Death to the thing that you become

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I have been listening to a lot of records lately. After hearing my third mp3-filled hard drive sputter and die---the sound of millions of songs that took ten years to amass suddenly silenced---I have a renewed interest in the permanence of vinyl; the tactile pleasure of analog. Someday I will die and surely they will cart my record collection off to the thrift store, and as with most things cyclical or circular, I find some small comfort in that. Further, the length of one side of an LP seems to be the perfect amount of music to bounce Gram to sleep. As I lack lactating breasts, the old yoga ball and gramophone trick is the only one I know.

The first kid preferred early Johnny Cash albums, but what seems to work best with Gram is singing along embarrassingly with Side B of the passionate, undecipherable madness of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, an album much-remembered this year of its tenth anniversary. I listen to it now, and like everyone else who loves it, I'm brought back to where and who I was when I first heard it: I'd spent a year living with six of the best guys in the world and I was about to leave for law school. The album was recommended by one of those friends (now lost to me) who moved to Athens, Georgia for graduate school and quickly immersed himself in the music scene there. Every time I went down to visit him it felt like Hipster Hollywood: you might rent a movie from Kevin Barnes or buy an Olivia Tremor Control CD from a record-store clerk who played clarinet on seven of the songs. You might order a Maker's Mark and ginger ale next to Mike Mills at the Manhattan Cafe. One time I nearly ran into Michael Stipe on Prince Ave. with a giant sheet cake draped over his forearms. There was always a party somewhere. Everyone you met was in a band. After one long night of debauchery we were walking home and found an old wheelchair on the sidewalk and after spending a few minutes looking for Vic Chesnutt in the bushes we decided it was abandoned and took turns pushing each other home in it. Cool town, Athens.

One evening we were standing outside the Grit when in a blur of ugly flannel Jeff Mangum walked past us. A girl with us knew him from somewhere and he stopped to talk to her for a minute and then went back on his way downtown. A few hours later we were drinking at the Flicker and Mangum walked in and sat alone at the bar for over an hour, drinking tea and talking to no one. I followed the Official Athens Code of Conduct and did not attempt to talk to, acknowledge, or gaze directly at him. But I will admit I was silently awestruck just to be in his presence. Soon after, Mangum left Athens, stopped making music, and spiraled into the seclusion I suppose he wanted.

I stopped visiting my friend in Athens after my first child was born. He stopped calling me while sober at some point, and then stopped drunkenly calling me in the middle of the night. He was no longer awed by the rock stars: he became one of them. He joined a band and through the weird prism of his flickr stream I can see him happy now in photos of bloody concert injuries, bass-drum surfing, new tattoos, new girls, tour buses, beards, cooler friends, and snapshots from the SXSW Vice Magazine party. I am happy for him. I can't help but feel like the bourgeois putz I was always destined to be, though, sitting here on a yoga ball listening to a ten-year-old album with nothing on my agenda except getting a newborn baby to stop crying. But I can't really blame my kids for any of this: the loss of old friends, all these divergent trajectories. That's my fault. It started long before them.

Sometimes I still feel like I'm supposed to be the same person I was ten years ago. But I've changed. Of course I have. When I sit here with my son and these songs, I try to remember what I thought of Mangum's lyrics in 1998: the impassioned paeans to Anne Frank, the sense of polluted childhood, the confrontation of innocence and sexuality. None of it really made sense to me then, but it didn't matter. It still doesn't make much sense, but Mangum still sings as though it should. With all this re-listening, certain phrases echo in my head all day: mostly all that uninterpretable mysticism of familial dysfunction. I look down at my sleeping son in my arms and I know there's nothing I can do to prevent myself from damaging him, from failing him in the million ways I must as a father. I cannot simply restrain myself and save him from this. The damage will not come from anything I do. It will be the result of me just being me.

Even if I were to do everything in my power not to damage him, not to fail him, wouldn't this in itself be damage, a form of failure? Who ever brags of having a perfect childhood? Perfect parents? No one wants to hear impassioned songs about perfect childhoods, as if there were such a thing. I need to fail, to falter. I need to give him my shoulders to stand on; my life to surmount. I know that one day he must hate me and resent everything I represent. If he doesn't, something must be wrong with him. Or me.

I believe this knowledge is what makes the time right now---terrible as it is---seem so precious. It is what derailed any career I'd hoped to establish, this surety. I remember reading somewhere that babies my son's age don't yet understand that they are separate from their parents, that independence is a state of being every baby discovers on its own. So I hold him close to me while the first lines of "Two-Headed Boy, Part Two" are amplified through a Sansui receiver that's older than me; sometimes I take off my shirt and hold him skin-to-skin as if this might fool him into unlearning what he has been learning, confuse him into thinking for a moment that we are not separate, but one. The heft of responsibility weighs on me. I think of the dread I felt during my wife's first pregnancy; I think of friends older than me who still tell me they're too young, too irresponsible, too unsettled to have kids. What is it we all really fear even if we don't yet know how to articulate it?

A parent must do everything in his power to protect a creature that must do everything in its own power to grow independent of him. You can't be The Man and still flip off The Man.

Gram won't stop crying in the middle of the night. I bite my knuckles. He's slowly destroying me, but I can't blame him for being born. I have to let him damage me, and weaken me, and destroy what I once was so I can be the kind of parent he actually needs me to be.

And yet it is no small part of me that relishes the destruction.