Monthly Archives: July 2016

Leave Us, or, Serendipity Now

space-681630_960_720Midway through seventh grade the Army relocated us yet again. From then until I finished my freshman year of high school we spent our days smack dab in the middle of nowhere in a pale blue, aging, two-floor duplex on the crest of a wooded, grassy hill in sprawling Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

If you look at a map and draw a line, slightly curved to follow the course of the various US and state routes involved, starting at St. Louis, then some one-hundred-thirty miles to the southwest you arrive at Fort Leonard Wood. Draw a similar line from there for a shade over two hundred miles northwest to Kansas City, and you have just sketched yourself an arm with the military base at the elbow.

If you ever lived there, however, the more appropriate analogy would involve a little more work. Continue your art by drawing yet another mildly arced line from Fort Leonard Wood until you reach Jefferson City, the capital, exactly eighty miles due north. Add another line from Fort Leonard Wood two hundred twenty miles southwest to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and finally one more from Fort Leonard Wood two hundred sixty five miles southeast to Memphis, Tennessee, and you can stop. Now set down your pencil and appreciate your little stick figure with his hands raised, as if dancing and exalting the Almighty, with Fort Leonard Wood serving as the skinny little worshiper’s armpits. Continue reading

Embrace Us

maxresdefaultI’d heard this one before. Several times, in fact, and so had the rest of my fellow acolytes who were fanned out around the oversized oak table in the dusky Irish tavern we frequented almost daily back then.

The story about the Academy Award winner who tried to seduce him at an Oscar party twenty-five years ago.

It didn’t matter if we were one drink in or nine, the punchline never failed to amaze, entertain and enlighten all of us. This is how we should be living our lives. This is life.

There was the oft-repeated tale about the awkward coworker who got duped into thinking that the attractive waitress at a seedier neighborhood watering hole had agreed to go out with him. Only when he showed up at the appointed restaurant for their rendezvous he discovered that he’d been set up in a different way. A few dozen of his colleagues enjoyed their elaborate hoax and shared a great big laugh at his expense.

The stories would always elicit the same collective chortling, brazenly reverberating throughout the bar and capturing the attention of the rest of the clientele. No matter how loud the rest of the patrons may have been they soon became our audience.  

And we were his.

I often write about being a lawyer because that’s who I have been for nearly a decade. But that wasn’t always the case and after scratching together a living as a nine-dollar-an-hour bookstore clerk for fifteen months after law school, desperately lying to myself that I was better off than my former classmates because I wasn’t poisoning myself in that toxic profession, I finally found a job as an attorney. And I wasn’t afraid it would leech my soul through my pores in the process.

But I found so much more than that.

I found an identity.

I found home.

And it all started with him.

He wasn’t a father figure to me. I had that taken care of and was never in need of a surrogate. Rather, he was the superhero movie star I’d been missing my whole life, a larger than life archetype of charisma wrapped in a perfect tan year round. Always in a good mood, he was entirely unfamiliar with the negativity associated with stress or pressure and approached life as if the world and all of its pleasures were designed specifically for him.

Whenever he told the stories about his amorous conquests or winning the ’68 Barracuda by guessing the right number of gumballs in the five-hundred gallon globe at Disneyworld, or the constant parade of topless women at his house, who wouldn’t believe his life was a fairytale? Who could doubt that he deserved to have a following? A following I wholeheartedly joined the moment I was hired.

It all felt so good, the endless laughter, the bottomless drinks, the collective mentality that we were all part of the same unit. That we were one of his guys, or girls; gender was immaterial to the groupthink. He embraced you and made you feel like you were one of his, that he would look out for you and protect you when needed, he would guarantee a steady stream of entertainment and guarantee that as long as you stayed close by you would always have front row seats to the life of the party. Occasionally you’d get to play a feature role in his grand show.

All he asked for in return was, well…

He was self-possessed and never appeared to require even minimal external validation. That made his appeal that much stronger, that much broader, and it’s what led us all to spend hours at a time just listening to him recount the adventures of his life, over and over and over again.

Like the time he took the yacht he co-owned with a cousin up to Alaska and just missed getting eaten by a bear on a quick stop to the shore. Or the time he poured beer on the governor’s head.

He was my boss, but was he a good lawyer? I don’t know, honestly, but that’s less a reflection of the quality of his advocacy skills than it is on the fact that it just didn’t matter. All that mattered was that you wanted to be near him, with him, in his office, or the Thai place for lunch, or the bar after work, or his house.

