Last night I got to spend some time with my friend Sam. We hadn’t hung out, just the two of us, for a while – maybe not since June was born, if I really think about it. Sometime in the next month, Sam will become a dad. We’ve somehow been friends for nearly a decade. When I got into his car last night, he had R.E.M.’s Out of Time in the CD player. “Texarkana” was on. We got stuck in traffic, because it was rush hour in Seattle, but it was okay, because we were talking about being kids listening to R.E.M., Automatic for the People especially, and all the Big Feelings we were just starting to know then, feelings set to the soundtrack of Michael Stipe‘s voice. I remember being thirteen, or maybe fourteen, dancing alone in my bathroom to “Sitting Still,” in the rental house we lived in that year, between the house on Westchester and the house on Elmhurst. I was once fifteen years old, lying on my bedroom floor in a black t-shirt and a pair of too-big men’s pants that I bought at a thrift store for fifty cents, listening to “Find the River” and sobbing without knowing why. I didn’t like “Everybody Hurts,” but for the most part, when I listen to Automatic for the People, I get a sense that I’m witnessing a person at the height of his power, the height of his art, the same feeling I get when I watch Stevie Nicks sing the demo version of “Wild Heart.” I’d never really thought of R.E.M. as a band I particularly loved, but I’ve now spent all morning now listening to them, Murmur to “Oh My Heart,” and it’s been the best morning I can remember.
Earlier this morning, before my private R.E.M. listening party, I was helping June to put on her socks and shoes, and she asked me what the word “weird” means. I bumbled through an explanation that I hoped would be appropriately calibrated to her three-year-old brain, trying to explain why it’s okay – more than okay; good – to be weird. I hope that, as she gets older, she finds people who can help her to understand it on her own terms, the way that Michael Stipe, and David Byrne, and poetry, and novels, and my spouse, and our friends, the way they’ve done for me.
Wow, this music is really doing things to me.
It’s been a good week. Last night, we went to hear Alison Bechdel speak at Town Hall. I was first introduced to her work when I was writing A Homemade Life and my friend Kristen loaned me her copy of Fun Home. I didn’t know why she gave it to me, and I’d never read a book in cartoon format, but I quickly understood that, as much as it’s about Bechdel’s coming out, it’s also about the relationship between a father and a daughter, which is what I was attempting to write myself. And Fun Home is spectacular: honest, direct, funny, raw, and also deeply loving. Bechdel seems to be much the same in person, and I grinned like an idiot through her entire talk last night about writing, art, and creativity, and the complexities of family. Also! She mentioned Richard Scarry as an early influence, and HELLO, WOW, is my life right now ever full of Richard Scarry. I hope June is paying attention.
Speaking of formative influences, please go read this piece by George Saunders immediately.
Also terrific, thought-provoking, and only tangentially related to anything else in this post: an old episode of On Being, “What We Nurture,” with Sylvia Boorstein. (I subscribe to the podcast of On Being and highly recommend it.)
And I don’t always listen to my own podcast, Spilled Milk, because nobody likes hearing her own voice, but I listened to the grapes episode yesterday and was still thinking about it, and laughing about it, when I woke up today.
Happy Friday, everybody. I hope you and yours are well.