Saturday, February 22, 2014

When You’re the Worst

In the summer of 1997 I was dating a woman so volatile that she destroyed my apartment after I asked her to leave. I came home to find clothes thrown everywhere, furniture turned over, and dishes broken in anger, the outlines of drinking glasses etched perfectly into the wall where she had smashed them.
By then I had met someone else. A few weeks earlier, this other girl and I had gone on a picnic. We spread a blanket near a reservoir in the west hills. We ate a salad that she had not washed well and for a while we pretended we did not notice the grit. Eventually we laughed at all the sand between our teeth. We talked about work—my permanent job and her summer job. We talked about her going back to school in a couple of weeks. We looked at the shiny water and the sun going down. She knew about the other girl, so we acted as if it was not a date. The water turned gold then darkened as we kept talking. I always felt somewhat ridiculous around her. She was very tall and towered over me. She was smart and was working on a Japanese degree at university. She came from a comfortable suburban family. I worked 40 hours a week at a grocery store and had taken some classes at community college. I drank at a bar with old time drunks, young people who would soon be dead, and people that killed themselves over gambling debts. She and I were different kinds of people, let’s say. As we were packing up I told her that in the little time I had gotten to know her I had become fond of her. “I’m fond of you,” is what I actually said because I have always liked anachronistic, artificial language. I also told her that I was dating a maniac and that it was a good thing she was going back to school so that nothing would get overly complicated.

After she left for school we wrote letters. I sent her a mixtape that was a fairly transparent cipher. She, being cleverer, sent me poetry in languages I couldn’t read. So I broke up with the other girl and she destroyed my apartment. The new girl rode the bus 100 miles to come visit me and that’s how we started. Because of her I began to see new possibilities for myself. I finished community college and got a scholarship to her university. After a couple of years, I discovered what I wanted to do and my life finally had purpose. She remained tall and pretty and smart through it all. She loved me unconditionally, perhaps better than anyone ever has. But I changed. I wanted something else, someone better. Eventually I wanted to destroy what we had just for the sake of not having it anymore. She loved me all the way to the end, until I made sure there was nothing left of us.

It is many years later. She has a family with someone else. One time I ran into her in yet another grocery store, I was with my daughter and she was with her son and she was as kind and gentle as always. I don’t know how she remembers the relationship we had.  But I know how I feel about it. When Jhene Aiko sings “You ain’t shit/And you weren’t special/Til I made you so,” I know exactly what she means.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Prettiest of Views

It’s hard to explain why Anna Kendrick’s “When I’m Gone (Cups)” has been on the radio for such a long time. It must have something to do with nostalgia. It sounds like a song that you might have learned at camp, where you sang it with friends while also learning the “cup game” that came along with it. The repetitiveness of the lyrics and their elemental quality suggest a song easily learned and earnestly sung.  This is a song that some adolescent girls will sing together even if they don’t really like it and some adolescent boys will love with all their hearts even if they pretend to hate it. As an adult, it reminds you obliquely of how you viewed adulthood from the perspective of a teenager.

But the structure of the song also hints at some version of the American past that feels both colorful and safe. “I’ve got my ticket for the long war round/Two bottle whiskey for the way,” she sings. And that seems right: just enough whiskey to stay pleasantly buzzed on a long train ride but not enough to get crazy, enough whiskey to pretend that you are like the hobo from the “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and the little streams of alcohol of hobo dreaming are right there in your bottle. A pretended past, a bright past, a past without the fear of homelessness, of deprivation, of hunger, and the need to escape that reality with drunken delirium. That is, this song constitutes a simulacrum of the past as it is represented in a fantasy like O Brother Were Art Thou?, a movie that features the song “Big Rock Candy Mountains” and could have featured “When I’m Gone.” A simulacrum that in our society of images becomes confused with reality so that many people experience a film like O Brother Were Art Thou? as if it were the real representation of a past more organic and comforting than the present. Indeed, that past seems more that way in that movie but not because that is nature of the past but because it is represented as such.

Perhaps the deepest type of nostalgia in “When I’m Gone” is felt in its view of nature. In the second verse Kendrick sings that her ride has “the prettiest of views/It’s got mountains; it’s got rivers/ It’s got sights to give you shivers.” The description places you inside the railroad car with her. You view a landscape distanced from you by the glass on the picture window. The choice of common nouns (mountains, rivers) renders those features in ideal terms, so that in picturing her words you provide perfectly idealized mental visions of them. This is not nature but the pastoral, a composed and picturesque rendering of the natural world. This prettiest of views reveals both our desire for communion with nature and the fundamental break, figured in this song as a glass partition, between the human world and the natural world in the Western imagination. Luk√°cs says that the more Western people see the natural world as their true and necessary home, the more alienated they feel from the social world they have constructed. This is not to say that we are actually separate from the natural world from which we emerged and on which we depend. We are indeed earth animals and despite the vivid imaginations of popular culture that portray us as living on other planets this is the only planet anyone reading this will ever live on. Nonetheless, it appears to me that the distinction between a humanity that stands elevated over a natural world that serves it primarily as matter is one of the oldest structures of our worldview. We may appreciate its beauty, understand that it alone can satisfy all of our material necessities, nostalgically long to feel it as our only true home, but just the same it will remain separated from us by the very thinking that recognizes it as something essentially different from who we are.