“Any Love (Cassandra Et Lune)” by Ken Stringfellow

Wow, I can’t believe I am already up to eight in my series “With Music.”   In each post I write about a time in my life, using a song that impacted me or reminds me of a moment.  The earlier seven entries included Ben Folds Five, Sheryl Crow, Beth Orton, Dean Martin, The Verve, Barenaked Ladies, and Tori Amos. This time I write about finding inspiration in Los Angeles.

I am haunted by a song.

I sometimes hear it in my dreams, it is the one I might start humming when I am running an errand or absentmindedly finishing a chore. I’ve even been known to sing it to my children as they fall asleep.

This song has followed me for almost a decade and I believe it will be with me until I let one special book go.

I was sick of being a number.

There were a lot of students in the master’s program in writing at the University of Southern California and I felt like I always had to prove myself. Every class was the same, an introduction to the others in the room and then a slow stomp up the literary stairs to the top of the class. Maybe I would have had an easier time being in competitive classrooms like these if I went to a bigger college for my undergrad. Then I was a big fish in a small pond. I was the writer of the entire class of English majors. It may sound egotistic to say I ruled the school, but it felt like that as I went from writing workshop to workshop then.

But at USC it was different. It also didn’t help that I started the program in the middle of the year. Everything was settled by the students on their own personal rankings by then. You would see in the classrooms which students were worth listening to and which created the most eye rolling (and there were a lot of eye rolling). I was the odd man out, the question mark in the class, and I could sense it.

Those writing classes could also be stressful and aggressive. Students would argue about each others’ works, some teachers would spur it on (maybe even weirdly enjoying it) while others did their best to try and keep some control over their classrooms. I wish I could say I played it smart in the early months, biding my time and getting the lay of the land.

That would be a lie though if I said that. Continue reading

“Hey Jupiter” by Tori Amos

JupiterThis is the seventh in my “With Music” series, where I look back at a point in my life through a song.  The stories are diverse as the music I reference. The other entries included (with links to the posts) Ben Folds Five, Sheryl Crow, Beth Orton, Dean Martin, The Verve, and Barenaked Ladies.

There is a good chance that Jupiter was hit by lightning.

This happened when I was living in Los Angeles, which makes this story even more strange. For those that don’t know, when any kind of storm happens in LA, everyone freaks out. New stories are abound about car crashes and flooding. Growing up in the Midwest, you couldn’t help but see the overreaction as something rich for comedic possibilities. Heaven forbid, someone has to wear a rain coat. Can you believe it? What next? Snow and a winter jacket?

Cynicism aside, it was after one of those bizarre storms that I first noticed that something was wrong with Jupiter, my black Pontiac Grand Am.

Jupiter was not the first car I had owned on my own, it was my second. My first car was a cute little blue Pontiac that seemed to have a knack for getting in accidents. The first time I got in an accident with it, I was driving home from my job (with a college class scheduled for that night), when I slammed into the car in front of me. I was listening to They Might Be Giants at the time and you can actually hear the car crash on the tape.

It sounds like a hollow screech, almost as if someone with an owl interrupted a TMBG performance.

The accident was outside an Arby’s and I had to run across the street to the restaurant and call the cops (days before everyone had a cellphone). The teenager behind the counter looked put out by the fact they had to call 9-1-1. Personally, I couldn’t have cared less how they felt about it. I felt lucky to be alive. My car folded like a piece of paper and I saw my life flash before my eyes as that much-better made SUV got closer and closer to my face. I’m still alittle surprised I got out of that accident without a scratch or injury.

While waiting for a police car, to my surprise, one of my cousins pulled into the Arby’s and made some casual chit-chat about my very recent near-death experience.

“Hey, Scott, saw your car.”

“You mean the one in the middle of the road, flattened?”

“Yeah, wow. That is just… wow. So I thought I would stop in and see if you are okay.”

“I’m alive.”

“That’s great. Do you want me to tell your folks?”

“That I’m still alive? That would be nice.”

“Okay, see you later. I got to go, running some errands, but I’ll give them a call once I get home.”

