Saturday, August 4, 2012

COD Wants to Rule the World

You may have noticed Crusty Old Dean has been a little quiet lately, which has been intentional.  He will be reflecting more in depth on the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and other matters of ecclesial geekery, but wanted to take some time to wait, think, and reflect.  COD's background is teaching history, and if there's one thing that history teaches us, it's that anyone can be killed -- no, wait, that's what Michael Corleone thinks about history.  If there's one thing we can learn from the study of history, it's that often initial responses and reactions are way off base:  sometimes it takes decades if not centuries to have the perspective needed to put events, and their implications, into perspectives.

For example: Who knew that the decision of the Byzantine empire to grant special economic exemptions to Genoese and Venetian merchants would eventually cripple their own commerce, resulting in a downward spiral of revenue, which limited their ability to hire mercenaries against an ever increasing Muslim threat?

So anyway, COD's compromise with the immediacy of the Twitterblogoverse is to wait a whole 30 days before reflecting on what did or didn't happen at the Episcopal Church triennial hootenanny.  Rest assured that sometime in mid-August, when the thirty days is up, he will get Crusty on General Convention.

Instead, he's been thinking a lot lately about waiting for a jockstrap.  It all came to him while driving through western New York state on a long solo road trip, flipping through radio stations, desperately trying to avoid listening to "Call Me Maybe" yet again.  While driving through the Seneca Nation on I-86 in western New York state he stumbled upon an acoustic version of the Tears for Fears Classic, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

There are times in your life when you remember an engagement with an artistic creation vividly:  COD remembers watching The Graduate for the first time, sitting on the black vinyl couch in his parents' house, his sweaty thighs sticking to the vinyl on a hot summer's night before central air conditioning had been installed.   Hearing this song in the spring of 1985 is another one of those moments.

COD was a sophomore in high school, walking back from baseball practice on an unusually warm April afternoon.  One of the team rules was you had to wear not only a jock, but a clean one, every day -- let's just say Coach had a good reason for insisting on this.  It was baseball, so consider the implications the catcher not wearing a jock.  Getting a clean jockstrap was routine; you removed the plastic protective piece (which you awkwardly carried in your hand), walked into the laundry room of the athletic complex, threw the used one into one large basket, picked up a neatly folded clean one from a table next to it.  COD walked in, threw the used one, turned -- but no clean ones on the table.  The ancient school employee whose sole job seemed to be cleaning jocks shouted from the back, "Not out of the dryer yet."

Rather than stand in the warm laundry room on an unusually warm day and try to make conversation with the strange old jock-cleaning man, COD went outside and sat on a bench outside the laundry room, looking out over the athletic fields, baseball glove in one hand, hard piece of plastic that should be in a jockstrap in the other.  The windows were open, the radio was on, turned up loud to be heard over the noise of the washers and dryers, and COD heard the opening notes of a song.

He was hooked from the opening line:  "Welcome to your life/There's no turning back/Even while we sleep/We will find you acting on your best behavior/Turn you back on mother nature/Everybody wants to rule the world."  And I sat there and listened to the whole song, note for note, word for word.  I only later found out the name of the band, the title I had guessed:  "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears; for those of you who may not know what I'm talking about, here's a link (this is the video, not the song, so the audio track doesn't begin for 20 seconds or so).

Why did I sit there?  I could've showered and come back, I could have come by early before practice the next day to get the required clean jock.  And why do I remember it so vividly, 27 years later?  After all, I've forgotten a lot of things in the past 27 years.

