in his barely-intelligible manner, and it takes me about ninety seconds of screen time to fall head over tail feathers in love with you. Your pronunciation of your own name and hometown, by way of introduction, is possibly the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard. (I was downright disarmed; I had to rewind.) And you puff up a little with pride as you do so, but it’s still modest? A modest pride? I don’t know. Evidently all my powers of language fail where you’re concerned. Anyway, then you realize this hapless duck you’re talking to is a movie star, whose work is familiar to you,* and you exclaim, “O Pato Donald? O Pato Donald!” and go off in rapid overexcited Portuguese, and by the time you start strumming your umbrella like a cavaquinho** I’ve lost track of where I am. What’s more, you’re tenacious: you manage to sustain a friendship with said hapless duck, carried over into The Three Caballeros, in which you spend an even longer stretch of time with him and somehow hang onto your patience despite his endless questioning and skirt-chasing. I mean, we all knew Donald was obnoxious, but he comes off almost irredeemably so beside such a gentleman as yourself. You, sir, can handle your cachaça. But then, if you can’t be a healthy influence on him, who can?

Honestly, you should see the look on my face as I write.

Even just laying eyes on you overwhelmed me with what you call saudade. A very romantic nostalgia indeed. You are the best-dressed bird I know, more debonair than you’ve any right to be in that hat and bowtie, and if I were ever to smoke a cigar it would be because you make it look effortlessly cool (I do have perfectly cool human friends who smoke cigars, but none has been sufficient to persuade me). I love how whatever you touch becomes a musical instrument, most often your umbrella (proof that the best characters carry umbrellas—see also: Mary Poppins, Jiminy Cricket), and how the art of duplicating and harmonizing with oneself is apparently second nature to you. All handy talents when paired with an impeccable taste in music. I love your natural and shameless bilingualism, which sets you apart both in and beyond Disney. You switch like it’s nothing, you normalized it before normalizing things was a trend. I love how taken with Bahia you are: your perspective of it left an impression on me back before my brain was developed enough to grasp the concept of place. Speaking of, I love that you live in an actual location which I could conceivably visit (someday). The Disney universe is full of lovely fake kingdoms. Thank you for giving me a lovely real one.

Also, that one-eyed thing you do. Irresistible.

I love that you’ve seen stuff, you know? You’re not some innocent. You’ve been around the block; you’ve learned where to be and when to be there. You have no reason not to be sure of yourself, and so you are.

I may love your sense of adventure the most, your knack for sweeping us up into shenanigans while we’re none the wiser. Any man who can do that is a keeper in my book. If that man is a charming, well-spoken, properly stylish parrot, so much the better.

Wait, though, it might be your dancing that I love most. Do you understand my dilemma? Ugh. I’d just pick you up and squeeze you if I could.

I’ve since been blessed with real-life friends who reflect a more detailed and practical—and admittedly up-to-date—picture of the culture you described to me. I’ve also had the good fortune to experience more of the world at large. But please take my gratitude for guiding me early on, for planting the seed so long ago. And if you want to take my heart, too, well, why not. You’ve earned it.

Beijos,

Cecilia

*Audience aside: I love an in-universe reference. Characters recognizing each other from elsewhere in the canon is something I am a fan of.

**Portugal’s answer to the ukulele, important to me for personal reasons.

Image: Really, people, how can you NOT?

How *Am* I?

In which I do not seriously ask that question, thank God

Language is weird.

My relationship to language learning has always been marked both by eagerness and a measure of trepidation, an uncertainty born of having to consciously try. I grew up in a monolingual household—it’s been at least two generations since either side of my family was truly bilingual—and thus have attained varying levels of proficiency in other languages through concentrated study, largely in an academic context. Mingling in Berlin’s international community, I am often presumed to be Italian, as in hailing direct from Italy rather than via two generations of assimilation statunitense. I am confronted by identity dysphoria every time I speak that language: although I consider myself fluent, I cannot claim to be the native speaker my name might suggest, and even a moment’s hesitation in composing a thought or sentence aloud reminds me that I acquired Italian over nearly a decade of coursework. (Before that, at the still-relatively-old age of eleven, I studied Mandarin, of which I’ve retained a few things that have carried me further than you might guess.) So as I continue my study of languages I know and would like to know, there is a constant current of doubt just below the surface, doubt in my own ability to master the mechanics of whatever it is I am speaking or writing or reading or understanding.

Now, I do love the thrill of the chase, and I do have some natural intuition for authentic pronunciation. This, then, is the devil’s pact I’ve made: a certain facility for picking up the tics and tricks that make a language what it is, paid for with a certain lack of self-assurance which comes and goes in waves. Hey, if I can build wonderful, unique, improbable, fruitful friendships with people all over the world, I can handle a little discomfort.

Besides, it yields a whole lot to think about, and not only because my current place of residence is requiring major linguistic adjustments. One advantage to Italian—besides its obvious bellezza—is the door it unlocks to its sister languages, whose differences are often just subtle enough to trip you up. I get an extra satisfaction from a lesson in French or Portuguese because I feel I’ve leveled up, made progress toward cracking the code that separates one Latin derivative from another. Lately, in fact, I’ve spent at least as much time thinking about Romance languages as I have about the definitely non-Romance language I am tackling for more immediate purposes. But all the secondary languages I’ve immersed myself in have left me puzzling over one key phrase in my mother tongue:

How are you?

Let’s put aside what a difficult question this is to begin with and look at the phrase itself. How are you? It’s a knee-jerk component of meeting and greeting in the English-speaking world, something that leaves people’s mouths automatically, almost perfunctorily. Most tellingly, it is not the Come vai/va? of Italian or the Wie geht’s? of German. It is not How is it going?—we say that too, just not as readily. It is a personal question, and it carries a sense of permanence to it, unlike in these other languages which acknowledge temporality and transience more fully. It becomes a more difficult question than it need be because it connotes a state not of short-term faring, but of long-term being.

Of course, in Italian (for example) there is also Come stai?, which, transliterated, would be How do you stay? This is less common than How do you/does it go?, but even so it suggests the temporary. The verb stare deals in temporary matters, existing in one place or situation on the way to another. You may express feelings of irritation or weariness or stress—heck, contentedness or excitement or peace—and simultaneously communicate, with your choice of verb, that these are only of the moment. For states of permanent being, there is another verb–essere–which allows me to say Sono una ragazza (I am a girl) or Sono un’americana (gotcha, Deutschland!).

Meanwhile, when one says in English that they are tired, there is no linguistic distinction between this and the fact that they are thirty years old. In fact, this highlights the Romance family’s further accounting for all sorts of states: Italian uses avere (to have) to discuss age, as in Tu hai trent’anni. In English the one verb covers everything. For all non-native speakers know, those states of being we know to be temporary could last forever, because there is no verbal signal otherwise. To my knowledge, the only way of remaining thirty years old forever is to drink from the magical spring in Tuck Everlasting, and the only way of remaining tired forever is…to live in the year 2020. *laughs weakly*

Anyway, all this to say that the more intelligence I gather about the differences in language structures, the less I envy ESL students. I reckon almost no language provides a steeper uphill battle. Gallivanting about, proclaiming ourselves to be this or that…it’s inaccurate and probably a bit arrogant to act so declarative. We could stand to take a leaf out of the Romance and/or Germanic books. Come to think of it, the phrase we English-speakers should bring back is How do you do? Not only does it at least allude to a more temporary phase of life, it’s classy as hell.

Image: from “Broad City,” S02 E08