When I was very small–maybe three or four–I often had the unsettling feeling that I was standing at the precipice of sanity, just about to fall into a bottomless chasm of crazy. At least that’s how I characterize those feeling as an adult currently wading through middle age. At the time, it simply felt like I was being chased by big scary emotions–happy, sad, scared, angry–that were waiting to swallow me whole.
Now, of course, I have come to the conclusion that all toddlers are mentally unhinged. Part of the human growing and learning process, I guess? So I was normal. The only part that probably wasn’t normal was my self-awareness of said toddler insanity. Am I crazy? I would think, as I was carried out of Bambi or Charlotte’s Web, sobbing inconsolably as if the world had ended. My mother soon put an end to movies— “Until you’re older”–and also the Sunday night Disney shows about wildlife families (wolves, bears, deer, whatever) in which a baby was separated from its mother, then reunited a commercial-break later. It was Just. Too. Sad. Even Sesame Street had to go.
But here’s what couldn’t go: music. Music was the only thing that was everywhere, back in the day. You didn’t see movies playing in car DVD players. You didn’t see television blasting in every waiting room or nail salon or store window. But the radio was always on: in the car, in the coffee shop, at home. And I soon became obsessed with a song by John Denver called Sunshine on my Shoulders. Here is the first verse:
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry Sunshine on the water looks so lovely Sunshine almost always makes me high
John Denver was pretty popular in the 70s (even before he was on The Muppets). I think my mom might have had a t-shirt with his face on it. He looked like a pretty nice guy to me: sweet, smiling, with straight blonde hair that was a little long and cut like mine. When he sang, he sounded like he understood me. Also: I liked anything that had to do with sunshine, since that was my last name (close enough). But what I liked most about the song was that it made me cry. But not uncontrollably. Just enough to be enjoyable. That little swell of the heart, that tiny tear falling from the corner of my eye. Every time I heard it on the radio, I would press myself up against the speaker, basking in the melancholy of the song. And finally, I asked my mother if I could HAVE THIS SONG. I needed it. I needed to hold it close and let it be all mine. And for some reason, she agreed. Maybe because it was so damn cute, but probably because I wouldn’t stop asking for it.
This was a big deal. We lived in a tiny town. I’m not even sure there was a record store. We had to drive to the nearest big city (Chico, if that tells you anything) and go to the mall. There, my mother bought me the 45 of the song. I don’t remember what was on the B-side. I’m sure it was my first record that wasn’t a read-along story or Captain Kangaroo collection of songs and jokes. A real single. All mine. Little kids had record players back then. Even three year-olds. And once we bought it, I had to wait the rest of the day AND the 35 minute drive home to listen to it.
But once I put it on the turntable and lowered the needle, it was just as wonderful as I remembered it from the radio. John Denver was singing this song about me. To me. I started to cry. I probably listened to it until my mother wanted to hurl the whole damn thing into the garbage. But a funny thing happened: the more I listened to it, the less it made me cry. There was something about listening to the sad song over and over again that gave me the power to control my emotions. I didn’t feel so crazy anymore. Eventually, I got bored of Sunshine on my Shoulders. I put it next to Captain Kangaroo and moved on to another obsession: a weird cover of the ballad One Tin Soldier.
Recently, I heard Sunshine on my Shoulders. It came up streaming in my Pandora station: singer-songwriters of the 1970s (an excellent station, by the way). It was amazing how moving the song still is. Sweet and sad and simple. It took me back to that record store in the mall, holding my mom’s hand as we walked through the aisles in search of my treasure. I still love things that make me cry. I still love that song. And when I heard it, out of the blue, I might have cried. Just a tiny bit.