My god, his magnificent house. The view of the Sound, the expansive, single story floor plan that had wings.

There we had numerous ‘offsite staff meetings’ during the workday, usually involving Bocce and Coors Light, and barbecues celebrating a promotion or wishing someone well as they moved away. The later the hour, the greater the crowds that would show up for these events and when they were in full swing there was nowhere you’d rather be.

The group made sure of that.

The hierarchy and social order that his disciples created dictated that if you were not present then you were fair game to be openly mocked. If you chose to act out of accordance with the mood of the group you were browbeaten into submission, made to feel a fool for wanting anything less than to be part of what the group had created for you.

Don’t you want to be a part of this?

Can you actually do any better?

Aren’t you grateful?

These aren’t questions that he would pose, generally, because he was too far above that. Without ever having to provide directives, he had his most senior apostles available as enforcers in case anyone drifted outside of the historically accepted dynamic. Sit, listen, drink, laugh, listen. But that didn’t mean he avoided putting his hands on the wheel altogether if the ship needed to be straightened out and put back on course.

I had, for example, one co-worker who presented himself as a straight man. That’s a fact. The group, however, saw him as effeminate and did not think he had ever demonstrated sufficient heterosexual masculinity to ever put his sexual orientation beyond doubt. Never mind that this was a man in his late thirties, a seasoned attorney who was good at his job and was loyal to the office. Never mind the fact that his sexuality was nobody’s business and any open speculation in the office, behind his back, was grossly inappropriate, deplorably unprofessional and unequivocally homophobic.

That never mattered.

Instead, whenever the group got together, be it in the office or after hours, the conversation always made its way to the ‘trial’ that would settle once and for all whether or not this gentleman was gay. Another senior attorney, a woman, in fact, was cast in the role of prosecutor in the case, charged with establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not straight. Our leader bore the heavy burden of defending our colleague in this kangaroo court, if it ever actually materialized, and persuading the jury of his peers that despite all evidence to the contrary, he was as straight as he claimed to be.

Yeah, it makes me feel as sick to write this as you must feel reading it. And it’s not like this was 1950.

The group discussed this ‘trial’ countless times. Dozens, at least. And whenever someone uncovered a new fresh piece of evidence it would be analyzed and reviewed and all would agree that our leader’s case was just hopeless and it was all accompanied with laughter so uproarious and out of control everyone got high from the sheer exertion of it. It was infectious and I don’t mean that in a friendly, positive way. I mean that it was viral and contagious. It was sick. And nobody ever had the nerve to mention that this took place to our coworker. Ever. There reached a point that when this took place I would leave and hide in my office out of embarrassment and disgust. But I can’t recall ever actually trying to stop it.

That would have been unacceptable. To do so would have resulted in a degree of ostracism that I wasn’t willing to accept. I feel like a weasel at Nuremberg taking that position but it’s the truth. You didn’t challenge the leader or you risked losing all status. In that office, in that role, in that city and that organization, status as one of his guys mattered more than anything else. Or so I thought.

Four years after I arrived he retired and a coworker of ours replaced him. Our leader’s influence lingered for a while – it’s hard for something that powerful to just disappear overnight – but it waned over time and pretty soon it became clear that he wasn’t bigger than the organization. He wasn’t larger than life or a savior from on high who was to be worshiped and exalted. He was just a guy who retired early to go and enjoy his fabulous life.

After he left I took a look around and realized that my career was stunted. I was in the same government job for four years without any advancement, promotion, professional development or increase in salary. I had been content with scraps for the entire time I worked there and was satisfied to walk in the great man’s vast shadow. To be clear, he always thought I could do better and encouraged me to look up and elsewhere for better work as I gained maturity and experience. I just didn’t. That’s on me, not him.

A few more years passed before I finally spread my wings a little bit and left the organization, city and state. As I look back I think of all the time I spent, some would say wasted, just sitting and basking in his glow, waiting for the next time he repeated a story, or the next time he threw a raging kegger, or the next time we could all collectively make fun of someone. I think about all the time I could have spent honing my craft and growing as a person and a professional, carving a career for myself that was built on more than just the reputation as one of many sidekicks to a man in the late twilight of his career. I think about all of that and have a hard time not resenting the culture he created and cultivated, wishing better for the young attorney who let his career lapse to be part of the popular kids club.

