“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” That’s the chorus of “Ooh La La”, one of my favorite songs by The Faces. The song is a dialogue between a grandfather and his grandson, with the elder cautioning the younger about the perils of embarking upon relationships with women. The lyrics are embittered but the tune is so infectious that if you weren’t paying attention you’d think this was an upbeat number, a bit like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Like so many of my favorite tunes, I discovered it through a film, this time Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”. I was re-watching it in the days after my birthday in June and was struck by the finale. This is where the happy ending was supposed to be inserted and if you played this scene with the sound off, you might be fooled into thinking it was. But the use of this song indicates that the film wasn’t about the romantic, if misguided pursuits of youth but rather the story of a bittersweet, unrequited love a teenager has for an elementary school teacher… yeah I really like this movie but that’s as creepy as it sounds.
I couldn’t get that song out of my head and felt compelled to dump even more money into i-Tunes to secure it for my musical library. That chorus kept pounding in my brain, to such an extent that by the third or forth re-listen I was tearing up, the lyrics hit me that hard. Hardly surprising, so much had happened over the past few months that I needed to sit down and take stock. My niece had been born back in March after a rather harrowing last month of pregnancy for my soon to be sister-in-law. The first time I held my niece in my arms she was so very tiny and pink and could barely even open her eyes. Of course after about two minutes of looking at my shaggy face she started crying but she’d better get used to seeing my face, because I cannot wait to watch that child grow up. It also occurred to me that my brother, the man with whom I had shared so many misadventures, was a father now and with that came the end of an era in both our lives.
At the time of first meeting my niece I was also experiencing the disintegration of a relationship. Some months back I met a girl, let’s call her Jean. She was a social worker for the state’s child protective services, and despite my picking a bar where neither of us could hear the other talk, we hit it off almost immediately. She was smart, funny and the only woman I’ve ever dated that could drink me under the table. We could also commiserate on vocations that were a constant stream of stress and seemed to consume all our free time, though if I’m being honest the stress of her job most certainly dwarfed mine. The first days and weeks were sweet and filled with promise. Then our work schedules seemed to get crazy at same time and it became near impossible to line up mutual days off so we resorted to quick dinner dates, work night sleepovers and other stolen moments of time.
But even those grew harder to come by and at least on my end, frustration began to grow. Then came a Saturday in April, the day of my step-mother’s 60th birthday and what would be my first meeting with my niece. Weeks in advance I asked Jean if she’d come with me and she said she would. Then at 6:30 the night before Jean called me and said that she was sorry but had to drive to Maine the next day and take custody of a child for the state. Of course I said I understood, this was her job and I certainly couldn’t begrudge for something she had zero control over. I suspect though she heard the deep disappointment in my voice though, and the next day I gave one or two word answers to her texts. Nothing cryptic but lacking any enthusiasm. Then we stopped talking, first for the rest of the day and then that whole weekend. Before I knew it, two weeks had passed without a single word between us. Maybe I was being stubborn and a bit childish, but I was genuinely waiting to get either a text or a phone call from Jean with something along the lines of “Hey Sean, I’m sorry that I missed the party but how about we get together for dinner this week?” At first I was determined that I not be the one to reach out first, but as the days passed and the awkwardness grew unbearable I didn’t make contact because I didn’t know what the hell to say. Maybe she felt the same but I’ll never know because we still haven’t spoken to one another. What I do know is that when it ended I was left feeling unwanted and miserable.
On the morning of June 1st I awoke to a phone call from my step-mother. My father had what they suspected was a mild heart attack and was in the hospital. When you’ve already lost your mother and you hear the words “father” and “heart attack” uttered in the same sentence it fells like you’ve been punched in the gut and had the air sucked out of you in an instant. When I finally managed to get over to the hospital he was sitting up and in the humor, but seeing him hooked up to machines, standard as they were, was incredibly hard. It was a stark reminder that someday, barring my own untimely passing, I will have to face a world in which my father lives only in my memories and my heart. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be prepared for that day but life has a funny way of happening whether or not you’re prepared for it. My father has, more or less recovered from this health scare but I confess that every time I see a Shelburne ambulance go shooting down Route 7 I instinctively reach for my phone.