The first truly adult trip I remember taking—just me and my girlfriend—was to the redwoods in northern California. It was part of a gradual growing into adulthood—first a job, then college and living away from the home I grew up in, and it felt like the final cutting of the cord. Northern California’s geology and biology of mountains and forests are completely different from southern California’s of deserts and date palms, and that also gave the trip the feeling of a rite of passage. Still, I was not really prepared for the mystery and majesty of the redwoods. As a newly-minted adult, the unexplored forests and coasts and the kitschy little roadside attractions and the fact that we were in motion meant that we could suddenly do anything. The future lay ahead, as unexplored and thrillingly mysterious as the forests themselves.
Among the must-see roadside attractions in this area was the Trees of Mystery, a grove of trees with unusual features and names to match: the Elephant Tree and the Cathedral Tree, the Brotherhood Tree and the Candelabra Tree. In case you might drive by without even noticing it, giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox stood outside.
For me, the appeal of roadside attractions has always had something to do with their proximity to the sublime. A little tumble-down antique shack, or a chainsaw bigfoot, no matter how clumsy, humanizes the landscape at the same time that it provides a reminder of the insignificant scale of human endeavor when set against the majesty of nature. And the name, Trees of Mystery, seemed to be speaking to me at the time. Whatever mysteries adulthood held, I was ready for them. I was certain they were every bit as majestic and beautiful as the redwoods.
Then life happened, and I was confronted with realities.
There was another trip to the Trees of Mystery, under different circumstances. This time I was en route back to Southern California with a young child in tow. At the time I was a newly-minted parent; new as well to the pressures and pleasures of working, home-ownership, and raising a demanding, intelligent four-year-old.
This time we needed to do the trip on the cheap. We packed everything in the car and stayed in ratty motels. We ate out of a cooler. But we couldn’t resist another stop at the Trees of Mystery.
In the intervening years things had changed. Instead of a grove of loosely-protected trees with a mist-swathed pathway through them and a kitschy gift shop adjacent, the Trees of Mystery had now been fenced off and an enormous gondola to the top of the mountain, dubbed the “Sky Trail,” had been erected. And the prices had tripled.
The majesty of nature was suddenly subject to a surcharge, and it excluded us as a matter of economy.
While we deliberated whether or not to pay the steep entry fee, which included the mandatory Sky Trail ride, we sat in the new restaurant across Highway 101. It was totally empty except for us. The room was decorated as if we were underwater in a lake, with the underside of a bobbing duck just above our table. It was cold and foggy outside. I mentally counted the dollars we had available to spend on the trip while I chewed on the unbearably salty French dip which I had allowed myself as a luxury.
After lunch we drifted through the gift shop. We bought my four-year-old son a little box made of burlwood and a pressed penny, still trying to decide whether or not to spend the money on the admission fee. It was about the same amount we would pay for a night in a motel.
Eventually I caved in. It seemed like there was a memory of something good there, and outside we were just touching on the fringes of it, afraid to take the plunge. We paid for the tickets, got on the gondola and went up.
The gondola went higher than I expected it to. I remember gliding above the tree tops, enclosed in the little bubble of the gondola car, over deep valleys lined with gigantic firs. The earth was a pincushion below us. At that moment, it didn’t matter how much we had spent, or how much we had left to spend. All I remember is feeling free—our little family in a bubble, high above the world.
Every time I hear the beginning of the Handsome Family’s song, I’m whisked back to that ride, high above the pines. It reminds me that out of all the mysteries in life, those fleeting moments of joy that come in the midst of stress are sometimes the most mysterious of all.
The building I worked in was called the Egg. It was a beautiful piece of brickwork and brass with an airy inner court, which sat just across the street from the Universal lot, and was scheduled for demolition when the Metro Line came through. Every morning I spent a few minutes in the car becoming appropriately tense for the day while the Metro workers in their glaring orange uniforms dissected the building with scopes. A casting office occupied half of the Egg, and the front entrance was a study in factory-floor dehumanization. Budding actors and actresses would enter as if on a conveyor belt, their headshots and resumes tucked into manila envelopes, and exit a short while later, having been processed by the rejection mill into something lifeless and uniform.