I think about all of that and one other thing.

I really miss him.

Guest blogger RMK is an attorney for a paycheck, not a living. Previous posts by RMK include “Almost 35” and “Join Us“.

Join Us

Pyramid_of_Khafre_Giza_Egypt_in_2015_2He commands the banquet room from the moment his lips part, pacing back and forth in front of us with verve, purpose and style, clad in a finely-tailored suit, never pausing to catch his breath or recollect. Summoning the words is no challenge. He has, after all, crafted and hewn them for just this purpose, in just this order, over the course of hundreds of events just like this, carefully selecting each letter until chained together they make the double helix look modest. Intricately bound, his words humbly bide their time within him until called forth to serve the master.

A few days earlier, on a sunny May Friday just before the blistering summer heat began its four-month assault on central Arizona, my law school held a party to say goodbye to the building that served as its home for nearly fifty years. I took the day off of work and celebrated the pending relocation to a much sexier off-campus edifice some ten miles to the west.

I think of this party as I sit before our presenter, enveloped in enchantment and disgust. I am mesmerized by this man and resent every word that leaps from his mouth. He peddles snake oil and I am determined to buy every last drop of it and then help him sell more. If only he would tell me how…

By what seemed at the time to be a happenstance of little note, over lunch at the old building’s celebration I bumped into a classmate of mine who I had not seen since we were students. We discovered that in the ten years since graduation we shared some overlap in our specialized area of practice, although in different states and at different times. Ultimately we agreed that we spent entirely too much time doing work that left us uninspired and unfulfilled, a refrain of discomfiting familiarity to anyone who has owned a law degree for over a decade. She went on to explain, with a vaguely dreamy look in her eyes, that after all of those years she finally found the path that gave purpose and mission to her professional existence.

‘The product,’ our magnificent presenter explains, ‘this product is something you cannot live without!’ Tell me more, I whisper. ‘Who here has ever needed a lawyer and not been able to afford one?’ A room full of raised hands. Eyes widening, he asks, ‘And how much does a lawyer cost when you need one?’ A thick murmur of quiet protest. ‘This product changes all of that. How have you lived without it for all of these years?’ I am ashamed when I admit in my own mind that I have never owned the product, finding it useless and a scam, and I pray that our presenter will not be able to detect these impure thoughts, pray that he will forgive me and let me buy and sell for him. He continues, ‘I have owned the product for more than fifteen years, it’s been in existence for more than forty, who could question its necessity?’ Cheers from the crowd, responding as if to their Reverend on Sunday morning. ‘Who could ever doubt its value?’ Nobody, the crowd shouts, nobody, nobody! He goes on, ‘Family… now family, who could argue against its legitimacy?’

After eight years, I told my friend at the law school, I finally moved on to something less stressful but equally unfulfilling. She, on the other hand, was part of a movement revolutionizing the way people practice and approach law. She didn’t elaborate much further, beyond saying it was unbelievably exciting, and as lunch ended the attendees were being gathered for a presentation in our grand lecture hall. She gave me her card and we exchanged contact information. As we parted ways and I sat down for the continuing education session, it occurred to me that I just spent more time talking to her than during the three years of law school combined.

I am grateful to be here with our presenter, to be granted this place in the audience, on this wonderful Tuesday night. His stories and witticisms continue as he demonstrates through PowerPoint all of the virtues of the product, and how minimal the cost is to purchase it, and how once we begin selling it,  for a small upfront fee, we will be part of a larger community. ‘Family,’ he says again, ‘the possibilities are endless, you can make as much money as you want simply by recruiting others to sell for you. You will oversee their work for your business that will grow! It will be through your sweat and tears that you achieve success! And you will climb the ranks until you reach the top, and you will know happiness.’

Two days after the law school party my former classmate texted me to tell me how much she enjoyed reconnecting with me and that her company was hosting an event in a couple of days, a celebration for recent graduates and an opportunity to learn more about the organization. She invited me and, if nothing else, curiosity compelled me to attend.

The audience’s enthusiasm swells, a great wave rising with every step our presenter takes across the room, back and forth, a raconteur of the highest order fed by the reaction we before him provide. He regales us with anecdotes of people who had been saved by the product, who may have lost their liberty or livelihood without it. He then describes to us the endless perks, the tropical vacations, the BMW club, the worldwide network of support, friendship, and family. This all lay before us, to commit would be to join something much greater than ourselves. To decline would be to renounce paradise. ‘The choice is yours, family.’

