the current

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“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)

My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”

I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.

But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.

Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.

Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.

Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).

 

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

nostalgia’s impotence

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“My bitterness over nostalgia’s impotence to revive and resurrect becomes a tearful rage against God, who created impossibilities, when I think about how the friends of my dreams – with whom I’ve shared so much in a make-believe life and with whom I’ve had so many stimulating conversations in imaginary cafés – have never had a space of their own where they could truly exist, independent of my consciousness of them!”-The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa

Nostalgia is no new topic here or anywhere. We dwell in nostalgia’s hallways and cellars too frequently – so frequently it is almost indecent, ignoring the obscenity of the inability to let go, elevating it in fact in many cultures and languages to be the highest form of memory and admiration.

“Even if time is just a manmade construct and has no inherent evil whatsoever. All that is truly deceptive about it is our human caprice and wont to waste time, playing games – or rather waste feelings, being petty and not doing what our heart really desires in life. Time and our perception of it imbues us with false confidence, with fear, with nostalgic sentimentality.”

In previous writings on the subject I had been writing about my memories of Japanese language camp, the passage of time and nostalgia without even touching on the Japanese-language term “natsukashi”, which is roughly the same as “nostalgia”, filled with the same push-pull of longing/sadness and sentimentality/if-only/some-other-life feeling. How many times have I spoken to a Japanese person who, with that telltale faraway look in their eye said wistfully, “Natsukashi…”, their voice trailing off as the mind traveled into the murky mists of the past. Even in citing Japanese poet Tamura and writing: “It is also the nostalgia – looking back at people, events – what has deeply affected and wounded us, things we carry for years, imprinted on us even when the person or event is long ago and the deep impression we have belies the brevity of these memorable encounters”, I still didn’t think of ‘natsukashi’.

But then ‘natsukashi’ leapt to mind yesterday when I had a long conversation about living in the past, not being able to let go, nostalgia and how difficult it is when one lives in her own conception of how the past was – her own nostalgia – and eventually faces the reality that the others who populated that storied past do not share the same perception of that past. It shouldn’t be necessary to reconcile one’s own view of the past and sense of longing for it with another’s view, in which longing plays no part. In fact without these mismatches, I imagine we’d have much less of the bittersweet poetry, literature and music we covet; I imagine we’d have nowhere near as much invested in nostalgia: in fact an integral part of nostalgia may in fact be that we are grasping for something that never really existed.

What Cannot Be
Odysseus Elytis

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Photo (c) 2017 – SD

And you give yourself away

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Birthdays are a funny time when you hear from people you never hear from; often people you have never heard from or actually talked to in your entire life, thanks to the wonders of invasive Facebook (of course it is only invasive because I let it be).

A guy with whom I had no actual acquaintance in junior high (and even less in high school), never sharing so much as a single one-on-one conversation but perhaps shared a handful of sarcastic group conversations, mostly arguing the (non-)merits of U2 (with whom I was abnormally preoccupied as an adolescent, steeped in the mania of the freshly released Joshua Tree album), popped up in my Facebook messages.

Back in junior high, my then-best friend and I were certifiably obsessed, and preached full-on religious zealotry like televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at their zenith: Deliver U2 to the ignorant heathens: “THROW YOUR MONEY AT THESE IRISH LADS!” (I find these ‘lads’ in their past-middle-age incarnation to be rather sanctimonious, just as they were then – but a 12-year-old girl can’t see shit through the rose-colored glasses and distant, mystical music that plays silently when you mentally mythologize the Irish in any context.) That’s not to say that I don’t find The Joshua Tree to be an end-to-end marvel of aural achievement – only that my interest in U2 as a group dissipated along with most of the persistent drilling of teenage madness. Never again have I been as fervent a defender or ardent fan of anything, despite my wide-ranging passion for music. Perhaps after the U2 period, I moved fluidly into a ‘Madchester’ and shoegaze phase, but the musical palette continued to expand (and continues to this day), so U2 is a kind of speck on the horizon, even if they were the spark toward painting that multi-hued horizon. (And are, apparently, atop the list of anodyne sounds programmers report listening to while they work.)

But the point, though, was that this barely-an-acquaintance guy, who seems as an adult to be a genuine, cool and lovely person, but who had seemed in our youth, however vaguely I ‘knew’ him, like a too-cool, textbook-definition total dick (but this may well have been surface-level bravado; how many times have I written about the surface versus what’s underneath? We were all assholes at times, me included.), wrote to wish me a happy birthday and added: “U2 is still touring and playing the Joshua tree album, I was wrong in 8th grade and you were so right.”