Most mornings the sidewalk near the entrance was claimed by a homeless man with a puppet, the kind with long boneless arms which looped around his neck in a listless hug. The puppet had mangy blue fur, and sang gospel in a booming baritone.
Precious Lord, take my hand! Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn!
The man was blind, but apparently the puppet could see perfectly. He looked me up and down with his bulging plastic eyes. I liked his mangy appearance, the immediate and ironic contrast he made with the people entering and exiting the casting office. When I gave them a dollar, the man took my money and put it in his shirt pocket without pausing in the song:
Through the storm, through the night Lead me on to the light Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home!
Before I could get through the doors I heard Kathleen sweetly bellowing, “Is that my favorite assistant?” I was her only assistant. Somehow she made me feel like a kept woman.
“We’re interviewing Production Designers today,” she mouthed around a headful of phone. “I need you to pull files.” She gestured to the dozen or so Post-It notes she had stuck to my desk:
Call Lightning Dubs about trailer Return reels to: L. Piton S. DeMaro Send Thank You to Evelyn Marsh Agency for lovely (!!!) flowers Find a new office! The Egg closes in three weeks!
I nodded and silently went about my business. The office was always fraught with tension, even when it was only Kathleen and me. We were packaging a Virtual-Reality Twilight Zone rip-off, to whom an aging male actor who had enjoyed a hit sitcom in the early eighties was attached. We were currently working on designing a “look”, yet from the mood of things anyone might have thought we were preparing for war.
I was not a paid assistant. I was an intern. What nobody tells you is that going to film school does not prepare you, in any sense, for working in the film industry. What they do tell you, over and over, is that you’ve got to pay your dues. Nobody tells you what those dues are, exactly. And so even though, as a recent film school graduate, I couldn’t find a paying job, I threw myself into everything, including helping Kathleen design a “look,” for long hours and no pay, in a kind of quasi-religious penance. I sat in on meetings. I went to screenings. I fielded hundreds of hand-scrawled Post-It notes. Most of what was talked about, or screened, or written, had very little to do with my reasons for attending film school in the first place. But I had to pay my dues.
Kathleen had a vaguely feline aspect to her. She was languid and derisive. She always seemed to be thinking about what others could do for her. She was neither attractive nor unattractive, but there was a certain self-possession which cast a spell. She had no room for doubt or even self-reflection. But there was also something about her which made me think she had been an ugly child, or at the very least, a child who had been told often that she was ugly. At some point, I reasoned, she had made the decision to become powerful, and this image of herself somehow sustained her through the inevitable insults.
One day her Post-It note had read:
While I’m in London: Call Lightning Dubs about trailer Research a new office space before they tear the building down! Handle phones and office. Be present. I’m taking you to lunch today. I appreciate you. So make a reservation.
By then I knew her well enough to schedule my “thank you” lunch at her favorite restaurant. Her impending trip had made her wistful. “I remember what it was like,” she said over a plate of farfalle, “huddling on the beach without a permit on a cold winter night, trying to get off those last two shots. And your feature has shrunk to a short because you’re so far under budget. Somewhere along the line, you have to compromise that naïve college student integrity. You have to kiss ass. What you hope is that some day, after all the ass-kissing, you’re in the position to kick it.
“The world sometimes seems glossy,” she said, “like an Interview or an Entertainment Weekly. You tell yourself you deserve these things and it’s as if you really belong there—you really belong in Aspen, or at the Venice film festival, because you think that somehow you’re better than other people. Somehow more entitled. And the more you keep telling yourself that, the more ambition you have for yourself, the farther you’re going to go.” She paused, looked out at the traffic on Cahuenga. “So maybe I’m nothing special,” she said. “I try not to think about it.”