When I arrived for the event on the second floor of a respectable businessman’s hotel on the outskirts of town, I was impressed by the size of the crowd and the buzz that coursed through it as everyone waited for the banquet room to open its doors and welcome us. My friend found me and introduced me to several people, including her mom and dad, and a beautiful young woman in a vibrant yellow dress. About three quarters of the people present were like me, unaware, uninformed and curious, many of whom appeared to be right around college-age. These must have been the graduates my friend mentioned. The rest appeared to work for the company and they each shared, I noted with a hint of concern that I quickly subdued, the same sly smile and mildly fervent glimmer over their eyes.

I recall the glimmer as our magnificent presenter reaches the end of his recital, which lasts twenty minutes longer than promised. I haven’t eaten yet and take exception to the disrespect for my time and rise as one with the group to applaud him and wish to myself that he would never quit his magical speaking. He leaves the room and then begin the personal testimonials.

As we entered, my friend led me to my chair, strategically placing me right in the middle of the crowd, towards the front, next to her mom and dad. It became clear throughout the evening that each individual was seated according to a scheme, likely repeated at these events around the country. The newcomer shall sit next to one member and one other newcomer. The members shall applaud, laugh and fully react to prompts, and shall give the impression of an unscripted call and response, which shall then result in the newcomers fully participating and growing comfortable, feeling wanted, and included, surrounded by the group. This happened repeatedly during our magnificent presenter’s speech. Even better, they seated all of the newcomers in such a fashion that getting up to leave would have been noisy and awkward. They created a captive audience.

Our presenter’s absence broke the spell and the testimonials were what you would expect. I was a failure, then I discovered the company and I have been blessed ever since. I was unemployed and beginning to engage in petty crimes, then the company rescued me. I am a mother of three and when my husband lost his job, I thought we would lose our house, then the company came and now we live in a bigger house. I was a lawyer, unhappy with my life and yearning for something more, then I found the company and I am never turning back.

After it ended I left as quickly as I could, feeling ill and suffering physical symptoms of withdrawal now that I was severed from that most charismatic creature. Barely pausing to say goodbye to my “friend” I made it outside, took in a breath of fresh air, got to my car and texted my wife that I had just endured a cult recruiting effort.

I researched the company a little bit the next day and the first couple of internet searches included the phrase pyramid scheme. The average employee, according to SEC filings from a few years back, earned two-hundred-fifty dollars annually. The setup was perfect: invite mostly recent graduates and describe to them a land of limitless bounty. Have the perfect embodiment of charisma pace the front of a room, invite individuals, lonely or lost, to join the family. Grab them young, ideally, maybe while they are trying to find a summer job or find their way, extract a few hundred dollars from them to start, and maintain the promise that the riches will come soon. Just be patient.

I didn’t fall for it, in the end, but even my skepticism was tested. Maybe this is legit. Maybe this is what I should be doing with my life. I haven’t really found my passion, maybe growing a business with great help and support is what I need. The magnificent presenter made it look so appealing, so wonderful. How could I go wrong? He wouldn’t lead me astray, would he?

The next day my old classmate texted me to ask me what I liked best about the event. I never answered her.

An educated man in my mid-thirties, I feel like I never should have been susceptible to a scam like this. But it all sounded so good, coming from his silver tongue, the riches and rewards, the meaningful existence, all just within my reach. I don’t believe that I was ever really at risk of falling for it, but it’s still nice to know that I got out of there with my wallet and dignity intact. It might sound silly, but I’m pretty proud of my resilience. Not everyone is so strong.

I’m glad I went through it. I’d never experienced anything like that before and I don’t know that I ever will again.

Now let me tell you about this opportunity that I have for you. This product will change your entire life…

Guest blogger RMK is an attorney for a paycheck, not a living. Previous posts by RMK include “Up To You“, “Seven Year Itch” and “Ribs“.

