A Moment of Praise for Characters

My dad’s best friend when I was a child was a guy named Steve Courtney. He was in the Army with my dad, and they remained friends for many years after his term of service was up. There are actually some grainy, yellow pictures (gotta love that mid-80s film quality) of a 1- or 2-year old me in a stroller being pushed by the man, whom I have never actually met in my conscious lifetime. He resembled my dad in many ways – same tanned skin, same trimmed brunette haircut (short enough to be fitting of a military man, but long enough to make them feel like the “guv’ment” wasn’t controlling their hairstyle anymore), same childlike smiles. There’s a picture of them somewhere that pretty much says it all, not that I could find that picture in the tens of photo albums in my parents’ house – but the picture says “These two are characters.”

And Steve Courtney was and is a character. I don’t think he and my dad talk much these days – he married and moved off to another area of the country, decades ago. But occasionally there is a phone call from him, to check up and see how Steve (also my dad’s name) and Judy are. My dad will grab one phone, my mom the phone from another area of the house, and they try to cram 10 years of “catching up” into a short phone call.

Perhaps we aren’t simply limited to the daily things we do, but rather we are the aggregate of the stories we create in our lives. I would like to think so, as it’s the only reason I really ever began writing in the first place.

And that is what I look for in people, I’m realizing more and more. I am drawn, like a moth to a flame, to characters. Maybe this is not special, but maybe what is special is how we identify the people who come off as “characters” to us. So I’m taking some time out from my series on musical memories to instead discuss a few characters who swim around in the novel that is my life. They may be silent characters, but for some reason, just watching the way that the world puts them together is so interesting to me.

Are you a character? Am I? Who knows.

There’s a guy who works the meat counter (Dear God, this is random) at the Whole Foods in Greenville. I guess this makes him a butcher, technically, which is obviously an awesome “character” profession. He is absolutely fascinating. Even Jonathan has admitted “There’s something about that guy” (“No homo,” he says to clarify). I don’t know what his name is or how old he is, but if you frequent the store at all, I’m fairly sure you may know who I’m talking about. He is covered, it seems, in detailed, beautiful tattoos. I mean, really, they are very nice pieces – not cliche or gaudy, they just seem to fit him. And he has this dark look (hair and eyes). I guess he almost resembles that Adam Lambert character from American Idol a few years back (because WOW, that guy was seriously a character…I mean whoa), but I’m pretty sure he’s into girls. I could be wrong, just a feeling I got. We’ve seen him pulling into the parking lot before as we left the store, and even his car sort of fits this aesthetic he seems to have cultivated. Frankly, he’s just one of those people that would catch your eye in a crowd. I joke that he has “trouble” written all over him, but really, he just seems like a really good basis for a character in a movie or book. Or like a rockstar, two months before he hits it big and quits his job to move to Hollywood. Reaching? Probably. But he’s a character and I dig that.

My friend Liz is a character and she is wonderful. Full of heart and soul, but without an ounce of pretension and with absolutely no self-preservation when it comes to baring her struggles and her stories. It’s actually really funny because back in college, before I met my husband, I think she went on a date with him. So when he told me this later on, I was so flattered. I know that sounds wild, and when Liz found out I knew about that, she goes “Oh, thank GOD…cause that was gonna be awkward.” But really, I was flattered that my husband was interested in someone like her – as if it somehow reflected on the fact that I came afterward (which it totally didn’t because I am nowhere near as cool as Liz). You don’t meet someone like Liz and then just go back to humdrum, boring life. No – after you meet someone like that, whether in a friendly or romantic application, you don’t just go back to accepting vanilla as your flavor of choice in friends and companions. When I think about some of my favorite female characters in film and literature, I see attributes that Liz has, and it just makes me smile to myself (especially because she’s currently raising one of the coolest little girls ever and it gives me hope for my future daughter-in-law prospects – Haha!). Women like Idgie Threadgoode (Fried Green Tomatoes), Clairee Belcher (Steel Magnolias), Bette White (in basically ever character incarnation ever, because she’s just beyond amazing)…chicks with that certain combination of weirdness, sarcasm, strength, heart, and edginess. That’s Liz. She’s a character.