It’s hard to convey the mood of utter hopelessness which had descended on me following college, but I suspect it wasn’t unusual. There was a period where I couldn’t shake the feeling that the world was a very hostile place. This was shortly after the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing disorder. Los Angeles was huge, and there was a sense in which the connective tissue which had once held it together was strained to breaking. Chaos threatened to erupt from the thin crust of asphalt. People on the freeways kept their windows rolled up. Gang bangers flashed signs on street corners. Junkies shot up on the Walk of Fame.
In the world of the industry, everything was surface. Most of the people around me seemed content to get caught up in the glamor and intrigue, to touch the hems of various celebrities’ garments and snipe about them behind their backs, or to penetrate the inner sanctums of power and afterward deride their decorating schemes. Being in film school had been the most exhilarating experience of my life, and a number of my professors had commented that I was one of their most promising students. I still dreamed of some kind of artistic fulfillment, and the snarky insider anecdotes I was gathering seemed poor compensation for the sense of losing touch with my dreams. I was broke, living with my mom, and working for Kathleen. For free. It was a harsh comedown.
While Kathleen was in London I was required to attend her social events. One was an Industry party where there was supposed to be ample opportunity to make good contacts. However, most of the executives had sent their assistants as proxies and we all drifted around the room, partaking of sushi and business cards. After an hour or two I began to feel completely disassociated from myself and sat down at the pay bar.
A girl whom I knew only in passing sat down next to me. “I get what you’re doing,” she said.
“What am I doing?”
She smiled an odd little apelike smile which I only belatedly realized was her way of removing a fleck of seaweed from her teeth. “You’re trying to look important,” she said. “You look important by looking disinterested.”
I wondered if the sense of disassociation I was feeling was a hallmark of the important people in the Industry. If there was a look. And if the look was everything. “So why aren’t you mingling?” I asked.
“I’ve schmoozed all the good people,” she said. I surreptitiously watched her face as she scanned the room. She had a big face, and I think that was why I had remembered her. I thought, this girl’s face belongs on a Rose Parade float, three stories tall. I could almost see the little driver behind her eyes pushing his animatronic buttons as she careened down Colorado Boulevard. “Are you going up to Santa Maria this weekend?” she said. “A bunch of us are going up for a cheap weekend.”
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” I said.
“I figured Patty had asked you,” she said. “We’re going to find the ruins. At the beach.”
“In Santa Maria?”
She nodded. “From when they filmed The Ten Commandments. They’re buried up there in the sand.”
The night was pink with neon as I careened down Sunset after the party. I was in a bad state. Everything was surface, and every surface was shiny and vacant. A man dreams a dream, and then takes a picture of that dream. And the picture becomes the reality, and what is left behind is only ruins, and they make for a cheap weekend.
When Kathleen got back from London something was revealed at work. First, the puppet man was gone, and his absence was eerie, like the silence of birds preceding an earthquake. I found myself singing the words precious Lord, take my hand, as I entered the office. And meaning them.
Inside, Kathleen was speaking with the IT guy who was on staff in the Egg building. “It froze up on me,” she said, as she gestured for me to sit down and listen as well. “I can’t get at any of my files.” I pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. The IT guy was showing her how to use the fax modem. Kathleen was talking to him as if she wanted to get him into bed. She was wearing a white man’s shirt, no bra. As she leaned over to speak to him her shirt, buttoned too low, fell open and her right breast, small and pointy, nosed outwards. And I was close enough to see the dark hairs which surrounded the nipple, like a man’s. Once again I got the sense of the girl who had been told, over and over again, that she was ugly. Something about this made me immeasurably sad. I got a stronger sense, somehow, of what the dues were. I knew I did not want to pay them.
I didn’t quit, not exactly. When Kathleen sent me to check out a new office facility to move into, I just left and never came back. I left a Post-It on her windshield wiper which I hoped would convey my feelings:
Kathleen— I can’t do this any more. Please don’t call me.