Punching Through The Wall

20150904_140553How many times am I going to encounter the wall, stand facing it, and with a sigh of resignation retreat? How many times will I find my back against it, chafing, before curling into a ball at its base, I give up. I resent the wall. It springs up before me both unexpectedly and predictably. I’ve been crushed against it without warning, and I’ve seen it coming a mile away. The wall is immovable and unchanging, holding me apart from reaching my highest potential, blocking the way. I can’t change it. I don’t even try. Continue reading

Taking Advantage Of The Situation

facebook_1466977878801When I was a kid I was accused of taking advantage of the situation on a frequent basis, usually by my dad, who was at times desperate to polish his only child’s impulse control flaws right out of what he saw as her diamond soul. At the time, however, I was unaware of his parental longings, understanding only that I was constantly in trouble for behaviors that felt fluid and natural. We’d come home from a camping trip, and as my parents were busy unloading gear, I’d furtively grab a marker and write the cheer “Woooo!” on the kitchen counter, heart pounding from my daring indiscretion. It was OK, because the washable ink beaded right up upon contact with the gold-flecked 1950s formica, and rubbed right off without a trace at the slightest touch. Scrawl, rub, scrawl, rub. I did it over and over, testing the limits, until I cut it too close and my dad walked in the back door with an armload of REI, catching me in the act. Face tightening into the disapproving scowl I sought to avoid at all costs, while directly courting it with my impulsive behavior, (what an exhausting paradox for an eight year-old psyche to bear), he took my arm, saying through angrily pursed lips, you’re taking advantage of the situation! And I was in trouble again. Continue reading

If Not Now, When?

20151221_210233…continued from Tuesday

A few weeks ago I published a post called A Direct Appeal where I called on men and boys to fight systemic sexism and shift rape culture out of existence. I asked men and boys to get involved on a micro level, to challenge other men and boys, to change the conversation, to call out bad behavior, and support women and girls. I asked them to leverage the power afforded them by their gender to put an end to violence against women. But if I’m not working the same angles for other oppressed groups, what am I? If I am not leveraging the power afforded me by my skin color to put an end to violence against people of color, what am I? Continue reading

If I Am Not For Others, What Am I?

20151221_210233It’s a horrifying, gut-wrenching time to be human. I suppose it always is, and always has been, and maybe none of the staggering hate-motivated events are new, just our ubiquitous recording capabilities and 24-hour news cycle are. We’re sick with hate. Sick from hate. I’m starting to hate humanity. But before I seek refuge in my dark feeling that the sooner humanity is wiped off the planet, the better, I return to an adaptation of a Hillel quote I once saw on the front of a Seattle synagogue that makes me do the work. Continue reading

Rugged Individualism

20160619_152022I’ve been doing things the hard way for as long as I can remember. As an only child who grew up to be a lone wolf, rugged individualism was but a way of life. I did not question that my life, my plans, my love, my struggle were all of me and for me, a perfect vacuum. I was responsible for 100% of what went on, and I was proud to grab my bootstraps over and over to grind it out and get it done, whatever it was. Continue reading

Music: Response

2016-06-11 09.22.24Beginning this ode, I’m reminded of a scene in Almost Famous, when the budding young rock journalist sits down at last with the elusive guitarist, asking first, “what do you love about music?” to which the answer was “to begin with, everything”. Yes.

My first awareness of music is in my parents’ house in Middlebury, Vermont, where they played records at top volume in the evenings and I performed in my diapers. (Hooray for growing up in the pre-cell phone camera, social media age!) I remember the Starry Night painted soles of Cyndi Lauper’s shoes on the back cover of Shes’ So Unusual and understanding I needed heels to perform her songs. I remember thinking in my three year-old brain that the “instrumental” of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun sounded a lot like when a structure made of my painted wooden blocks crashed over. It made sense to put on my mom’s heels and strike the cylindrical pieces of wood together for my Cyndi impersonation. The title track sounded like the way Betty Boop looked. These are my earliest experiences of music.

I was lucky to have youngish parents who were into New Wave and MTV, the hallmarks of 1980s popular music. They may has listened to NPR in the mornings, cursing every time Ronald Regan’s name was invoked, but the weekends and evenings were all about playing records. We lived in L.A. in the summer of 1984: the Summer Olympics, KROQ, Woody Woodpecker cartoons. All Night Long (All Night)! My anthems as a four year-old were Walking on Sunshine and the Pointer Sisters’ Jump (For My Love). Both made my little heart beat faster, and both were about falling in love, and looking back, developmentally speaking, my little brain probably responded to the game-like commands of walking and jumping.