Okay, here’s the weird part where I randomly talk about the Starbucks barista who made my doppio espresso this afternoon. Maybe espresso just puts me in THAT good of a mood, but this guy was pretty awesome. He was going salt-and-pepper around his temples, but you could barely see them because dude was actually 6’9″ tall. I shit you not, he made my husband look average and me look…well, tiny. Best part? Think about a handlebar mustache, the well-styled kind with pomade artfully applied on the wings of it. Well imagine how big that handlebar mustache has to be to fit the scale of a man who is 6’9″, probably about 330 pounds. IT WAS AWESOMELY HUGE! And he had this coy sarcasm and a deep, gruff belly laugh that just made my day. What a character. Can you picture him? Awesome.

My mom is a character, though I don’t think most people realize it. As a kid, my friends would beg me not to ever let my mom cut her hair – and still to this day, her long brown locks hang to her lower back. She is 60. This is not an average woman that we’re talking about. She’s birthed four children without drugs, but she’ll scrunch her lips up and almost hesitantly admit that “Childbirth can be…uncomfortable.” She watches too much Fox News and that makes her say crazy things sometimes, but I love that about her. Qualities that I couldn’t always appreciate in other people seem so endearing in her. In a lot of ways, she is like a girl still – and that is probably my favorite thing about my mom. It makes me tear up as I write this to realize that I’m just like her, and that I’m thankful for that. I know that even when she is 80, she will still seem a little girlish, a little untarnished by the world – and I would wish nothing but to be just like her, because she’s truly something. This is not for a lack of hard knocks, but rather for the pervasive, stubborn belief – which I am hell bent on sharing with her for a life time – that the world is more good than it is bad. And that even in the bad, there is good to find. This is especially true in sales racks and southern preachers.

My life is really just a journey marked with characters. Sometimes I think I need to go back and reread Alice in Wonderland, because maybe that’s what I’m doing here. Maybe I’m just passing through and every person who walks into my life was put there for a defined purpose, a reason for that interaction. Even if it brings pain or inconvenience, there has to be a reason for it all – it’s one of the chief driving forces behind my belief in God. Our lives are much too intertwined for our existences to be by chance, I believe.

I can pick them out the moment their path intersects with mine, these characters. Sometimes they walk right in and walk right back out again, like that odd guy in the meat department. Never saying a word, never an interaction, simply the recognition that this person has a light about them, an energy. It’s refreshing to pick up on that in a world where we are so closed off from each other, so focused on ourselves.

But sometimes, they walk in and they stay, and that’s what I really love.

The awkwardly tall guy with the shaggy brown hair who sits behind you in English class and smiles, listening while you talk about the lyrics of a Nine Inch Nails song. He stayed. The friend I have known since I was 13, who shares my views on so many things and who could tell me just about anything without it shaking me either way – still a character. The mom of two with the rocking shoulders and the odd walk, who wouldn’t take no for an answer when you said you couldn’t keep up with her workouts. She stayed, and inspires me every day.

If you are a character, know that I love you for it. And please: don’t ever, ever change.

Part IV: Or rather, "Part III Was Too Freakin’ Long, So I Split It In Half."

Nine Inch Nails’ “We’re In This Together Now” + My Husband

(Below is a rare live performance video – of an extremely low shot quality – of the song. If you’re a NIN fan, you know that this is unusual. Trent Reznor doesn’t perform this one live very often, probably because it’s vocally pretty challenging to do live, and his live shows are already pretty much the physical equivalent of the Crossfit Games.)
Oh, this song. This song. I always say that if people really wanted to pick an appropriate first dance for their wedding receptions, they’d either take turns slapping each other to this song, or they’d do some really dramatic, YouTube-ready choreographed thing to U2’s “With or Without You,” cause let me tell you one thing: The wedding is not the end of the movie. The wedding is the beginning of the war. If we really wanted to save peoples’ bank accounts from being raped and pillaged by some wedding planner, we’d just go ahead and tell newly engaged couples like it REALLY is: “Buy a flipping helmet and stock up on alcohol.”