Definitely one of the oddest little exchanges I have ever had in my life. Even the worker behind the counter thought it was weird and offered me a free soda.

I took the soda. Continue reading

“Break Your Heart” by Barenaked Ladies

GrouchoThis is the sixth in my “With Music” series, where I look back at some point in my life and a song that had an impact on me. The other entries included (with links to the posts) Ben Folds Five, Sheryl Crow, Beth Orton, Dean Martin, and The Verve.

I have always wished that I was smooth. There are many things I am in this world, and smooth is not one of them. Even today, when I try to say something like right out of a romantic movie my wife will roll her eyes. I just can’t pull it off.

The fact is before I was happily married, I was worse. I was a dating disaster with a smile. I was just a fast-talking, highly-judgmental and awkward disaster. I could be charming from time to time, sure (we all have our moments), but I could also be very frustrating. And, typically, if I could tell where the “story” was going in the relationship, I was already looking for the next thing.

In a way, I blame books.

They make love seem so complete, don’t they? A person falls in love, gets in a strong relationship and the story might as well end there, right? Life is complete! Now where is the epilogue?

So the problem with me in the single days is I would get bored, especially if a relationship got predictable. I liked to be surprised, feel like I was part of something outside the ordinary. I was the weird conundrum of wanting something stable but something crazy as well.

You know what the biggest turnoff for me was back in those old single days? Actually, liking me. I was the dating equivalent of that quote from Groucho Marx. You know the one: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” Well, that was me in dating. And when you are continuously seeking out people not interested in you, there is no possibility of happiness for anyone.

This is not a story about an embarrassing moment. This is a story about when I realized I wanted the embarrassing moments to end and the song that got me there. Continue reading

“That’s Amore” by Dean Martin

Dean MartinThis is the fourth in my “With Music” series, where I capture moments in my life through a song. The others  so far included a song by Ben Folds Five (you can read it here), Sheryl Crow (here), and the third was about one of the best songs ever by Beth Orton (here). Check them out! (After reading this one, of course.)

I never really liked Dean Martin’s music.

When I think of classic crooners, I always lean towards Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Nat “King” Cole. Bing had a nice jazz rhythm and friendliness in his voice, Frank was art (a unique and always beautiful combination of arrangement and voice), and Nat… Nat was the man. Smooth voice and a great jazz piano player. His album After Midnight might be my favorite album of all time. I can’t think of a week I had not listened to it all the way through at least once.

But Dean Martin?

Dean was silly, with his drink in his hand and a wink to the audience. You never got the feeling that the music really mattered to him, it was just another part of his performance, no more important than his suit and his cocktail.

And yet, Dean would begin to represent for my wife and me one of the happiest moments not only of our marriage, but our lives. Dean started each day of our best adventure, made us want to sing along. Dean equaled freedom and bliss. And if he was around today it would be hard not to give him a hug if I was to meet him (I’m assuming at a questionable and loud bar in Las Vegas).

See, Dean Martin and his ridiculous song about a moon and a pizza pie was the musical symbol for our two-week trip through Italy.

It’s all so freaking weird to consider, but it is true. Continue reading

“Sweetest Decline” by Beth Orton

Mountain ClimbingThis is the third in my “With Music” series, where I capture moments in my life through a song. The first entry was about a Ben Folds song and a girl with elf ears (you can read it here), the second was about being lost in Europe and Sheryl Crow (here).

It was never supposed to be a hobby. Let’s make that point clear. Since the age of 16, my focus and my aim was on one target, becoming a professional author. I even had an agent when I was a kid (the agent then tried to sell a collection I wrote, but we parted ways when I discovered to my horror they were calling me a new generation Beverly Cleary. I thought I was Ray Bradbury. Yeah, I was a stupid and egotistic teenager… But Beverly Cleary?)

And by the time of this tale (age 24), I had four screenplays, the scripts for a ten-episode radio series, and a mountain of short stories. I knew there were novels in me, but I just wasn’t feeling it yet. I just had too many ideas and the idea of focusing on one like that felt difficult. Whatever the case, my world and identity was engulfed in the idea of me being a writer. Not just any writer, but an important one, for the history books, one of the voices of a generation. Why aim for a lower target when the mountain is freaking right there?