In some weird way, I was touched, and this (here I am laughing) ‘vindication’ of my aggressive passion (he and his friends slagged off U2 at the time, but I don’t know if that was just to be contrary the way teenage boys are when they don’t have any idea how to actually communicate) was like its own happy little birthday present.

one more hour

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I have one more hour in which I am allowed to mope.

Therefore, I give you … Sam Phillips’s “I Can’t Stop Crying”. All at once a jagged, near-power-pop painful reminder of spring/summer 1989, a reminder of the wandering-through-Reykjavik spring of 2008 (my final months in Iceland) and a trigger for the current waves of disturbance in otherwise calm waters.

“I saw black and you saw red
Crawled to separate corners
the line went dead I closed my heart up tore your love
for me to shreds

Tangled wires, love can’t breathe
pulling tighter to my ruthless need
Don’t look down I want you unconsolably

I can’t stop crying
Stubborn distance closes in
with your assistance bitterly begin
To build a wall of silence cutting soul in two
Cloudy water in my eyes
I’m ashamed of words with secret knives
In dream I scream but you can’t
Hear me calling you

I know that this heartache is
A speck in the sky of love
But it’s all I feel around me”

Meandering memories with The Stone Roses

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Sometimes I fantasize
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me
Don’t these times fill your eyes
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars, they burn below me
Are you all alone?
Is anybody home?

It was 1990, and I was in the full throes of my short-lived but passionate anglophilia. I tried to remake my suburban American life in the shape and form of something entirely different, and what better way to make anything new and beautiful – and most importantly – different – than through music? What different sound could I find that could firmly establish this otherness without the freedom to go be a part of some otherness? These were slow times when overexcited teenage musical discoveries were like hard-fought battles with near-exclusivity the spoils.

Lucky for me, I had been obsessed with reaching out into the wider world through my penfriendships, and exchanged letters with Peter, a bricklayer from Durham, England. I will never be able to express the mania, madness, joy that washed over me when his parcels would arrive, filled with cassettes (!) of exactly this otherness I had desperately sought. The first tapes he sent: The Stone Roses’ first – and in fairness near-only – album (the second could never live up to that debut). It transformed everything. He continued to send me more tapes of everything that characterized the ‘Madchester’ scene and other music from the same period. I felt like I had stumbled into a goldmine into which only I had access (it was a while before America was fully on board, and even if enclaves of people embraced this music, it was not as though it made its mark on my community).

I distinctly remember a day, walking home from a PSAT or SAT practice test (or something like that – a Saturday morning sacrificed to standardized testing, in any case), with “Made of Stone” playing on my Walkman. Is it overstating it to say that everything seemed different to me after that time? In some way, it was. It was – even if other friends adopted the music and we shared it – an assertion of my own tastes and identity outside of that of my friends. The first step toward something different. Sure, that something different did not turn out to be moving to England, which, in my youth, I long believed I wanted to do. But it was a big stepping stone to figuring out tangibly that there was a much bigger world out there with a lot of different kinds of people in it. Some of them were working as bricklayers and writing letters to fawning American girls. Some of them were making music and going to raves in a depressed late-80s Manchester.

Today, returning from Manchester, where I spent a few days with my brother seeing The Stone Roses reunion, seeing the iconic Haçienda transformed into apartments and generally taking it all in, I am starkly reminded of how I felt, how it was, to feel such intense feelings about music, about the sense of place (the sense of wanting to be in a different place). It’s been 26 years since I walked through the streets of the town where I grew up, overcome by and elated at this new sound – these new possibilities.

Today I am wandering the streets of Oslo, bound by sun and a few clouds, wondering in some way how I got here. In life, that is. Scandinavia was nowhere on my radar back in 1990, and yet this is where I feel happiest and at home. And listening to the Roses as I walked around the sun-dappled Oslo train station and opera house, I create new and very different memories around these same songs that carried me through suburban American streets and experiences. The songs are the same but are no longer the ones that made me feel lonely but understood – and held the promise of different ‘othernesses’ – and now hold this bittersweet nostalgia in every note and word.

Of course with nostalgia there is also the past – whatever happened to the northern boy bricklayer Peter, who introduced me to all of this and spoke in an accent I could not begin to understand? My best friend from that period, too, where has she gone? I thought of her so much as I wandered Manchester and saw this concert we would have killed to see when we were 15. I know neither she nor I are the people we were then, but the heartstrings were pulled. Hard.

