Down to the End

It is one of those long Wednesdays that stretches on with no discernible end, and after a nine-hour work day, driving to the city seems more difficult than advertised. Traffic is slow, and my friends are jammed into a small coupe, their stomachs rumbling in protest against the spicy pork tacos I’d thoughtlessly fed them before trapping them in this hour-long descent into gastrointestinal hell.

We arrive at the club too early and stand like cattle for what feels like forever. Out in the street an SUV changes lanes and collides with a black sedan. Everyone is okay, but the blond man in the sedan chokes back his fury in observance of the expectant crowd. The SUV driver falls over herself apologizing, but you can tell the guy really wants to let her have it. This gives us something a little more peppery to talk about.

It has been an endless day, but I’m excited. Cattle or not, I am outside this unimposing club in Salt Lake City with my closest buddies waiting to see my hands-down favorite band ever. Ticket firmly in hand, I cheat out of the drizzle and try to conceal my childish hope to be the first to catch a glimpse of The Mountain Goats. I see instead a bunch of ordinary people who look just like my friends and me, and I gradually drop my guard and  slump into the resignation that I will not see anything interesting or move forward in line anytime soon.

The waiting fans snake around the building and down the street. This surprises me, and I don’t know why. The Mountain Goats have been a prominent face in the music scene for years, but I think it is both heartening and a little jarring to realize that so many people in our community are fans. I’d never run into someone–outside my close-knit, mildly snooty circle–who felt the desperate recognition of “No Children” or dreamed of fleeing proverbial Eden to build a new life. Yet here are hundreds of people, some of them bearing albums for the band to autograph after the show. Are they rehearsing some casually witty remark for the brilliant lead vocalist? If they are anything at all like me, they’re reaching for a genuine and classic compliment and hoping that when the moment comes, they don’t simply blurt, “You’re, like, so smart and great and poetic and I brought my panties for you to sign.” I mean, I got nervous talking to the guys from Air Supply, so I’m pretty dedicated to the idea that I’ll crash and burn before I even shake this interesting musician’s hand.

It is a mixed feeling to realize that so many people are familiar with a group that my friends and I have come to see as our own discovery, and against all logic this irks me. From a pitiful place in the back of my mind creeps this looming snob made astute by fourteen years of musical training. I cast a disappointed glare at those around me and whimper to myself, We might share a space beneath this dribbling awning, but I’ll bet you don’t have all the lo-fi stuff too.

I hate waiting in lines. I’m realizing that the pain creeping up my calves suggests a degree of thoughtlessness in having chosen strappy wedges for a standing-room-only event. Though, I don’t admit this to Neil, who loves to rib me for wearing my geisha shoes anywhere but the movies.

The line moves, and it feels good to walk. Finally inside, we meet the rush of relief that comes with progressing from A to B, the sense that things are in motion and soon the show will fill the hall with what we’d all been waiting for. Our optimism fades as twenty minutes pass, then thirty, forty. A few of us gather near the stage hoping that we can make the band appear on sheer enthusiasm alone. In the back stand scores of concertgoers, relaxing and having one drink, then another.

Ninety minutes delayed, the opening act enters the stage, a three-piece Beatles throwback with a chick drummer and a set of catchy, original songs that all sound more or less the same. By the time they’ve banged out their final chord, most of the crowd is thrashed and restless, sloshing beer onto the floor and packing tighter toward the stage.

We wait, fearful again of being left alone without the promise of a scheduled downbeat.  Suddenly, from a side door, the headlining band cuts through the crowd and jogs on stage. The fans up front stand awash in stage lights and watch with purpose as this three-man group fills the hall with an almost medicinal melody, and I forget about my throbbing feet. People in the back are still drinking and talking over the strains of the show’s opener. These are the people who’ve come out looking for something to break up the week, a Wednesday night with buds. They had called their friends encouraging them to come out to the club, adding, “I heard there’s supposed to be a live band or something.” I hated them.

The opening song comes from the new album–which I haven’t yet pegged as quintessentially Mountain Goat–and blends to a well-worn favorite that sends the crowd cheering. A familiar cadence fills in the spaces between each of the die-hard fans crowded up front and plows into the socialites talking loudly in the back. It’s my favorite song, “Old College Try.” On the album it’s performed with an organ and guitar and evokes the feel of a reverent chapel. It is small, this chapel, enveloped in dark after nightfall, and I like to imagine that the only thing lighting the worn room is a sparse candelabra perched near the pulpit.

My mind’s eye fills the room with uncertainty. A man waits shuffling slightly and thumbs a loose thread hanging from the sleeve of his borrowed blazer. A minister catches a discrete glance at his watch, the witness sighs, and the doors creak open, revealing a petite and ordinary woman, about thirty. She isn’t dressed for a wedding, but, then, neither is he. Just whatever they could find last minute. Suddenly the room feels full and complete, and as the man and woman join hands, they take their terrifying plunge together, sure now that this is the only way to set their world spinning again.