For Jonathan and I, especially after the last few months, this song rings truer than ever. I remember hearing this song for the first time well over a decade ago and thinking “Wow, that’s a heavy kind of love.” I remember well-intended words of advice from some women close to me – in my mind, ill-advised instruction to surrender – that if I didn’t shape up and stop being so difficult, no man would ever want to marry me. And then hearing this song and thinking “F that…I’m not going to go easier on some guy because he doesn’t have the balls to deal with me. I’m going to test the hell out of every man who comes into my life, so that when it’s all said and done, I have only the strongest one, or none at all.”

So I guess in a weird, roundabout sort of way, that means I didn’t settle? I definitely tried out some really bad fits in terms of guys in my life. When I met Jonathan, I was more jaded than ever when it came to love and the pursuit of it (totally not special or unusual at all, since I’m fairly certain most women in their early 20s have learned by then that dating is like playing first-generation “Duck Hunt” using a wooden kitchen spoon). So jaded in fact that I played the part of the nice girl on the first date, knowing full-well that within the week, he’d discover that I cussed like a sailor, listened to metal, and had some serious, deep wounds from the guys that came before. But he didn’t flinch. Even now that we’ve been through bigger challenges than we ever imagined possible, he still maintains that this song perfectly captures us. Because Reznor’s lyrics here capture what the reality of life does to love. Taylor Swift has a song where she says “Life makes love look hard.” Well, duh, T-Swift…you don’t even know yet, honey. This song is about two people who realize that it really is them against the world, and that there are invaders ready to pounce at any moment. They get in your head, your heart, and they try to pick you apart. This song details two people – lovers, friends, both, who knows? – who have realized that they’ve lost the innocence in their own relationship.

I remember the time that I told Jonathan, sitting in a booth at a Mexican restaurant several years ago, that I wanted a divorce. I didn’t mean it, and we were both angry and saying things we didn’t mean, and it was just the thing that came out. And I know somewhere, some self-righteous person is reading this and saying “Well, I would NEVER say that to MY husband/wife…”

Well, yaknowwhat, Self Righteous Reader? I guess it’s a good thing this blog isn’t about you, then!

Note: I will be doing at least one entire installment of this Musical Autobiography series on Nine Inch Nails, so if you know me at all and are surprised at how brief I’m keeping the NIN mentions, don’t be disappointed. It is coming.

Anyways, back to Reznor’s screeching declaration of devotion, “We’re In This Together.” Read through the lyrics in their entirety:

I’ve become impossible
holding on to when
when everything seemed to matter more
the two of us
all used and beaten up
watching fate as it flows down the path we
have chose

you and me
we’re in this together now
none of them can stop us now
we will make it through somehow
you and me
if the world should break in two
until the very end of me
until the very end of you

awake to the sound as they peel apart the skin
they pick and they pull
trying to get their fingers in
well they’ve got to kill what we’ve found
well they’ve got to hate what they fear
well they’ve got to make it go away
well they’ve got to make it disappear

the farther I fall I’m beside you
as lost as I get I will find you
the deeper the wound I’m inside you
for ever and ever I’m a part of

you and me
we’re in this together now
none of them can stop us now
we will make it through somehow
you and me
if the world should break in two
until the very end of me
until the very end of you

all that we were is gone we have to hold on
when all our hope is gone we have to hold on
all that we were is gone but we can hold on

you and me
we’re in this together now
none of them can stop us now
we will make it through somehow
you and me
even after everything
you’re the queen and I’m the king
nothing else means anything

