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Monday, April 11, 2016

The Lowland and That Time I Was in a Band

Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.
Years ago, I was going through some of my old things and came across a hardback Star Wars journal I'd gotten for Christmas as a teen. The journal was interspersed with important-sounding star wars quotes and pictures of TIE fighters or other space western junk. It was also filled with song lyrics. Oh yeah, I thought. This crap.

It comes up rarely, but when it comes up that I was "in a band" I say it just like that. In quotes. Upon further inquiry I've found myself even lying, saying that I played bass, even though I didn't know then nor do I know now how to play anything on the bass other than Negative Creep by Nirvana, which is really just strumming and sliding your hand up and down the neck of the bass without actually playing notes.

But no, you guys. Not only was I in a band, but I was in two bands. And I did one thing and one thing only. I sang. But Howie, you say, I've sat next to you in church. You don't sing. You can't sing. You shouldn't sing. Why did you sing?

If you want to know the truth, I don't know why. My friends were in bands and wanted to make bands and I thought it would be fun but also I didn't have an instrument and could see no path towards owning an instrument in my future. Yes, I had a job, and yes, I could have saved the money to buy a cheap guitar in two paychecks, but also I spent a lot of that money on food and CDs and band t-shirts. So I made do with the only instrument I had. Not my voice, but my lack of shame. I think I sang because nobody else wanted to and you've got to have a singer.

Also, I was an editor and contributor to the school literary magazine. I considered myself quite a wordsmith. And nobody else wanted to write lyrics either, I guess. These lyrics, like my voice, were sub-par. I often found myself trying to mumble them in live shows because they were bad. I really need to emphasize this, you guys. I was bad at being the lead singer in a band. Every part of it. On stage I was awkward, too. I never figured out how to stand.

It was fun, though. And there was something compelling about being able to drive your car full of gear in places you shouldn't. Once we played in an outdoor concert on Weber State University's campus and we got to drive our car right on the sidewalk. There we were, a bunch of high school kids, and there were college students stopping and watching us. We could walk in and out of a venue with impunity, nobody asking us to pay, because they recognized us from being on stage. We could make cool flyers. We could be noisy.

It was something to do. Even if I didn't think I was very good at it and knew it's not something that will pay your bills and my lyrics are bad, I was doing something. Contributing to this vast pile of content that is mostly mediocre and sometimes terrible but maybe there's that one catchy song that still gets in my head sometimes. If all of this sounds like a metaphor for running a website about books that nobody reads you're right.

Anyway, imagine that you're a fairly self-aware young Howie. You know you're not good but you're having fun and have a little voice in the back of your head saying that maybe you're getting better, though. And you're hanging out with your friends and they're all around a computer while one friend is writing with his AOL buddy. He steps away to use the bathroom so you start typing with this internet stranger. She asks, Who is this? You tell her. Oh, she says, the singer in the band? Yep. Everyone says you suck.


Yeah. They wish you'd quit but they don't want to tell you.

Why are you telling me this?

Because you're holding everyone back and somebody should.


Nobody else in the room is aware of this conversation. They're goofing around or talking or whatever and you're just kind of sitting there and looking at that little AOL chat box. For your friends maybe the band wasn't just a thing to do. Maybe they'd spent hours and years of their lives getting good at playing their instruments while all you did was scribble some poetry about why girls are mean in a Star Wars notebook and then shout them into a microphone.

So you quit. You don't tell anyone why, and they find a new lead singer. He rewrites all of the lyrics and you watch them play in the same smoky venues you did once. You stepped aside partly because your feelings hurt, but also because you didn't want to hold them back because they worked hard and were talented and you're just lill' Howie and you don't know what your thing is yet. You start a new band for some reason and do that until you're 19 and that's kind of the end of it. Later you're 36 and you still don't know what your thing is. You still lie, though, about being in a band. It's easier to not have to answer questions about it.

And when you are looking through that notebook, you tear the pages out and throw them in the garbage and give the journal to your son. Maybe he's got something better to put in there.
Most people trusted in the future, assuming that their preferred version of it would unfold. Blindly planning for it, envisioning things that weren't the case. This was the working of the will. This was what gave the world purpose and direction. Not what was there but what was not.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is about a lot of things. It's sometimes about people holding each other back. Or not fulfilling expectations. Or wanting something out of life and life not delivering. A lot of people let each other down, like we do in real life, and if they could, I imagine every character has pages they wish they could rip out of their journal.

Subhan and Udayan are brothers in Calcutta, a year apart. They look and talk so similarly, people confuse them with each other. But Udayan is a daring revolutionary, and Subhan is a cautious conformist. While Udayan takes on more and more risk as a communist rebel, Subhan leaves for the United States to study marine biology. Which means we get a lot of great biology metaphors which makes me go wheee.
Certain creatures laid eggs that were able to endure the dry season. Others survived by burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain.
Burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain. Holy crap.
They found a thick tree that had fallen, the tangled roots exposed. They saw the drenched ground that had given way. The tree seemed more overwhelming when it lay on the ground. Its proportions frightening, once it no longer lived.
That second one is a real key to the book. There's a death that has ramifications that last for generations. "Its proportions frightening." A widow who struggles with motherhood, who feels unable to love her daughter. A step-dad who is a father in every sense of the word except for biological.
He stops to wait for her, but she has a sudden burst of energy, passing him. On and on she sprints, unobstructed, kicking up her heels at the water’s edge. Dark hair to her chin, rearranged by the wind, obscuring her face. Just when he thinks she will have the energy to run forever, to escape his sight, she pauses. Turning back, breathing hard, her hand on her hip, making sure he is there.
What does this have to do with me being in a band? I don't know. What does anything have to do with anything? Did being on a stage briefly give me a deep urge to be seen and considered (with an almost pathological need to seek attention) or did I have that already and want to be on a stage because of it? Is the trauma of abandonment (through violence or inaction) what creates unhealthy relationships decades later, or were the seeds there all along?

Have I written enough to justify posting this thing? You bet I have.