 

Striking midnight: Just your ghost passing through

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I have been forcing myself to get into bed by midnight every night. I might not fall asleep immediately, but I am there, mostly tucked in and ready for the cuddle that isn’t coming. Haha.

Tonight I am listening – for the first time in ages – Tori Amos‘s Boys for Pele. I had a bunch of Shiseido stuff sitting on my kitchen table for some reason, and I can’t hear or see the word “Shiseido” without thinking of the lyrics from “Muhammad My Friend“:

And on that fateful day, when she was crucified, she wore Shiseido red, and we drank tea by her side…

This is, incidentally, the only reason I am listening to this album, even if there are other bits of it that resonate with me still. Tori Amos is a very 1999-2000 thing for me. A transitional cache of music that carried me through the end of a relationship (that seemed unequivocally adult at the time, but reflecting, I see I was little more than a child in many ways – as he’d said, “You are two years old – maximum!”) and saw my decisionmaking take twists and turns that seemed illogical at the time but have slowly led me to where I am now.

I was never one of the rabid fans, didn’t jump on board right away during the heyday that followed Tori’s first two albums. It was later, looking for CDs (you know, when CDs were a thing) in a Borders (you know, when Borders was a thing) bookstore (erm, yeah, uh, you know when bookstores were a thing!) in Kahului, Hawaii, to serve as the soundtrack of our driving around Maui for a week. I found only Tori CDs and decided, despite having lukewarm feelings about her music, these would have to do. They struck a nerve for me, forever tied to that summer of intertwined endings and beginnings. The Maui sun, the tying up loose ends on the master’s thesis, the summer-long departure for a dreadful European bus trip (it was even worse than that sounds, despite all the things I saw and experiences I had). The culmination of it all in Iceland – the first time in my life that I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. Driving from Akureyri back to Reykjavik with Anna in the middle of the night at the end of Verslunarmannahelgi weekend through the thickest fog I have ever seen – trying not to hit an errant sheep and stay awake while blasting Tori’s Under the Pink.

Tori Amos was the soundtrack of these transitions – but by 2005 I did not care any longer, and The Beekeeper is the last album I am conscious of seeking out. By then, it was all just treading old ground, and if you know me, you know I don’t like doing that.

It is still raining in Tokyo

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As I fell asleep last night the meteorologist on Al Jazeera English stated, “It is *still* raining in Tokyo.” A deliberate pause and emphasis on “still”. I was half asleep, but it is amazing how a simple statement like, “It is still raining in Tokyo” immediately jolts vivid memories into the active mind.

I was suddenly walking in a downpour in Tokyo, perhaps the only one on the busy street without an umbrella. It was September, hot and even more humid.

the things that excite-sadden-inspire-create-suffering in us

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Meeting a guy who professionally sold office supplies and offered me an endless supply of different pens on a regular basis. Yeah, back then, that was fab. But not the kind of guy I was going to, say, marry. But back then fistfuls of pens would get me really excited.

These triggers for excitement change a lot… strange to think that nowadays I get really fired up talking about infection control or antibiotic resistance or cutting-edge plastic surgery techniques.

Or that I am excited when new web browsers come into the world.

And then the things that make us inexpressibly sad. US Vice President Joe Biden and all the loss he has experienced. Reading an MIT commencement address delivered long ago by former politician Paul Tsongas (before he died, young). Lachrymose, feeling this mortality and the grief unfolding. More nostalgic than normal.

Seeing that Duran Duran will play the WA State Fair… igniting Duran nostalgia, reminding me of a third-grade field trip back when chaperone parents were still allowed to drive kids in private cars – I went with a guy whose mom had a new Camaro or something like that and we listened to Seven and the Ragged Tiger over and over. I envied that her car had a cassette deck and could automatically reverse and play the tapes. My parents’ car, which eventually became my car, had nothing of the sort.

In junior high my best friend and her “former” best friend from elementary school went to see Duran Duran on their sort of “comeback” tour in 1988 – funny to think of it being a comeback since they had not really gone anywhere. They had just gone quiet for a handful of years. I imagine that I protested and pretended to like Duran less than I did because I was jealous that my friend and her former friend (just because their parents would buy them tickets, of course) were going to the concert.