This is not the song that Justin Bieber listens to when he gets his feelings hurt by bluuuuuh nobodyfingcares. This is so past all that. One of those types of things that the only way you really, truly grasp it is to have lived it. No, this is the song that a really stubborn, really driven man listens to when he is hopelessly in love with a hellacious woman like myself. This is the song of someone who has been sliced up by life, limbs thrown in so many different directions, only for each piece to crawl back to the only real love ever known and try to coalesce itself back into somewhat of a functioning human being. And this is why it’s pretty much “our song” (I know, that’s SUCH an uplifting thought). Because we’re the folks who fight in the driveway and then drive away with one finger sticking up out of the driver’s side door (all the way around the corner and aaaaaall the way down the road).

Note: We don’t do this in front of our toddler. Just the neighbors. I’m totally kidding (maybe).

Nope, we love hard, we fight hard, we throw things, we yell so loud it could break windows, and we’re still here. Is it dysfunctional? Yeah, I guess a little bit. But it’s our dysfunction. And we’re in it together.

Nick Drake’s “Place To Be” / “River Man” + The Lake House

I cheated a little bit. See, I actually have entire playlists devoted to this beautiful place. However, those playlists may or may not include “Cheeseburger in Paradise” by Jimmy Buffett, and let’s just be honest, there’s absolutely nothing profound about that song. You sing it, on the dock, with your dad and brother, after downing a double bacon cheeseburger from Tater Creek Grill (which has since burned down *sniffle* *tear*), with the Miller Lite (IN A CAN and you don’t freaking deviate from that), at sundown, because the fish are fickle and they f-ing like it that way – and that’s just the rules. Don’t question it.

But really, the lake house is about a lot more for me. You have to spend a weekend there alone in the wintertime to see this side of it. You have to watch the oak leaves fall, watch the gators disappear into the warmer burrows of the wildlife refuge, and drape the dock in Christmas lights for no reason other than your own enjoyment. In winter, I will set up on the end of the dock with pillows, blankets, my laptop, and a mug of hot coffee and just write to my heart’s content. You have to watch a line of black birds, seemingly miles long, file into the water’s surface, just in front of the house – for a few moments lending you the position of pastor to a congregation of another species entirely. The solitude fostered in these sights and experiences is worth just as much as (perhaps more than) the warmth of family and friends and summertime. I think especially as I learn more about the history of the lake itself and I learn more about my grandfather and his all-out obsession with fishing and being outdoors, it just takes on this whole other life. It represents a snapshot of history, I think. Fully 80% of my grandfather’s letters home during both World War II and the Korean War contained some mention of fishing Lake Marion and how much he missed it. He would seek out little fishing holes along his travels through Europe, complaining about how the trout just didn’t have the same dirty taste as Lake Marion catfish.

Nick Drake has this style that I just adore. It’s really a tragedy that he died so young and lived such a tortured life. My grandfather died young, too – and just about as suddenly as Drake, but not from self-inflicted causes like Drake. Dying young blows. I know some people find a certain romanticism in that kind of end, but you know what I’d like much better? My would-be 87-year old grandfather meeting my little boy and listening to his own son play one of these songs on the dock while we all fish together. I’d like that so much better.

In the case of “River Man,” this song inspired a collection of stories I’ve been working on (“Cormorant Line,” discussed here and here). Yes, I know a lake is not a river, but while we’re on the technicalities, Lake Marion was actually flooded into an existing river bed during its creation after the New Deal. And it is an exceptional feat of human engineering. I’m all about the cure for cancer, people living on Mars, and flying cars, but to me, that lake is one of our greatest creations – and it was fashioned from more sweat, blood, and determination than it was from sheer technology.

(I’m pretty sure I saw one of those birds take a poo midway through this video. Hilarious.)

In the case of “Place to Be,” I just find the song to be so warm and assuring. When I walk into that lake house, whether I am greeted by 15 precious faces of the ones I love the most, or simply by the warmth of the sun shining across the water, I feel home. That is my place to just be. The song “Place to Be” actually describes the darkening of a soul over the course of life, the loss of innocence and the responsibilities and pains that result from growing older and learning more about yourself and about people in general. Maybe that’s something I’ve always struggled with, but when I listen to the way Drake arranged all those notes and all those words, it just makes me thankful.