We’ve talked about Bowie and Prince. Both visionary, utterly original artists ran my little imagination with their eerie, other-wordly, eccentric voices, the fantasies their lyrics spun. Let’s Dance and Purple Rain are two of the very first records I remember, and for that I’m privileged.

Soon, I tumbled headlong into the (forgive me) magical mystery tour that is The Beatles. I held my parents’ LPs from college with reverence, imagining I had been alive to purchase them, during the time. There was a summer, I think I was eight, when I got up with my dad every morning so he could drop me off at daycamp on his way to work. I remember him singing me awake, “here comes the sun, little darlin’…” which would wake me with a smile and we would finish the verse together. I can remember he and I grinning at each other, going through our morning routine, saluting the sun those bright Seattle summer mornings. Good Day, Sunshine!

My best friend in the neighborhood was a real Beatles fan. An aficionado, really. Her dad had been in a band in the 60’s and did LSD. He had a tattoo on his forearm of a butterfly. So obviously at ten years old she had the chops, being his daughter, this man whose collection of literally all formats was esoteric and arcane and absolutely fucking legit. She blasted Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey and Glass Onion and Cry, Baby, Cry and talked about their hidden meanings. We were a little young yet to realize the meaning of every far-out song on the White Album is “drugs”.

We spent hours in her room, lying on her big four poster bed, listening to the Abbey Road medley on repeat. Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window captivated us, two girls on a raft, swept down a river of sound, lyrics weaving idyllic or disturbing imagery, depending on which psyche you were inhabiting (mine or hers). Rubber Soul was the soundtrack to our short lived Monopoly games, where once Park Place and Boardwalk were purchased, (immediately by the first person to land on them), we lost interest. The music was always there, waiting to whisk us away.

When I rediscovered Revolver during graduate school, I could never listen to Tomorrow Never Knows because its haunting mystique had dissipated years before, on that same four poster bed, when my childhood best friend was going through that special teenage brand of depression, and I lay quietly next to her as she reached for her stereo to hit repeat at the final strains, again and again and again, weeks on end. I can’t listen to it now because its haunting power has been restored, reminding me of that sad, drawn young girl who grew out of loving me just a few years ago.

I sat on a steep grassy hillside on a baking hot Central Washington May weekend, gazing down at the stage there, the Columbia River Gorge wending its exquisite way across the state behind it. It was a terrible time, the early stages of a post-crisis life. The beginning of a reconstruction era, when everything was exposed and vulnerable and new. Animal Collective’s chirping, bright, Beach Boys-esque My Girls floated up to me, and transformed the scene in front of me to my coronation. The sun shone more brilliantly with every line, the haze in the air increasing with every note. A shimmering crown lowered itself from the center of the sun, filling my body with light and warmth as it came to rest upon my head. I understood with perfect clarity that my low self-esteem was a self-imposed prison I could choose to free myself from at any time. My Girls had played nearly every morning I awoke alone in my friend’s parent’s basement, tinny sounds issuing from a cheap, hand-me-down radio. What had born radio witness to my isolation, live became an elevation of my personhood. It changed me. Yes, it was very spiritual. Yes, I was high. It means just as much to me seven years later, and my mood instantly lifts any time I hear the beginning notes of that song.

I hear Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover and feel adolescent sexual longing in the pit of my stomach. I have an exciting summer crush who I may or may not ever see again, and I want him so bad! The chorus, so pleading, such longing, is the exact feeling of thirteen year-old yearning. CeCe Penniston’s Keep On Walkin’ is an anthem of feminine assertion of independence. It’s the feeling of lying on the futon in your room that’s just been “remodeled” to suit the tastes of a twelve year-old, not a nine year-old. Paging though Seventeen, peach paint softly glowing on the walls, CeCe’s directives coming from the latte-colored DreamMachine clock radio, KUBE93. Very chic. Very adult.

I love the way music is strung throughout all the days of my life, weaving the sum of my experiences into a cohesive, collective whole. It brings all the parts and iterations of myself together, drawing the inner family close, a celebration of every moment, every feeling. Even the moments of crushing loss, of utter existential loneliness, of rejection and unrelenting depression become transcendent against the backdrop of music’s astonishing nostalgic power. It’s all so beautiful.