I write about this former friend a lot, especially in the throes of nostalgia, because so many things remind me of her. Hearing U2, Robyn Hitchcock, Crowded House, being in Scotland, seeing Starburst candy (which is not the norm here in Sweden), making snickerdoodle cookies or cinnamon rolls (she was always the one to make the glaze).

We drifted apart long before we actually lost touch entirely. For so many years I wanted to have closure or to know that she was okay. She really just disappeared from the face of the earth and there was no way for me to find her. She is one of the few people without a discernible web identity/presence. It’s almost impressive. I went out of my way trying to find out for a really long time, making a nuisance of myself at times.

I have mostly let go of that, and I have come to understand the selfishness of that need. Maybe she wasn’t okay and my demanding to know she was could have been just another nagging thing for her. Especially because her well-being is and was not my business. Our past friendship creates no obligation for her to share any of it. I still hope she is well, regardless. Sigh – the intensity of youth friendship and that compact worldview of youth make it hard to imagine a closer friendship even if, reflecting, there was very little to it.

Shifting perceptions: “Show some class”

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My feeling that Norway is living eternally in the second half of the 1980s is not going to change, even if all the rest of my perceptions shift constantly. Evidence to prove this: every time I get in my car and drive somewhere, Norwegian radio is playing Michael Jackson. Never the same song, but it’s Michael all the time. And when it’s not Michael, it’s Richard Marx, it’s Bryan Adams, it’s Berlin, it’s Billy Ocean or some other thing I don’t want to hear – in the 80s or now.

As a corollary to this everlasting musical 80s timewarp, I have become known as the harbinger of death because I seem to trip over news of celebrity deaths accidentally (am watching or listening to news almost constantly) or just know about past celeb deaths.

I was in the car the other day, and got immediate proof positive of this 1980s assertion: Jermaine Stewart‘s one-hit wonder, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”, blasted from the radio. I listened to the lyrics as if for the first time and could not really figure our why a song like this would exist. And who the bloody hell would drink cherry wine?

My firewall and I spent the whole evening singing it and reveling in the cheesy nostalgia.

But then, being me, I just had to know: what became of Jermaine Stewart? One hit and then gone… well, DEAD is what he is. Apparently he died in 1997 of AIDS-related liver cancer. What? Maybe because he was not really that famous, his death came and went without much fanfare. Or I was just not paying attention.

Whether or not Stewart knew his infection status in 1986 when the song was a hit, knowing this information, I hear the song filtered through that mid-80s terror of AIDS. It is more a safe-sex anthem than anything else (like many songs of the era) but it had never once occurred to me that that song fit such a bill. But listening to it armed with this information, it’s like a completely different song.

But there are new filters and lenses for everything, really. I was listening to Jim Croce the other day, remembering listening to him and looking at an album cover (a close-up of his distinctive face) when I was 4 years old. My mom explained that Croce had died a few years earlier in a plane crash. He was 30. I recall even today what I was thinking when she gave me this background information, “So what? He was old. He did everything he needed to do.” The level of a 4-year-old kid’s reasoning: 30 seemed like a good, full life. Looking at it now, of course, I am taken aback reflecting on his youth, the promising career cut short, the 2-year-old son he left behind.

I admit it. I am feeling nostalgic, contemplative about the shifting filters and perceptions that come with age and time. I am feeling mortal.

Lunchtable TV talk – The Goldbergs: Nostalgia makes me cry, as do robot overlords

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The Goldbergs was a bit over the top for me in the beginning, but as I continued to watch, the 1980s nostalgia eventually won me over. Many, many moments choke me up with tears. The show manages to evoke nostalgia, emotion without being overly saccharine. And I suppose people who did not grow up in that era might not feel as strongly about it. But they can find other points to connect with emotionally (the importance of family, the connection the crazy mother has with the kids, the sense of not wanting your kids to grow up, the feeling that everyone is awkward in youth but eventually, with the right guidance, they find their voice and path). It is interesting to watch the Goldberg kids grow up.

A recent episode made me laugh out loud. The dad wonders why someone would destroy a perfectly good Fiero to make a robot when the youngest, Adam, enthuses about the greatness of The Transformers (toys and cartoon). Adam pits the “stupidity” of a game “where grown men hit a ball with a stick” against his future run by robots. Argument ensues about baseball versus robots – America’s pastime (past) and its robotic future.

“Robots aren’t even real.”

“Oh you’ll see how real they are when cyborgs take over and outlaw your precious baseball.”