So. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Not only am I in a band, I’m writing a Middle Mojo-themed column for the New York Times. It’s called The Creative Mid-Life and it works like this: I call an artist, ask them questions about the impact of aging on their creative lives, and our conversation goes in the New York Times. Neat. I had an interesting talk with Tori Amos, who has some thoughts about anger and discipline and motherhood and taking a different route to the coffee shop. Read all about it.
A couple of weeks ago Gary suggested I start a song with a bass line. I don’t play the bass, hadn’t ever picked one up, but I’ve tried enough of his crazy ideas to know that they are not crazy at all. Mostly they have to do with limitations. I seem to prefer choices. Maybe it’s a California thing. Endless summer means endless possibilities. But songwriting is ass-kickingly unfamiliar terrain, and when you’re struggling to get the lay of a land limitations are your friend. A narrow path through brambles. A high beam on a dark night. So I borrowed a bass and starting pawing at it and wrote a song.
It’s about Franz Mesmer, an 18th century German physician who was at the forefront of alternative healing. Mesmer believed that life energy flows through channels in our bodies, coined the term animal magnetism, and successfully treated people for everything from blindness to madness. He was maligned, naturally. He was also a rock star. Mozart was so tight with the doctor he named a character in Cosi Fan Tutte after him. And he left us a word.
The song doesn’t have an ending yet. Loud guitars would be nice.
I’ve been reading again. Tragically, I’d stopped for a while. Since striking out on my own it seems like there’s always something more important to do. Write a blog post. Work on a song. Prepare for an interview. Tweet. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Reading seemed like a luxury. But it’s not. Quite the opposite, as it turns out.
I’ve just finished “Poser,” by Claire Dederer. It’s a memoir about yoga and family life and expectations — the expectations we have of ourselves, the expectations we imagine everyone else has of us, and how we navigate the murky divide between the two. I chew on that one a lot. You might assume that a grown woman such as myself, a thinking person who has lived a little, maybe more than a little, would know the difference between what she wants and what she believes she should want. You would be wrong. Which is why when I arrived at this one line I stopped and closed the book and stared into space for a really long time like I’d been conked on the head with something heavy. Which I had.
What if the opposite of good wasn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?
I know I’ve been getting all philosophical but, goddamn, what a notion. It applies to everything. Songwriting. Relationships. Decisions. Housecleaning. It’s revolutionary. It’s liberating. It’s a tonic and a corrective and an angle of approach that throws judgement out the window. People ask me what my goals are. For a while I said I want to write some songs. Lately I’ve been saying I want to write some good songs. Now I’m thinking all I want to do is remember what I set out to be at the beginning of this project: sincere.
I just finished reading Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. The book is about a 40-something former rock ‘n roll wunderkind, Nik, a recluse who keeps making brilliant music, and his sister, Denise. It’s about true obsession and tenuous family bonds and time passing. It’s about how everyone and everything is shaped by the confounding feedback loops between memory and identity and art and life and authenticity and invention. The story takes place at the intersection of what might have been and what really is, a place you won’t be able to locate with GPS but where you will almost certainly find yourself on a dark night, at which time you may, like Denise, conclude that you have “in middle age become a person whose deepest emotional moments happened vicariously.”
I’ve never quite framed it in those terms, but I think the prospect of turning into that person is the reason I decided to stop writing about songs and start writing songs. I spent so many years on the outside looking in. Here’s how it’s been with me and music: like falling in love and following the guy around for a couple of decades and writing about him in your journal (or the newspaper) without ever introducing yourself, or going on a date, or kissing.
I grew weary of being an observer. I grew frightened of the creeping sense of detachment. I wanted to say less and do more. A lot of people think those deep emotional moments Spiotta writes about are the province of the young. We’re supposed to grow up and out of it. Adults are supposed to value familiarity over novelty, practicality over passion, stabililty over adventure. To which I say, bullshit.