My New House

New Year's Eve rock 'n' roll: I watch four young men, probably collegians, dancing in their tight white way--perfect for these narrow rows of concert hall seats. After each song, they double high-five, throw devil signs in the air, slap each other's backs, and hug, hug, hug. At show's midpoint, an usher takes away their Budweisers. They shrug and laugh, turn their singing sunflower faces back to the spotlights. They express their joy so ritualistically that I nearly discount it. Up one row and over five seats, a single, bespectacled woman waves her arms with the frenzy of a sign language interpreter trying to keep up with Chris Tucker. People snicker at her. I have no trouble believing her joy, because I've been her: feverishly awkward, and fuck you for staring.

The music moving all of them is familiar to me: I've seen Soul Asylum 50 times or more. This is the first occasion in five years. I can't say I've missed them. It's not that these guys have grown uninspired, or static, or soulless. My ear is tweaked and amused by the mischievous re-soundings of old favorites. But I'm not out there singing, breathing with the band, like the hugging boys and the signing woman. I can't remember when last I was, with any band, any DJ. I'm not sure I'm capable anymore of getting so untethered from myself. I don't know if I even want to be. I used to count a person's openness to certain kinds of musical bliss as a mark of their emotional health, mental flexibility, and political awareness. I find that equation delightfully naive now, but I would, wouldn't I? The question remains, What shrinks with age: our capacity for out-of-body ecstasy, or the need for it?

Any answer, at least in my case, has to consider the changing tolerance and need for artificial stimulants. Johnny Green, erstwhile Clash roadie/driver/minder, relates a story in his meandering A Riot of Our Own: Night and Day with the Clash (Faber and Faber) about going out on the town straight with a hepatitis-recovering Joe Strummer: "I matched him, sticky orange juice for orange juice. Bands I usually enjoyed sounded crap. Conversations with acquaintances didn't flow...the familiar buzz...wouldn't come without drugs and alcohol." Or as the 1977 Strummer summarized the experience of listening to music sober: "It's boring. And it gives you itchy feet."

Since slashing my liquor intake, I've become a proponent of the 20-minute set. The hour and a half that once went by in an eyeblink--if the length of a blink, as in dreams, could encompass a series of intense moments rising out of quickly forgotten whiteouts--stretches now like a full workday. Sober, you notice the bump of passersby, the bad notes, the sag between songs. Bliss requires more concentration.

Still, as an 18-year-old entranced by the Clash, I wasn't drinking and I didn't need to be: There was enough adrenaline and lust detonating under my skin to blast off the space shuttle. I've written before about the wonderful expansiveness I experienced then, listening to--breathing and swimming in--live music. But now that particular feeling is starting to look period-specific. Then, I could feel wide-open, limitless even, because I didn't have a lot of stuff to call my own. My self was like a building site, with little as yet in the way of standing walls, landscaping, or furniture. All I had was potential, and that emptiness felt both delicious and scary. It was exhilarating to adopt the Clash's rebel anger, style, politics, because I at once ached for such defining structure and knew I could knock it all down tomorrow.

This is the mutable place disaffected teenagers inhabit in editor Terri Windling's decade-old Borderland fantasy series. Ostensibly about a magical town perched between elfin and human territory, Borderland stories revel in the freedom and fear of existing somewhere in limbo between child- and adulthood. So it was weird to read Caroline Stevermer's graceful entry in this fall's collection The Essential Bordertown (Tor). In "Rag," an artist long past adolescence supports his estranged wife and son with a dull job as a newspaper cartoonist: By tale's end, he has chosen art over security and won back his family. Perhaps the author intends to show that adults too can return to the magical place of raw potential, renew themselves, and begin again. But is it that simple?

According to the book's contributor notes, "Caroline Stevermer works for a daily newspaper in Minneapolis" (she's an opinion-page editorial assistant at the Strib), and she writes fiction. (She wrote the searing fantasy of manners A College of Magics.) The truth is, most adults cannot choose to follow their bliss without reference to a bank statement--that's a young (or rich) person's dream. At best, we juggle both needs.

We've got houses we're paying off, and by that I mean we've erected structures to define us: We're no longer renting out identities. It's more difficult to wipe my mind clean, open it up to some other person's reality, let them set up housekeeping. And why would I desire that erasure anyway? I'm through playing a windsock in the land of potential. I'm building onto my house, following the blueprint I've selected, discovering the next dream in the cracks of the one before. I'll enter your house (your song, your story), dance in it, even learn from it. But I won't--I can't--lose myself within it. I'm surrendering now to my own life. Fan-time is over.

 
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