You were wondering when I would get to Nirvana, right? Well, the tone and feeling and mood changes, the moment I type that name. Nirvana is my soul. And I don’t care how adolescent and way deep and poseur-ish that sounds. I know what Kurt Cobain means to me and we don’t need your validation. See? I’m defensive, even. OK, well, for those of you who don’t know, I grew up in the city of Seattle, right in the city, during the Grunge era. I was too young to go to the rock clubs, and I will always lament that, but I was old enough to listen to the radio every waking moment. I was in a friend’s basement rec room watching MTV when an intensely saturated color palette of a video came on. The song had these zinging chords I could feel vibrating through me. The singer widened his eyes, training them directly into the camera, a cobalt blue, searing themselves into my soul. This is how we met.

You have to understand why it’s significant. For those at my middle school, you liked a certain type of music, which then dictated your social standing. I hate even admitting that there was a time I didn’t listen to music for joy or exploration or transcendence, but to fit in. If you listened to rap and R&B you were cool, and therefore popular. If you listened to 60s and 70s era rock with your parents, that was pretty cool and you could be popular. If you listened to alternative rock and grunge, you were an outcast. If you didn’t listen to music, you were no one at all. So I was all the way into rap and R&B and still trying to figure out how to break into the popular girl clique when I saw the Heart-Shaped Box video that afternoon. I was in no mood to change my musical proclivities, risking everything I’d worked so socially hard for.

Sure I knew Nirvana. For years everywhere I turned, there seemed to be a poster of a naked baby boy swimming after a dollar bill on a hook. And there was that song about the deodorant brand no one would ever use because the name was so dumb. I just needed a personal audience with Kurt Cobain to get it. A friend used to have this quote hanging in her room, “Eddie Vedder makes an emotional connection with his fans that Kurt Cobain simply won’t allow”, against a shirtless picture of Eddie performing inside a crowd of fans. Please. Kurt was the very first person with whom I felt an emotional connection, and he managed to project that through a screen, via a previously recorded video. Talk about ahead of his time.

It is very difficult for me to put in words what the experience of discovering Nirvana and losing Kurt mean(t) to me, other than to say not one ounce of my emotional fervor has lessened in all these years. The monuments of my sorrow and my love have not diminished with time.

I’ll do Pennyroyal Tea, OK? I’ll tell you how that is my favorite song, on my favorite record and it evokes the color violet, deep violet with fields of sunflowers. There’s a live version, too, from MTV Unplugged. The rest of the band stood, empty-handed, while Kurt struggled through the intensely personal lyrics, no backup, just him and his guitar. Just how he ordered it. Vulnerable and tyrannical. The terrible contradictions of the human soul, the human experience, wrapped into a single person, illuminated through his work.

The current, KEXP-driven era began a decade ago, when unemployed, paralyzed and stunned, my boyfriend and I sat around the apartment, not looking for work, listening to the radio for 10 hours a day. I knew I’d missed out on a precious resource by never using KEXP, opting for illegal downloads and C89, the local dance station, during college and beyond. I was bound and determined to make KEXP a guiding force of my taste, and the long months without work certainly enabled and nurtured that relationship. Aside from Nirvana, I owe the station everything I have. Their DJs were with me when I was a newly-minted master of counseling with no prospects, no ideas. They provided the soundtrack to my house parties. They drove everywhere with me, they woke up with me, they were my source of company when I lived on a mattress on the floor in my friend’s parent’s basement. They set the mood for nights in with friends, the low-lit living room vibe where the best conversations happen.

Music enchants me, shaping my sense of self, enhancing my moods, collecting and storing sense memories it so generously renews on demand. I press play and at once I’m in that hazy art deco club downtown, Hot Chip leaping around onstage, segueing No Fit State into New Order’s Temptation. How is it even possible, this magic, my favorite songs of both bands becoming one? A song comes on and there I am, in that dark, gritty little neighborhood place, packed in against the wall as Ratatat blows my house down with Wildcat. I click the link and I’m on that grassy hillside being crowned, sun glowing on my face. Or that other time, years later when the frontman asked for the stage floods to illuminate the top of the hill, so he could see me. I just about rolled down that hill from sheer ecstasy (no, I wasn’t high) when he launched into Reflektor.

The very essence of these times envelops me, and I can choose, on demand (what a privileged era indeed, I grew up you used to have to hover by your stereo, blank tape cued up, ready to push record the moment the radio put on your song) which memories to access. The soundtracks are there, all of them, inseparable from my life.