This brings us back to that night in June, listening to “Ooh La La” and contemplating my own life. I was twenty nine years old, a fact that was really hard to fathom for me. Good lord my twenties have gone by fast. It made me think of something my father had said to me years before. My dad said that when he got up every morning he looked and felt like a sixty something but, in his mind he was still in his early twenties. I got up from my desk and looked at myself in the mirror. With the exception of the crows feet and thinning hair I still looked like my younger self. Then I saw that gray hairs were beginning to appear on the fringes of my beard and in strands of my hair. Still in the summer of my life the signs of autumn were beginning to show, and it made me evaluate where I was in my life. This was the night that began the re-ignition of this site, and for those of you following along with the essays, the project of both coming to terms with my past and looking to broaden the horizons of my future. You could say it was my mid-mid-life crisis, though while I did buy a car it was a sensible purchase and I didn’t join hair club for men.
Fast forward to a Thursday in early September. I found myself driving to a friend’s apartment in Colchester. I was edging through rush hour traffic on the interstate, in the middle of a downpour that the eastbound thunderstorm wore like a billowing cape. I was beginning to doubt the whole enterprise. The plan had been for my friend and I to have dinner in Stowe and use the road through Smuggler’s Notch to get there. I was thinking, did I really want to drive through a mountain pass in the middle of a storm? But the weather was not my sole trepidation for this evening. I had promised my friend that I would not only assemble a sing-a-long playlist but that I would actually sing. Friends let me tell you a few things about my relationship with singing. Firstly I place singing in front of people about on par with farting in a crowded elevator, slightly humorous but mostly just uncomfortable. Secondly my singing pitch could likely function as a sort of dog whistle and get me placed on a PETA watch list. Suffice to say that an off key introvert generally isn’t going to go out of his way to belt it out for an audience, let alone one in a confined space with no access to social lubricant. And yet this is precisely what I have agreed to do, sing in my car with a person who actually has a good singing voice. What madness has spurred this on?
Likely the same thing that possessed me to run in Tough Mudder or that time I took a date to a dance club…and had to dance. Masochism! No, well not entirely anyway. In the back of my head I carried with me the thoughts of that night in June, and the promise I had made to myself to open up to people and have new experiences. After buying the car and making a trip down to New Jersey to see family I hadn’t really done anything. So when my friend suggested a sing-a-long, despite reservations I agreed to the plan. I could feel my stomach knotting as I pulled up to my friend’s apartment and waited for her to come out. Now my friend, let’s call her Betty, was yet another woman I had met courtesy of the internet for the purposes of dating. We went out a few times, including a particularly memorable Christmas party but for various reasons it didn’t work out. When she told me that she wanted to be friends I thought she was full of it. In my experience that was something men and women told each other to soften the blow, with no real intention behind those words.
Betty was different though, she really meant it and over time we grew to be close friends. She was the one who came to the rescue after my break-up and got me out of the house, convincing me to do a paint & sip in Burlington. Despite some reluctance, mainly my total lack of painting or drawing ability, I had a blast and my drunken masterpiece still hangs over the mantelpiece in my office. When I told Betty that I had bought a car she made me promise to take her out for a ride and make one of my mix CD’s specially for the occasion. The singing portion came about through an offhand text but soon became the crux of the entire evening. Now Betty was walking towards my car and I was contemplating a sudden onset of laryngitis. The thought passed, I was going to sing dammit and who knows, I might even have fun.
