For 39 years—from the 12th grade until the middle of 2004—I wrote in the dialect of journalese. I communicated through crisp, direct, no-frills sentences and paragraphs. I wrote, I edited, I coached, I taught--all in that mother tongue.
Then I stopped. I quit the newspaper where I’d spent almost three-quarters of my adult life. And suddenly I felt the tug of another dialect.
It was music, and I wanted to speak it. It did not demand conformance with libel laws or certain length limitations or fairness. All it demanded was a sensation: Wooooooooosh! The moment when your lyrics immediately replicate what just happened in your heart.
I’d been singing with a band of fellow amateurs for the last few years. I’d written songs (again, amateurishly) most of my life, but I rarely showed them to anybody—that was a dialect in which I had little confidence.
But the nice thing about getting older is that eventually you just flip off your insecurities, and so one day last year, on the cusp of 58, I made a proclamation similar to Jesse Jackson’s I-am-somebody decree. I said: I am a songwriter. Not only am I a songwriter, but I am a singer, and I am gonna record my songs.
I bought a relatively cheap digital eight-track recorder and recorded many, many, many mediocre versions of my songs. It was reminiscent of learning a new language, not merely a dialect: Just when I thought I had the variables down, I’d learn there was a new variable lurking out there. What I wanted was the wooooosh between a non-verbalized impulse and the words that describe the impulse. That wouldn’t insure the song was good. But it would give me something emotionally valid to work with.
I wrote a song about a loopy guy who tells the DMV he’s handicapped—broken heart, girlfriend dumped him—and thus needs a parking plaque. I wrote a song about my friend Louis’ desire to act spontaneously. I wrote a song about forever being “almost there…trapped by proximity,” never truly achieving. I wrote a song about spite, about a band that chases the big E chord in the sky, about fixing what’s wrong with soccer—but never with the wooooosh. Those songs never just came to me, rapped on the door and forced their way in. I wanted what I’d enjoyed, on good days, with the dialect of journalese: immediate emotional connection.
And then I was flying back home from Vegas last month and the expression “low expectations,” central to my life, surfaced during an inner monologue and—whoooooosh—I grabbed my pen, pulled the white air-sickness bag out of its pocket and soon beheld my personal proclamation:
My shrink says to me: “You’re a happy little guy
All my other patients whine, could you please tell me why
Nothing ever gets to you?”
I said “Doc, it’s a simple equation.
I greet every day with
I learned early that I am cursed.
I learned early to expect the worst
This two hundred I’m paying you for our weekly assignation
Is a waste that fulfills my
When life gives me lemons, it’s lemons they stay
When I go to trial I don’t get off like O.J.
When I come on to a woman she rejects me at first sight
I expect nothing, and I’m always right
My message to you, Doc, and to all your clients
Is to form a close, unholy alliance
With adversity, loss, disappointment and fear
Make ‘em your friends, have ‘em over a beer
Out goes Mister Righteous Indignation
Let’s welcome home Mister Low Expectations
(I attached a spoken ending that warbled thusly:
“You want to know where all the good times went, baby?
They were never here to begin with.
It’s a jungle out there—and they just cut down your tree.
That’s all right, have a glass of wine on me.
Just remember: the glass is half empty…”
I didn’t know if it was good or bad and I didn’t care. It was the woooosh I was after.
I can’t imagine pouring this out on any other site. In my imagination, a high percentage of people who come to laobserved are writers, accomplished, aspiring or otherwise. You know the torture. As a contributor, I’d like to visit this struggle occasionally.
Meanwhile, if anybody’s interested in hearing that song, send me a message and I will e-mail you an mp4 file made on i-Tunes software. (I’m keeping my expectations low.)
Bob Baker promises to sing a future item for Native Intelligence. Here's his bio.