Shiver Me Timbers

A disquisition on horripilation, cutis anserine, gooseflesh, and goose bumps

The other day a songwriter friend asked me about some of his new tunes. He'd given me six demos he'd made and he wanted some feedback. I told him I liked almost all the songs, but that I had trouble with one. I said it was too on-the-nose. Specifically, I blanched at a lyric that worked too hard to spell everything out.

A small wall came up. In his eyes I saw the word "critic" flash on my forehead. He grinned the grin of the misunderstood artist and said he was discomfited to think that his audience might not "understand" what the song was "about." I asked him why he cares about being understood and his grin grew sicker, as if this was an artistic philosophy that had no place in the real world of trying to make a buck or a point. At the same time, though, we were getting somewhere--he the songwriter on a mission to express himself and me the minutia man who listens to music with an ear toward mystery, not conclusions.

It was a short conversation, fueled by coffee and the anticipation of a morning pickup basketball game. We were standing in a stuffy, overheated gym. He was in his street clothes, holding his gym bag. I was in my ball gear, already shooting and warming up. Time was of the essence, so, quite by accident, we started working on the lyric.

James O'Brien

"You don't need it," I said. "It doesn't give me anything to figure out, or a reason to go back to the song."

"Yeah, but it's just another love song if it doesn't have that part at the end," he said.

"So what? Give my imagination more credit," I said. "What if you lost the whole lyric?"

"I can't do that," he said. "Maybe if I..."

"Lost...," I said.

"That one word," he finished.

We said the new lyric to ourselves, did the same thing out loud and at the same time, and right then something passed between us. He said for the both of us, "That just gave me the shivers."

I played it cool. It was like a kiss. Or maybe I wanted to kiss him. Which probably wouldn't have been too cool with the other guys, so instead we spent the morning passing the ball to each other, bombing threes and winning. I have no proof, but I'm fairly positive that our pre-game shivers had everything to do with our on-court synchronicity.

When I got home, I dialed up my work voice mail. Sandwiched between a couple of biz-type calls was the voice of a music lover who simply wanted to tell me that when the music swells at the end of a certain Bright Eyes song, she "goose bumps every time." I checked my e-mail and saw a message from the publicist for singer Joss Stone. The header read, "goose bumps included," and inside was a quote from a New York Post live review: "You'd have to be made of stone not to have gotten goose bumps."

Now, I don't want to make too big a deal about this. But I also want to pay attention to it, acknowledge that it still happens and that we still want it to happen. "It" being the nerve discharge from an involuntary portion of the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the contraction of the hair erector muscles, which elevates the hair follicles above the rest of the skin. Which adds up to "goose bumps" (it entered the English language in 1933), "gooseflesh" (1810), "horripilation" (derived from the Latin, for "horrible"), and the medical term "cutis anserine," all of which experts attribute to reactions to cold or fight-or-flight fear, but rarely to emotion.

I'm not talking about moments of mere inspiration or passion. I'm not talking about being bowled over by Jonathan Franzen writing about Snoopy in the New Yorker, the orange revolution in the Ukraine, Kevin Garnett swooping in for a violent two-handed jam, the blur of the first snow and Christmas lights, or even Vladimir Nabokov's advice to writers: "Rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs." Those are breadcrumbs along the way, garden-variety thrills.

I'm talking about asterisks in a world of exclamation points; pinpricks that puncture our ever-thickening skins; windows that, for a split second, crack open on the universe and affirm that we are not alone, not going crazy. I'm talking about feeling like a piece of flotsam bobbing on the ocean, then being scooped up by the net of Kid Dakota on Radio K, singing about feeling small in the face of 10,000 Lakes, but big enough to sing about it.

I'm not talking about epiphanies. Or orgasms. Or pat cheerfulness. Or the "daily or even hourly emotional enemas" that Aldous Huxley wrote about in 1946 when considering the constant cravings created by radio. I'm talking about what's really behind this high-tech Christmas, all the portable DVDs and iTunery and flat-screen plasmatic TVs being hawked to our reptile brains with words like "sensory" and "vibrations": the promise of little entertainment earthquakes of the soul that say there is more to this world than the one we see.

I'm talking about sitting down at a dinner party this past Saturday with old friends, new acquaintances, survivors, strivers, and strangers, and asking them about the last time they got goose bumps. I'm talking about people offering up stories about it happening with their kids, jobs, songs they heard, plays and pieces of art they saw. I'm talking about this damaged and delighted chosen family brought together for one night only and letting down its guard.

I'm talking about a question that left many inarticulate and resorting to sighs and grunts. I'm talking about answers that led to invocations of Joseph Campbell, the Mayans, The Motorcycle Diaries, Nietzsche, Malcolm X, Jay-Z, Neutral Milk Hotel, music, football, poetry, channeling, and the warm rush of creation. I'm talking about the musician who confessed to being in a constant state of goose-bumpery, the woman who works with troubled teens, one of whom recently gave her his business card, and the new parents who goosed up at a recent episode of--don't laugh--Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

I'm talking about the woman at one end of the table who confessed that she gets goose bumps every time she pees. I'm talking about the woman at the other end who couldn't remember the last time she got goose bumps, but who, upon leaving the party, wondered if it would be "all right" with me if she posed my question to her family at Christmas dinner.

And of course it would be all right with me. I mean, how do you corner the market on discussions about horripilation? How do you put borders around the astral plane? How do you argue with the image of a once goose-bumpless woman sitting around with her loved ones on Christmas Eve, swapping cosmic kisses that got their start with a couple of dead-or-alive geezers in a hothouse gym?

 

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or jwalsh@citypages.com.

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