Now this is the rub- I was in the graduate program for English Literature at Michigan State University and I was bored. Bored, bored, bored! The idea of writing and studying more writers (and probably going on for my Ph.D.) sounded so… sigh… dull. Another essay? Another literary criticism? Bored…

The fact is I just wanted to write! My literary cup was full, thank you very much!

So in January, I got this idea and by May it was done. I had dropped out of the graduate program, moved back to Grand Rapids, got a really nice studio apartment (seriously, it had a fireplace, but the flames were blue for some odd reason), and found a normal job. Hello life!

There was a certain amount of logic around this (at least logic that worked for my odd mountain-seeking brain), I would live in this place and create my masterpieces, then when ready I would explode into the world. The problem is that this was all based on the idea that inspiration would be there waiting for me in that apartment.

It wasn’t. Continue reading

“Home” by Sheryl Crow

Literary Map of EnglandMusic has always been very important to me. Many times when I look back at a time or a memory, a song will sneak in before an image. I thought it would be interesting to look back at people and moments by tapping into this quirk. The first in my series “With Music” was about Ben Folds and a girl with elf ears (here), this time I take on a song by Sheryl Crow.

This is about the time I almost disappeared

The first thing you have to understand about me is I have a knack for romanticizing things. Moments are never just moments for me, I see the potential for some kind of poetic license in everything. Maybe I read one too many romantic poets back when I was in college, but I would look for messages in nature and life. Messages just for me. Let me emphasis this point- not for you or the rest of humanity, just me. Yeah, it’s just a sunset, I get that, but could those colors be reaching for me, embracing me, telling me something for only my eyes?

Destiny. Fate.

I was sure I had it all in spades.

When I was in college I used to romanticize the idea of exploring Europe by myself, nothing but a backpack and my wits for comfort. Besides meeting with the travel agent to work out the flights and some tours along the way, what I would do while there was all on me. One of the few things I had certain about me and my trip was I would arrive in London on the first day and fly out of Paris on the last. Point A and Point B. Continue reading

“Don’t Change Your Plans” by Ben Folds Five

Elf EarsMusic has always been very important to me. Many times when I look back at a time or a memory, a song will sneak in before an image. I thought it would be interesting to look back at people and moments by tapping into this quirk. This is the first in what I am thinking of calling my “With Music” series.

She had elf ears.

People confuse elf ears with vulcan ears, but that is just not fair. Vulcan ears (Spock) look out  of place for a reason; they are alien, different. The old Star Trek was filled with this. Want something to look alien? Accent something that we are not used to. But elf ears are different. They are an extension of nature, they embrace the face, accenting, like a playful cursive twist at the end of a letter. They can remind more of a vine slowing stretching just that little bit farther up.

I first saw her at a writing table. It was being held at a local museum and everyone else there isn’t worth mentioning or remembering. Cruel to say, I know, but by then I had attended enough writing tables (thanks to colleges and bookstores and libraries) so that people fell more into categories than something flesh and blood. There was the guy who wants to be Stephen King (a little creepy and always stares a little too much), the older woman wanting to write a nice romance (I always feel there is hidden heartbreak there), the angry youth (who may or may not share poetry, but would always share their annoyance through expressions), the man with the mustache who is writing a thriller (there is always a man with a mustache who is writing an action thriller) and etc., etc., etc.

Writing tables like that, including the one with the young woman with the elf ears, was one of the reasons I was moving to Los Angeles. I had attended a lot of them while living in Grand Rapids, hoping one would give me some kind of sign of what to do next in my life and writing career. Frankly, by then I had been waiting enough. That is what my life felt like up until that moment, one long wait.

I had waited through college, waited through part of grad school, and now waited while counting down to when I was to leave in December for the University of Southern California. Sunny Los Angeles… where I was certain all my writing dreams would come true and everyone would recognize me for the genius I was sure I was. Continue reading