Probably weird, but I never claimed to be anything else, now did I?

Part III: This song + _________

Songs and places. This is not a new connection. But here they are, just for the sake of having some of it written down.

America’s “Horse With No Name” + Lake Marion (SC)

This is such a weird song (which is really key cause if you know me, you know I dig weird). I mean really, the lyrics are so nebulous and off-beat that you just KNOW someone wrote it while on a major acid trip. But for some reason, ever since I was just a little girl, I have associated this song with my dad and Lake Marion (I promise my dad does not do psychedelic drugs). I really don’t know why I have this strong association with this song, but I guess it’s rooted somewhere in the late 1980s or something. For one thing, it’s another tune that was in my dad’s regular rotation of things he could play on his guitar. For another thing – and I honestly do not know where this comes from – it makes me think of being on the lake, soaking up the sun and shaking the Lowcountry sand out of a beach towel. And I’m talking about the first family lakehouse, the one that had (shit you not) an outhouse with a moon on the door, and a long dock that had yet to be destroyed by Hurricane Hugo – so yeah, a throwback. But regardless of the reason, this song just puts me in a zen, calm mood and makes me feel warmed through to my soul – just like those breezy July days on the lake.

Which is good, cause then there’s this…

Jimmy Eat World’s “Night Drive” + Complete Self-Loathing and Romantically Driven Hatred

This song from Jimmy Eat World’s ’04 “Futures” album strikes right to the core of something that still affects infuriates me years later. You see, apparently I’ve always been that girl that had a sign on her back that read as follows:

 “Pretend to be someone you’re not. I’ll see – and believe in – the best in you (even if there’s none).”
Really, it’s tons of fun, ‘lemme tell you. And I’m totally not bitter about it years later, SEE?!

But this song, both musically and lyrically, pretty much nails how adversarial those types of relationships are from the get-go, and how you always end up hating the other person. Always. Every time I hear this song (which isn’t very often, because it’s no longer even remotely popular and I don’t exactly seek it out for regular listening pleasure), it makes me feel oddly empty and relieved, all at once. Here’s a sample of the loveliness (with some artistic license on my part, in italics):

Now’s the right time for a good song
Got something to say what I can’t…(iiiiis that possibly because you’re emotionally crippled?)
Do you feel bad, like I feel bad?… (you don’t feel bad)

It’d be easy if you get mad
But three fingers point back to you… (logistically confused? Hint: She flipped him the bird)

Hit me, I can take your cheap shots (she’s too violent for you anyway, you patsy)
Leave you with the love we made… (that’s not love, moron, it’s just hate-sex…go look it up)
Doesn’t he sound like a nice guy? Hey, Guy(s) I Know Who This Song Is About: Yes, let’s hide behind song lyrics because you are intellectually incapable of expressing what you really think about something.

*stops* *ponders* *lightbulb clicks on*

Oh wait, I have a better idea!! Why don’t you just save the world the trouble of you possibly procreating and opt for a blow-up doll instead? Do something good for humanity. Or then there’s this cliff you could jump off, also. Maybe a Mack truck you could *accidentally* wander in front of?

Gotta love that part about “Three fingers point back at you” (referring to the moment when she shoots him the bird). Truly the words of a sociopathic jerk who doesn’t even want to acknowledge his own shortcomings/lies/failings/outright deceptions/etc. *sigh*

*grits teeth*

Now, granted, this is a lusty song and great for a make-out session (preferably at night, during winter, in a car, if you really want to be respectful of the song). And it’s totally possible that I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, but DON’T take that as me apologizing for the Mack truck comment. I meant that. Moving on…

(Stay tuned for Part IV – hey, brevity isn’t my strongest point. Deal with it.)