In part, it was that first line:  "Welcome to your life/there's no turning back."  The first verse made me realize I had a life.  The second verse caught that transition I felt myself in:  "It's my own design/It's my own remorse/Help me to decide/Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure/Nothing ever last forever/Everybody wants to rule the world." I was one month away from turning sixteen in April of 1985:  I was realizing I actually had a life, and there was no turning back.  I had just taken the PSAT for the first time, and the SAT was looming at the end of my junior year, and everyone has bombarding me with the notion that where I went to college would be the most important decision I ever made.  I had decided I wanted a girlfriend but was still desperately afraid of girls (and went to an all-boys high school, so girls were mysterious as well as terrifying).  My best friend was going away to an experimental high school for first semester junior year, and I wasn't looking forward to not having him around in the fall.  (He would get into drugs while spending a semester away at this experimental school, get expelled, and I would only see him once more.) For some reason, I found myself sitting on that bench and thinking, "In two years I'll be eighteen, have to register for the draft, and be finishing high school and heading off to college.  Six years from now, I'll be a month away from finishing college.  And that eventually, at some point I don't know, I'll be a month away from being dead."

"Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure/Nothing ever lasts forever."

Then there came that bridge:  "There's a room where the light won't find you/Holding hands while the walls come tumbling down/When they do I'll be right behind you."  First time I heard that, something struck me:  I suddenly thought, Hey, these guys listen to The Beatles, too!  There was something about that transition from the verse to that bridge which reminded me of all that I had been listening to in the past year.  (If you have any doubts about their efforts to sound like the Beatles, listen to "I Am the Walrus" and then to "Sowing the Seeds of Love.") Sophomore year in high school I had just started listening to the Beatles -- really listening to them.  In junior high school I had the greatest hits compilations, the red and blue double-album sets.  I had spent most of my sophomore year buying the individual albums (on vinyl!) and immersing myself in how they had grown and developed as musicians and songwriters.  I had discovered things like John and Paul's haunting harmonies on "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" and "Every Little Thing" from "Beatles for Sale" and the ways the songs I'd heard on greatest hits compilations fit into the context of albums like "Revolver" and "Abbey Road" (You mean "Yellow Submarine" wasn't originally a movie?  The way "Here Comes the Sun" sets the tone for Side 2 of "Abbey Road"). I'd been terrified by the weirdness of sides 3 and 4 of "The White Album" -- unnerved by the eerily creepy "Good Night" as much as "Helter Skelter" or "Revolution #9".  And, like many teenagers in the pre-internet days, I thought I was the one of the few who had discovered these things.  It can be hard to imagine when now all you need to do is find a Facebook page or website where you connect with people who like the same things you do, but in a pre-internet and social media age, you often stumbled across people who liked things you did, or thought you were the only person listening to Husker Du.  This is why I'd grown so close to my best friend that year, we were both exploring the same music; as Springsteen defined his friendship with Bobby Jean, "We liked the same music, we liked the same bands."  My world suddenly expanded: it wasn't just high school kids in western Massachusetts listening to The Beatles -- these guys listened to them, too!  I'd connect with most of my friends over the next decade by an initial shared love of music, which, in turn, would reveal deeper connections between us.

All of this came back to me, driving along I-86, listening to the acoustic version of this song on the radio.  In the end, perhaps all of this speaks to the transcendance of art:  the fact that a song by an otherwise thoroughly mediocre mid-80s British duo could have seared such an image into my memory for twenty-seven years.  As author and poet Robert Penn Warren put it in his book, "All the King's Men,"

"I got an image in my head that never got out.  We see a great many things and can remember a great many things, but that is different.  We get very few of the true images in our heads of the kind I am talking about, the kind which become more and more vivid for us as if the passage of the years did not obscure their reality, but, year by year, drew off another veil to expose a meaning which we had only dimly surmised at first.  Very probably the last veil will not be removed, for there are not enough years, but the brightness of the image increases and our conviction increase that the brightness is meaning, and wihout the image our lives would be nothing except an old piece of film rolled on a spool and thrown into a desk drawer among the unanswered letters."

That's why I remember it, 27 years later; to paraphrase Warren, because it has meaning.  It spoke to that sixteen-year-old me with a baseball glove in one hand and a piece of plastic that had been protecting the nuts he didn't quite understand in the other. Hearing this song again the other day I realized I hadn't changed, in some ways, all that much.  Life for me is still a search for meaning and relevance, full of frustration (I can't stand this indecision/Parried with a lack of vision!); maybe it's part of the reason I studied history and became a priest.  In some ways I'm still that sixteen-year-old, still getting used to this life.