She did call me though, again and again. This, too, made me immeasurably sad. I felt bad for not being able to tell her directly why I couldn’t work for her, but how do you tell someone that she is a ruin? Moreover, how do you tell her she is a ruin of something that never really existed in the first place?
A couple of weeks later the Egg Building was torn down. I drove by just to see the empty space where it had once been. I got no satisfaction from this.
Eventually, in another, very different life, I made my way up to Santa Maria. The beach there was lonesome and vacant, and I thought about the ruins, hidden underneath the sand. They had once been part of someone’s vision. Now they waited to be discovered, like the bones of something huge and dangerous. I didn’t venture out to find them, though. I wanted to let them lie.
Imagine you are having a dream. Any dream; insert your random montage here. Trying to shop for Brussels sprouts, for example, but the plastic bags are turning into jellyfish which threaten to sting you. Or you desperately need to go to the bathroom, but Chevy Chase is blocking the entrance, and he’s being really mean. And anyway the bathroom is not a bathroom, but a Ferris wheel. Chevy still won’t let you by.
Now imagine this random montage of absurd imagery is also deeply emotional. It is, in fact, making you weep with a sudden depth more profound than anything else you have experienced. And it’s happening while you’re awake.
And then imagine it’s over in an instant.
They might have been visions sent from God, if God had Captain Beefheart for a playwright and Salvador Dali for a set designer. They might have been visitations from dead relatives, if my dead relatives were Jane Curtin and Bozo the Clown. Or they might have been acid flashbacks, if I’d ever done acid.
As I began to figure out what was happening, I became aware that I was being revisited–usually about ten times a day, not counting the ones that happened while I was asleep–by long-forgotten dreams. And they weren’t the meaningful ones. They were just any old dream which I might have had over the course of a lifetime which has probably been too stuffed with surrealist art, pop-culture references, and hand-wringing philosophical quandaries. But somehow they were always paired with a sudden spasm of free-floating grief.
What was clear to me from the start was that this was something which originated in the chemical or electrical processes of the brain. My thoughts and emotions had never followed this particular pathway before. With a little sleuthing from my wife, we came upon the culprit: TLE, or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Everything written about it said that it emanated from a small–often microscopic–scar on the brain which caused localized seizures and didn’t affect motor function. As the Temporal Lobe controls memory and emotion, it seemed entirely plausible as the source of these profoundly gut-wrenching inanities.
My doctors were a little slower on the uptake. I first had to see a therapist who, despite being perfectly pleasant, was clearly concerned by the end of session two that I was wasting her time. About six months after the incidents began I made it to a neurologist, who instantly recognized what was going on. Still, it took a month or two to find the right medication to get this to stop. In the meantime, I began to experience a depression like I’d never had before.
I understand that others probably experience depression differently, and it can be debilitating for many. But that wasn’t the case with me. True, everything seemed meaningless. True, nothing held my interest. True, everything was colorless. But ironically, it was a very productive time. Nothing held any meaning any more, but since nothing held any meaning, there was no reason why I SHOULDN’T continue to work on my novel, or do the dishes, or open an IRA. Since none of it meant anything, everything was weighted equally—inaction as well as action. I got a lot done, and I lost thirty pounds to boot, because eating also didn’t interest me.
But where it really hurt, aside from the random finger-jabs of inconsolable weeping, was that I couldn’t listen to music. None of it. All of the music that has brought me comfort over the years and helped me become who I am, it all reminded me only of myself. It was no longer a communication from someone out in the world to me, but only a communication from my own poorly-wired brain to itself, and it seemed as meaningless as the sudden Sisyphean dream-memory of a cat trying to retrieve a bean from the top of a flagpole while I watched from below and a boom-box played “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
So what was I left with? Silence.
When the medication eventually kicked in, music began to creep its way back into my life. In fact, it was as if it had never left.