I elaborate, but the actual lyrics are decidedly Darnielle. There is a hopeless and doomed undertone to the couple’s story, but the veteran songwriter destroys all lingering doubt with a few well-chosen phrases. His poeticism colors a drab scene, and with a morbid simile–in what I consider the highlight of the song–he likens a trash can fire in a prison cell to familiar eyes that illuminate and elucidate everything around him. He injects a little hope into a deep, dark world, which really stands out if you’re the type of realist who has a clear picture of just what can go wrong in life.

In the end the song is not about perfection or, probably, not even a wedding as my art-should-be-pretty sentimentality has painted it. But what I see in the story are two people embittered by life and beset by the kinds of challenges that make the fainthearted cut and run. They’ve slogged through the mire together and often felt the sting of hot tears bathing arguments so loud and long that neighbors would skitter away nervously after the storm had retreated. Their differences are looming, but they can’t get past the reality that something tells them to suck it up and go for it. Their path is both extraordinary and unremarkable at once, and I still can’t get through the song without recalling my own over-embellished sob story and bawling my eyes out in the name of complicated love. Whatever the setting, be it ducking under the bubbles in my tub or cutting down proofs in my very busy and very open office, I blubber for my private joys and sorrows, and to look at me you’d think I’d lost a casual friend or, at most, my favorite pet. It makes people uncomfortable.

Back at the concert, I try my best to avoid looking to my left at Neil. He’s the guy in the church, swallowed in a shabby tweed jacket, too big for him–his father’s. He is there because we need each other and because being together is the one sure detail that makes everything else we do feel like a consolation. He is that flickering candle that leads me home, but sometimes he can be a real pain in the ass. I’m told I’m not all sunshine and roses myself, so I give him a pass unless I’m really livid. Years ago–back before I’d discovered real affection and genuine good fortune—I dragged him to hell, and when he came back, he was kind enough to bring me with him. And that is saying something.

When the song had begun, Neil had jostled me in excitement, beaming, “It’s your favorite!” He listens. He knows me, from what foods I hate all the way down to which obscure indie song is my favorite of all obscure indie songs. It is touch and go for a minute, and I beg myself, Don’t be that girl! Do not cry in this bar!

There is no organ at the show, so the band casts their familiar piece in an upbeat guitar, bass, and drum kit mix. It surprises me. How can they capture all the complicated emotion in the song with a typical, high-energy rock show rendition? The album version had spoken of my story, and how can I appreciate its art without all the right pieces in place?

I really should learn to trust people more talented than I am. People who write for Decibel and studied poetry while I was nailing down fractions.

For the first time in memory, crammed against the stage and surrounded tightly by indie kids and ex-indie grown-ups who followed the group from the beginning, I see all the optimism and certainty that had been crammed into my favorite two minutes and fifty-three seconds on vinyl. I had gotten the message that love and stability are hard won, for the lucky. But I had missed entirely how much you’re allowed to enjoy wading through the crap and arriving at something that closely resembles pure happiness. I am not tortured by experience; I am human, living a variegated and complete life just like the people singing along all around me. The gleeful energy rattles the walls of the crowded club, and even the hipsters in the back forget about themselves and their drinks if only for a moment.

Catching a glance at Neil as the song winds away, I don’t burst into tears in this stuffy, crowded bar. Instead, a great, dopey grin plastered across my face, I squeeze his hand, and he squeezes back.


Syntax and the Single Girl

Nobody is exactly like me. And I’m not just talking about the weird stuff, like the way I see the Bhagavad Gita as a nice, relaxing read or how I like to point out faces I find on inanimate objects. Like anyone, a rich body of lifetime experience and personal preference makes me the unique, little snowflake pictured in my parents’ photo albums.

In some ways, I’m a lot like the other humans; we try to be good and make the world better. We are smart and good at our jobs, and we all deal with love and loss, surprising triumph and spectacular failure. But one difference between most well-adjusted adults and me is that most of them, as intelligent as they are, don’t see the confused little typos leaping out at them from all corners of our info-saturated world. Their text messages don’t have semicolons, or even correct spelling, and most people don’t engage in hot-blooded debates over the Oxford comma. They must not have that socially inept part of the brain that forces them to take a red marker to the grammatical train wreck of subway graffiti, and they certainly don’t evoke the names of Strunk and White in a world where constructions like “epic fail” and “besties” grace our screens and tongues.

