Secret Pop

Sep 28, 2009

Exploring the Savage Mind

In my lack of desire to see if anything else was on, I sat through three re-airings of the same episode of Mad Men. It reminds me of the days when my parents' big old console record player would automatically kick back the needle at the end of a record and start playing it all over again. The intervals were shorter, and there was less of a sense of completeness, as you would only be listening to the same half of a thing again and again. I would usually leave a record playing when I was reading something with many pages or when I was trying to write something that mattered. When we lived in Guam, my father's big wooden desk -- the one where the writing surface folds up on a hinge to reveal a beautiful bas-relief of Japanese ladies carved in shiny, opalescent stones -- was set in his study, in front of a great window. Floor to ceiling as all the windows in that house were. This one looked out on the palm tree on our front lawn and the steep grassy slope at whose base our house sat. I would languish at that desk and gaze out that window without purpose for days on end. Particularly on those days during the summer when my older sister and my mother were traveling to the National Spelling Bee, and I was at home studying dictionaries in the hopes that the next year I would get to make the same trip. So I spent a lot of days in my dad's study, alone with the record player and the reel-to-reel. I mostly listened to showtunes (Grease and Fiddler on the Roof were the first records I ever bought), a collection of Jewish music called Spirit of a People, and a compilation of Telemann and Vivaldi called The Splendor of Brass.

I remember the heft of that desk. If I'd tried to move the whole thing, it would have reminded me of my impotence. But the writing surface was on a hinge, so that big slab of wood could easily be lifted by me. The only thing I feared was fully closing it, because I always worried that I would catch my fingers when it shut. I don't know what kind of wood it was, but I think of cedar when I remember its smell. And I don't know why I refer to it in the past tense, as it's sitting in my parents' formal dining room at this very moment.

I didn't learn every word in the dictionary during those summer days. And I didn't write anything important. And I didn't read as much as I could have. But I learned there were certain halves of albums that were my favorites, and I would play those with prejudice.

And if you can look at an excerpt in place of the whole, you can see things worth cheering for without being burdened by the details. You can wish for less and thank for more. You can forgive and forget. You can grow nostalgic without inevitably falling into melancholy. And you can tell yourself it's better than looking at things more truthfully, because not all things must be examined truthfully and directly in order to be properly appreciated. In fact, looking at a solar eclipse without the aid of a camera-obscura will burn your retinas blind. And knowing everything about everything will hurt more than knowing nearly nothing about most things, because knowing carries with it the obligation of recognition and ignorance is more likely to make you popular.

I strive for symmetry even when I don't prefer the look of it. I hate running out of shampoo when there's plenty of conditioner left. I like hot dogs to fit the bun. But I was able to ignore the symmetrical imperative when playing records in my dad's study. I was able to distract myself with the demands of all the words I wanted to learn and read and write and say and all the blank notebook pages I expected to fill.

If I allow myself, I can identify which side of the Mad Men record I would rather play. But it would seem tawdry and for all the wrong reasons.

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