During the initial drive we quietly talked as Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” came and went. For the first couple of songs actually neither of us made an attempt at singing along. Maybe it was the overcast skies or the fact that she had worked all day but neither of us seemed very enthused. Then Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” opened with it’s familiar piano. I had back loaded the playlist with as many songs as I could think of that we could both sing to and I knew that Tiny Dancer was a favorite of hers. We both began to cautiously harmonize as the chorus drew nearer. We were driving in the hills above Milton and I made a decision, I was going to go for it. When the song reached it’s crescendo I belted out, “Hold me closer tiny dancer! Count the headlights on the highway!” in the most ridiculous high pitched voice imaginable. Betty stopped singing and doubled over with laughter. I then proceeded to flub the next line and asked, “lay me down with Sheena Lennon? Who the fuck is that?” “It’s sheets of linen!” she shouted back and we both lost it.
Now that Sir Elton had broken the ice we went for it with full gusto, laughing our way through a particularly obscene Harry Nilsson song and Betty looking on in astonishment as I got way into Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It,” including a drum solo which, considering I was driving was perhaps not my brightest idea. Specifically for Betty I put Grace’s rendition of “You Don’t Own Me” on the list and I found out how powerful my car’s sound system was because the bass literally shook the windshield. The energy was high when we passed through Cambridge and began the climb up through the notch, which was a good thing because I hadn’t driven on this road in four years and clouds obscured the top so for all I knew it was buckets of rain up there.
We were grooving along to CCR’s “Proud Mary” when we started to climb the mountain itself. Betty opened her window up despite the drizzle and let in a blast of air heavy with the scent of pine and fresh rain. The sky was growing darker,the road slicker and narrowing with every turn. At any moment I was expecting to see Gollum streaking across the road, chasing his precious. Nerves were beginning to creep into my stomach and my ears were popping. I could feel the momentum being lost but, at just the right moment we began coming down the other side of the notch, the sky brightened and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” came on. I felt so relieved I ignored the rasp beginning to invade my chords and went for the high notes again ,much to the delight (or embarrassment) of my singing buddy. When Betty saw a car that we’d been behind for five minutes pull off to the side with a very anxious looking dog she began losing it. “What?” I said during a brief instrumental break in the song, “Sean! I think we scared the dog!” she said growing red from laughter. Sure enough the car got right back on the road after we passed so it was agreed that they wanted to” get the hell away from those singing lunatics!”
The hits kept coming, with Betty taking lead on “Me and Bobby McGee” and myself screaming out a rendition of “Twist and Shout” that… well let’s just say it’s probably best that John Lennon wasn’t alive to hear it. By the time we made it to the restaurant our voices were gone, our cheeks hurt from laughing so hard and we had both made thorough spectacles of ourselves. It was the most fun I’d had in a very long time, and I will always be grateful to Betty for bringing it about. As we sat down for dinner that night and we began yuking it up with the waiter I felt genuinely good, I mean really good and that feeling didn’t fade the entire night. After dinner, despite darkness and fog we drove right back up the notch, singing along to everything from Disney to the Beach Boys to CeeLo Green. The night proved to be such a success that we ended up having two more sing-a-long’s before winter came, one to Montpelier that ended up inspiring a section of my next novel and another that saw us drive from Bristol to Richmond and out to the islands before the night was over.
You know sometimes I am that I will soon be a walking cliche ripped straight out of a Springsteen song, with time having gotten away and left me with nothing but boring stories of glory days. Ok maybe that’s overstating it a bit but there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere. No matter our intentions life has regrets, and unless you’re Frank Sinatra apparently, we all end up with more than a few. Regret is an inevitable part of the human experience but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least try to have as few as possible. For me personally, more of my regrets stem from things I haven’t done and haven’t said compared to those I have. That’s why I accepted Betty’s challenge that evening, and why I can’t get the words “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger” out of my head. Life is a fragile proposition, we never know when the cracks will start to show and things begin to fall apart. I still have the chance to accomplish a helluva lot while my body is young and strong enough to support everything my mind can throw at it. There’s so much I want to experience, so many places I want to go and things I want to do. A sing-a-long through Smuggler’s Notch may not seem like much to some, but for me it was a good start.