I majored in what many reasonable people consider one of the nerdiest disciplines outside of those math-and-sciencey fields that can actually pull down a decent living: I am a grammar geek. Knowing this, people assume I’m ever watchful of their speech, poised to correct and scold at the drop of a misplaced modifier. They see me as a vigilant predator. They can feel my English degree strangling their carefully chosen words before they’re ever spoken, before I even have a chance to pull out a pad of paper to diagram the sentence “I come in peace!”

People trip up when they find out what I studied in college. After the inevitable conversation starter, “English, so, like, are you gonna teach or something?” about nine out of ten people will stammer an apology for their habitual grammatical heresy, along with the assumption that I must be absolutely cringing at all their real big mistakes.

After all, we live in language. A surgical resident doesn’t perform appendectomies over a plate of cheese fries at Fuddruckers, and a physics major is never asked to demonstrate the principle of buoyancy during a screening of The Hangover. But people do communicate. Like my comedian friend who is constantly challenged to “say somethin’ funny,” I chose a career path that transcends the classroom and elbows its way, uninvited, into nearly every conversation. On first meeting, people either recite pre-packaged Shakespeare dialog at me or inadvertently point out how shrewd and judgmental I must be about language. My major was, apparently, a lifestyle choice.

Even the people who know me best fall into this trap, though not the part where they assume that I have done nothing so far with my degree or that there is nothing to do with it besides teaching. A colleague of mine, the brilliant designer and eloquent daughter of international journalists, warns me before I edit a short, conversational blurb, “I’m sure this is, like, atrocious to you grammatically.” Neil, a comedic screen writer, rattles off some hilarious and on-point gem that makes me guffaw cola in a sitcom-worthy spit take. Wiping his face clean with my freshly laundered coat sleeve, he asks, “What? I didn’t use that word right?” Even with all his confidence, all that experience making people laugh with everything from political parody to dick jokes, he can’t seem to grasp that I’m laughing at his humor and not at his lowly peasant tongue.

People seem to agree that I’m out to shine a glaring spotlight on them when they say the wrong word or insert extra syllables. They see me as some unlikely grammar bully pantsing the underlings. I suppose I can’t fault people who think this way; a glaring grammatical error ranks somewhere between garlic breath and cottage cheese thighs in the realm of potential embarrassments for educated Americans. But the truth is, I’m not quite the loud, ornery cheerleader for “whom” and “lay/lie” that everyone seems to prepare themselves for. (See? I can dangle my prepositions like the best of them.)

Of course I notice slips, mishaps, and outright stupidity, and I admit I can copyedit like it’s going out of style, though that’s probably because it is. My alma mater did go to the trouble of printing my name beneath their seal on a really nice piece of cardstock confirming my proclivity for the word “proclivity.” I love my language, but as long as you’re not fixing anything in the printed word for the masses, the wacky mistakes can really dress things up, add a bit of color and vitality to how I see you.

My mom always said, “English is such a stupid language!” Yes, she always said that. I couldn’t agree more, but it’s in discovering exactly what makes it so stupid that fascinates me endlessly. I might spend an unrecoverable hour of my life flipping through the dictionary searching for hilarious guide word pairs (eat – earwax; strut – stuff), and you might say I’m hysterical. And not in a good way. But I might think to myself that, actually, the word “hysterical” comes from the Latin hystericus, which reflects an ancient idea that hysteria comes from the womb (thanks, Ancient Freud) and is exclusive to women. Nothing is wrong with my womb, not that you asked, and as a rabid feminist, I’d say “hysterical” is in the traditional sense much too strong a word to describe the fact that I’m enthusiastic about something that other people find dense and boring. After I’ve both congratulated and censured myself for being such an etymological dweeb, I’ll take that mixed bag of positive and slightly negative energy and forge on in the world, certain that I’ve chosen my field wisely.

So yes, I notice words, and once in a while I might spout off something that makes you wish you were back at Fuddruckers prepping a writhing patient for surgery. But against all stereotypes, I don’t enjoy the know-it-all-ism that often accompanies a basic command of the English language. I worked to become an expert, and to those without that luxury (or, let’s be honest, to those who had better things to do), I thank you heartily for making me look that much more proficient and specialized through your choices to revere something apart from my great passion. I might giggle while you fold your underpants away into your Chester drawers or when you talk nostalgically about the heighth of the Bush administration, but I promise I’m not judging you. Well, not linguistically.

I will not embarrass you as you speak. I will not pull on your words and twist your voice into oblivion until you sound like some vague, bruised mimeograph of me. (Yes, mimeograph. Like bruises, they’re purple. And what the hell, I wanted to use an archaic word.) I hereby promise to reserve my judgment and my cat-like editorial eye for the fine publications that elicit my expertise as an important new force in this exciting chapter of publishing history.

But seriously though, it really bugs me when you say “ain’t.”