When you see yourself/your life in somebody else’s words…

When working with my English classes, I try very hard to make sure that we examine each author’s style – whether we are studying Shakespeare or Harper Lee or Etheridge Knight. One of the ways that I try to get the students to connect with the author is by asking them to think about which sentences or passages they wish they had written. In addition, I have kind of c0-opted, if you will, Dan Pink’s idea of What is Your Sentence? while taking a look at sections we have read. (If you’re a twitter person, you can take a look at some student choices from To Kill a Mockingbird here and here and here).

Another idea that we will examine is when we feel as though something was written with just us in mind — when we associate with something so strongly that we feel as though the author had to have had us in mind when creating it. This can take the form of a piece of writing or a movie, but I find that most students (and myself, I freely admit) find this most often in the form of music. For me, it’s in pieces like David Gray’s “Please Forgive Me,” Bruce Springsteen’s  “Brilliant Disguise” or U2’s “One” or “So Cruel” or Sheryl Crow’s “The Difficult Kind.”

I will freely admit that this hasn’t happened to me that often with movies — with a few exceptions (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” with Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and also with “Jack the Bear”) immediately come to mind for this “category.” I mean, I absolutely love “Seven,” and could watch it over and over and over, but I’m glad I don’t typically associate with serial killers.

And then I saw “August: Osage County” this afternoon and was just dumbfounded. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how playwright Tracy Letts knew about my life as I was growing up with my Mom in Albuquerque in the 70s and early 80s.

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Beyond Letts’ absolutely incredible writing – and make no mistake about it, it was absolutely incredible – the acting was just top notch. Julia Roberts was very good and Chris Cooper was his usual solid self. Sam Shepard — who I’ve always liked since seeing him play Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” was just… Sam Shepard, if that makes sense to you.

But Meryl Streep – just wow. For the longest time I’ve heard people talk about how masterful an actor she is. And I don’t want to make it out like I think she’s not a great actor, but I just wouldn’t really see that. I mean, I love her in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but I can’t say as I ever thought she was the only actor who could have played that role. Honestly, I can’t say as I have ever felt that way about her roles until seeing her portray Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.”

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Even though Letts originally wrote the story for the stage, you’d think he had Streep in mind to play the matriarch of the Weston family. She just let everything go and let it all out and truly became Violet Weston, warts and wigs and F-bomb dropping and drug addicted and all.

And she reminded me so much of my mother that I couldn’t help but sit and stare at the black screen after the credits had ended, trying to compose myself while also wondering just how it was that Letts knew. I’m not sure how he knew of the conversations — make that yelling matches — we had when I was 11. I’m not sure how he knew about the fights we had and me literally tackling her to try to get the cocaine away from her. And I’m definitely not sure how he knew the ways she would so bitingly yell at me, telling me time and time again that I’d amount to nothing.

You see, I said that I try to find things I can associate with or wish I’d written or feel like had been written just for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t say they had to be great things…

 

The Power of Music…

I’ve always been amazed at how strong a tie I have to music. From the very early days of The Beatles and The Bee Gees, to my XX years (and if you’re from the Pittsburgh area and even remotely close to my age, then you know exactly what I’m talking about), I have always been shocked as to how songs can trigger memories from the playing of their first note. Now, let’s get real, I’m not going to even attempt to say that all 3,818 songs in my collection have me reminiscing, but a vast majority do just this.

Music has acted as many different things to me – a release, certainly, but at times it has also been therapeutic. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it’s helped to contribute to some tough times as well. It never fails that when I’m going through something, there’s a lyric out there that seems to get it just right.

The way that we each listen to music is absolutely amazing to me – you and I can listen to the exact same song and hear so many different things. You might be a bass person or a guitar person, while I’m firmly in the voice and lyrics “camp.” On top of this, many times I’m not even hearing the actual song, but focused on the memories I have attached to the song itself. For many of the formative years of my life, these lyrics were coming in the form of songs from The Smiths, U2, The Cure, REM, Echo and the Bunnymen, INXS, a-ha and New Order. Add in a more than healthy dose (okay, obsession) with John Hughes’ movies, and you’ll understand why it is that I don’t think about the tribute to Ian Curtis that New Order’s Elegia is, but rather the strain that Jon Cryer’s Duckie is feeling as he pines away for Molly Ringwald’s Andie in Pretty in Pink.

Growing up, I was influenced greatly by the music that my mom and dad were listening to.  Being in Albuquerque with my mom meant Eddie Rabbit and Gerry Rafferty and Leo Sayer and Air Supply (oh, what a cheesy, cheesy video) and Exile (and I can assure you that I had no idea what they were singing about, but I definitely knew it was just… dirty…), whereas when visiting my dad in the summers the music steered more toward The Beatles and Seals and Crofts and Barry Manilow and Jim Croce. (Go ahead and chuckle, it really doesn’t matter to me…) Either way, there always seemed to be music playing. But it also seemed to be their music, if that makes any sense. It was music that they had chosen to listen to, not me.

 

Picture me belting out I Write the Songs with a set of these bad boys on. Now picture it being 7 am and my dad just getting to sleep after working the dead shift. Yeah, that didn’t always go over well…

Until I heard Supertramp’s The Logical Song, that is.

There was something about this album that just flat out clicked with me. I remember begging and pleading with my mom to buy me the album – and then begging some more. I finally got a copy after a good report card and still remember that day like it was yesterday. There were two Pizza Huts in the Albuquerque area and one was a lot further away from where we were living – but this was the one that had songs from this album on its jukebox. I bet you can guess which one we ended up going to.  Getting the LP wasn’t enough, though – we couldn’t listen to it in the car, so we had to get a copy on 8 track. (I know that I just lost some of you, but there’s a pic below on the far right of an 8 track tape).

When I returned to Greensburg that summer, my dad had a copy of the album already ready to go for me. I swear I wore grooves in to it. It was mine.

Fourth grade found my mom remarried and a cross country trip to upstate New York in the passenger seat of a U-Haul truck. It was also one of the toughest years of my life. I was certainly old enough to know that this wasn’t a good situation for anybody – and I retreated in to Bob Seger’s Against the Wind as well as an even unhealthier dose of Breakfast in America.  I listened to both over and over and over again, falling asleep to them every night only to wake up several times as the tape clicked over to the next “program” – until I would finally reach over and turn the thing off.

It was at this time that a particular song started to stick with me. At first, I must admit that Lord is it Mine was by no means my favorite on the album, but fast forwarding on an 8 track wasn’t the easiest thing to do, so I tended to listen to everything front to back anyways.  It was during this time period, however, that I truly became obsessed with this song. And it was during this time period that I truly started to doubt. I was eight.

I woke up this morning and did what I typically did – I turned on my computer and started to listen to music on shuffle while I got myself going. I can’t tell you the last time I have heard anything from Breakfast in America, let alone Lord is it Miine, but it came on this morning. I haven’t been able to get the song – or that year out of my head.

The power of music is a mighty strong thing…