Wednesday, June 27, 2012

This Life

André Kertész, "Fork, Paris," 1928
I was listening to a podcast of This American Life as I went for a run in the park tonight, and on this one segment the guy being interviewed was saying that when we finally get it together to confront our parents about past hurts or mistakes years after the fact, we suddenly realize that they're no longer the same people who once hurt or slighted us or whatever. They're just these old, loving, gentle people. So the confrontation isn't at all satisfying.

There's nothing I really feel the need to confront my parents about anymore, even if they were capable of understanding me. I really can't think of anything about Mom (not that she was perfect, but any failing seems minor in retrospect); I can think of two or three biggies about Dad, but I let go of those years ago. Truly, if anything makes me feel grown-up (and lots of things are still capable of making me feel not grown-up at age 50, believe me), it's that these particular things just haven't mattered for so long.

This past Sunday, I sat at one table in the memory-care dining room feeding Mom while my sister sat ten feet away at another feeding Dad. In both their cases, sometimes my parents are able to get the food on a fork or spoon and into their mouths on their own, but usually they're not, whether because of arthritis, dementia, jitters, fatigue, distraction, or any number of other factors. Most nights, when I'm not there, I assume a caregiver assists them. (One evening when I arrived, Dad had eaten all of his dessert but hadn't touched the main course; as soon as I started helping him, he ate every bite.)

If you'd asked me a couple of years ago how I thought it would feel to be spoon-feeding my parents, I couldn't have found the words to describe the fear and anticipated sorrow. Now that the time has arrived, it feels surprisingly easy.

Who doesn't know how to feed someone? Turns out that's something we learn very well without even trying.

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Friday, June 01, 2012

It's Going to Take Some Time

King with Gerry Goffin and Paul Simon (right). 
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
I just finished Carole King’s new book, A Natural Woman. Yes, one of my “things” is biographies and memoirs about ’60s and ’70s singer/songwriters. This is among the best—it’s simply and cleanly written, with a friendly sense of humor and no pretension (except for a slight uptick in name-dropping toward the end, which is excusable because in her life she has so successfully resisted the empty trappings of stardom). It’s the story of a real journey, punctuated by both vulnerability (an abusive marriage) and conviction (motherhood, living much of her adult life close to the land, political activism).

And creativity—jeez. Her first big songwriting hit, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow," came out when she was 18. And she’d already been writing songs for years (often forgotten: she didn’t write the words, even on most of Tapestry, until later in her career). She composed “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in about a day when a producer asked her and her then-husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin, if they could come up with a song for Aretha Franklin with something like the title “Natural Woman” (this at a time, the late ’60s, when their songwriting star seemed to be on the descent). Her description of how humbling and thrilling it felt to hear Aretha sing it for the first time is a reminder that at some point cultural givens didn’t exist. And then they did—and will forever.

I enjoyed this book so much despite the fact that, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve never listened to Tapestry, one of the bestselling albums of all time, in its entirety.

One of the things that most struck me was that King became a star despite her ongoing resistance (for instance, going five years in the 1980s without recording when she was living in rural Idaho), but she became one nevertheless—on her own terms. That’s the element that’s in too short supply today.

In a chapter about her 2005 tour, she writes: “Why have I spent so much of my life pushing away from this thing I do that people seem to enjoy, and that I, too, enjoy, so much? Was it because I wanted to experience other things, other lifestyles, other adventures, other career paths? Are those such bad things to want? . . .

“It’s always been important to me to encourage the best in people, and music has been my principal instrument in doing that. And yet I kept pushing music away because I thought it was keeping me from having a normal life.
“At this moment I understand that for me, music is normal life.”

This realization (at least as written) comes when she’s 63 years old.

I go through a lot of handwringing about my own relationship to creativity (including what it’s taken me a long time to realize is my principal instrument—teaching). I’m a writer who spends most of his life not writing. Is that normal for me? Or am I just waiting for the next chapter?

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