Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What Will You Remember?

Going back to Portland always makes me forget where I live. It shouldn't, since I haven't lived there in nearly 20 years, but it does. And in this beautiful place that is not where I live, but simply where I come from, I have to let the memories of the past mingle effortlessly with the present that is unfurling in front of me.

My nostalgia has very little to do with wanting to go back to a specific time because things were "easier." It is not about being coddled, taken care of, or feeling safe. It's not even about fond family memories. What my recent trip up to the Northwest made me realize is that my nostalgia is about color and light, taste and smell--very much the senses themselves.

This is not revelatory to many people, I am sure. But it struck me so hard at 10 pm gazing at the streaks of color in the sky over the coastal range of mountains. It's summer in the Northwest and I was surrounded by family and friends, laughing, drinking, and enjoying the time we had together. No pictures can really capture what makes a few days spent this way. But these things, among many others, remain in mind:

The papery "twinkle" of the wind rustling through plum tree leaves
The moan of fir branches in the wind, as well
The anise aftertaste of 12 Bridges Gin
The hysterical laugh coming from Belle's mouth and the way she says "Yeah" with an incredulous tone
The light at 4:30 a.m. as it turns from blue velvet to pink, orange, and red fingers through the clear sky
The smell of hot, dried out grass next to a wetland along the Willamette River
The hum of my sister's, Tom's, and Ryan's voices coming from inside the house at 1 a.m. as I approach the door, sprinkled liberally with laughter
The feel of the heat at 7 p.m. when the sun seems, still, to be so high in the sky
Freshly brewed coffee and the scent wafting halfway down the block from Stumptown
Jill's hands pounding at the flippers of Sopranos pinball in a darkening bar in North Portland
Amy's loud, generous laugh that sounds the same now as it did 25 years ago, with the same effect of making me laugh, too
The green expanse of my mother's backyard with the gurgle of a fountain punctuating the cool of the evening
The clinking of change into a small bowl as we play cards after a barbecue, still smelling of food and beer, my mom's cigarette smoke blowing in from the background
Susan's heels clicking on the pavement as we leave the club to head for a bar--a determined clicking that I know so very well
The green-blue-gray of the river through the bridge grate as I bike across it
Snowy mountains that look like mirages in the distance
The bookish smell of Powell's
Vegan pumpkin donuts and the gentle disintegration of sugar on my tongue
The view of the city coming back from Vancouver, seen across the Columbia River
The ease of conversation at dinner with only Mom and Jerry
The glare of the sun dipping behind the tallest skyscraper downtown, turning the roof brilliantly silver for just a moment
The forgotten pleasure of lying in the grass, reading, with three other people who don't need to talk.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Self-Discography #11: "Actor" by St. Vincent

"You're a supplement, you're a salve, you're a bandage--pull it off. ... You're a cast on a broken arm, you're an actor out of work, you're a liar and that's the truth. You're an extra lost in the scene."

I've been known to say, "I never said I wasn't a hypocrite." By extension, I like hypocrites intensely. I find them fascinating and somehow slimy and endearing. Annie Clark's world doesn't necessarily seem to be inhabited by hypocrites, but she certainly likes peeling back the layers of carefully applied paint. These songs on her second album arrive in the present, at a moment of flux--one of my trying to figure out how to strip away the superfluous to get to what really matters. They seem to have pointed a big finger at me, pinning my thoughts down and making them squirm. Maybe, I tell myself, I am not enjoying the ugly and the pretty together like I should be. Or am I just waiting for all this good stuff to be fucked up? By me?

There are no cartoon birds helping me get dressed in my sun-dappled boudoir as Clark's sugar-sweet melodies swirl around my head. If they were here, maybe they'd look like her, all wide-eyed and unassuming, before whisper-singing this lyric into my ears:

"Desperate don't look good on you, neither does your virtue. Paint the black hole blacker."

It's delivered like treacle, just before a buzz saw guitar line cuts through it all, fracturing the seemingly perfect picture. Or maybe it's more like the harsh sunlight of a hot Los Angeles morning melting through the celluloid displaying candy-coated colors of a verdant forest, rendering the beautiful ugly (and yet somehow still beautiful).

This is what I feel right now: a sense of displacement; a combination of desire mixed with desperation; panic that there is something burning just under the serene surface. I've always been drawn to these kinds of juxtaposition. I like imagining what kinds of unpleasant things are said by the people who live in a house that is picture-perfect. When I experience this in person--say, a bourgeois couple who can barely control their hatred for each other at a dinner party--I am often offended. But when it's painted, composed, or sung to me, or otherwise framed in some outlet of creative expression, I find myself rapt.

"Let's pour wine in coffee cups, ride around the neighborhood and shine the headlights on houses until all the news is good."

There's the desire of shaking the world out of its somnambulant state to reveal the dolorous. I know it's there, I tell myself. I want to see it. I imagine myself here, in this mostly quaint area dotted with overly expensive houses in which I now live, forcing these people to: not have their money, their religion, their sometimes-holier-than-thou expressions as they walk their children and dogs down my street and don't acknowledge me. Usually, it doesn't bother me, but lately there's this hovering sense of suffocation, like I was put here on accident and someone was waiting to see how long it would take to make me ill-at-ease.

It's one of the problems with Los Angeles, I realize. I can intensely love the train-wreck nature of it, but its beautiful neighborhoods and gorgeous apartments--which can be huge, sport French windows, hardwood floors, and Art Deco flourishes--can drug you and make you forget that where you are choosing to live has no center, no community, no store to walk to, no sense of closeness to anything but the building or car next door. You can stare at this beautiful street lined with grand magnolia trees, watching birds build nests, listening to the rustle of the breeze in palm fronds, and feel like you are missing out. And then you start to hate yourself for feeling that way.

"I'd pay anything to keep my conscience clean. I'm keeping my eye on the exit sign, steady now."

Is it a sign of living somewhere too long? I start to play this game with myself: What would I miss about this city? What can I do without? I do the dance in my head and convince myself, and sometimes others, that I could easily walk away. But it's been 11 years. Who do I know anywhere else I actually want to live? The things that have not been done here will still be undone somewhere else, after all. I listen to older people like my mother spin tales about tax brackets in states I would never want to live in, but I am also old enough now that I actually stop for a moment to debate if the tax codes would really affect me positively.

I still think I am destined to live somewhere more wide open. I miss seeing the land stretch in at least one direction without a house or mini-mall affixed atop it. Whenever that actually happens, I will be able to live with it; it will be to do something that helps affect the land itself. It won't be my dislike of not having a coffee shop to walk to down the street...

Only a few listens in and this album pricks me. It's a nosy friend, an acquaintance who suddenly decides he or she needs to know more, more, more about you. It's a velvet dagger. A friendly gutting. Yet I don't mind. It's been what feels like too long since I've surrendered to new music so quickly. Smart and beautiful. Pretty and ugly. Prodded and probed. I needed a new soundtrack. I also needed to hear someone say this:

"I think I love you. I think I'm mad."

They're both true. And you know who you are.