I have often heard people say that if it weren’t for modern pharmaceuticals, they wouldn’t be able to function. I’m sure, given the mildness of my condition, I would have continued to soldier on. But I have also heard it said that music is like medicine. For me, the two are now inextricably tied.
I collected my childhood in songs: the alphabet, how to count, parts of speech, sharing is good, C is for Cookie, Love American Style. I learned that Jesus loved me and Mr. Rogers was really counting on me to be his neighbor. Commercial jingles and jump rope rhymes and hymns and theme songs slosh and spill into my life even now as I carry them like a brimming coffee cup I forget I’m holding.
One song sinks to the bottom like bitter stray grounds. I sang it for my little sister. I sang because this particular song could make her cry. And, oh, I wanted her to cry. I wanted her to howl, to give voice to my existential eldest child frustrations. I don’t know the exact moment, but at some point it became clear that music had power. The box had been opened. Music could evoke responses mere words could never generate. I understood that I could use music to manipulate my sister’s emotions; I had a new weapon.
That weapon was Ten Little Indians.
On the surface it is a simple counting song. The version found and used currently is simply a count of little Indians, forward and then backward, usually to the tune of Michael Finnegan. It is simple and mind-numbing and politically incorrect. The version I learned was more complicated and recounted the horrific demise of each Indian boy, one by one. I can find various poems that must have been the basis for the song I knew. There is death by choking, death by bee stings, death by giant fish. One is killed by a bear. One roasts to death on a hot day. One gets chopped in half. It is a nursery song directed by Quentin Tarantino.
I don’t remember who taught me this song. If it was an adult, it hardly seems like a good call. But to be fair, it was the 1970’s and there was a lot of impaired judgment. What seems to me now like obvious racism and attempted genocide tucked into a song for children went unnoticed and unheeded in those groovy days. Fairy tales were served raw with some carob and wheat germ on the side. The only line I remember singing is the last one. It is not the traditional ending and appears to be a unique and violent adaptation. It is this line that would generate the tears and I sang it to full effect:
One little Indian found a gun. Shot himself, and then there were none.
My sister found this horrifying because how could that little boy’s parents let him play with a gun? It sounded like a simple open-and-shut case of suicide to me, but she insisted upon a complicated story of tragic parental neglect. My sister was and is a maternal person, always caring for the dolls I did not hesitate to throw headfirst into the dark well of our toy box when the work got tedious. She was the good shepherd for those left behind on our block. She was kindly captain of the little sisters and brothers, the kids nobody had time for. She was the democratic underdog, the unheard and unheeded middle child giving voice to the voiceless up and down ticket. And me? I was Donald Trump.
I was the monster that music built. I was the one-note bully in the obnoxious trucker hat: Make this family great again. These siblings had showed up, uninvited and unwanted, and I was doing my best to deport them. And then there were none. When I wasn’t singing to make my sister cry I was acting the terrorist, beheading my hapless Sunshine Family dolls in full view of my little brother. This was an incredibly satisfying act, as it made him scream and sob and seek a more hospitable country. When he was not providing me with useful menial labor as a shopkeeper in our pretend store I was busy building a wall to keep him out of my room.
I could get myself in trouble with the authorities for throwing a book at my brother’s head or pinching my sister; I had gone these routes and been spanked for them and knew I needed to be more creative. I could be faulted for physical violence, but this music let me manufacture all the misery I desired with impunity. If I was careful, these drone strikes would fly undetected by preoccupied parental radar and devastate their targets. Who would punish me for playing with dolls even if what I was doing belonged at a public execution in Riyadh? Who could chastise me for singing to my little sister?
The enemy I imagined in my sister no longer exists, has been replaced with an ally. The tormented has long since forgiven her tormentor, if she remembers at all. The actual words I sang have melted and evaporated from memory like ice cubes on the broiling summer sidewalks of my California childhood.
But this remains:
Someone taught me a song.
Someone opened the box.
Sometimes the wind is right and a song rises from the depths and I can hear things that have been silent.