(written in mid September 2012 but not posted until now)
My Auntie Audrey died earlier this month. I barely knew her, but I found out through watching my cousins express their grief through Facebook.
I barely know my cousins, but at least I'm more connected to them in the 21st century than I was in the last one.
I found out about her passing early during the day, a Saturday. Those are usually the days when I recover from the inevitable disappointments of Friday night. Saturdays are also the days I go to make some money to pay the obligations I have because I have young children with someone I am no longer married to.
I am a person who is estranged from family at both ends of the spectrum. As a first generation American, I never really knew my grandparents and didn't know my mother's sister. I knew my mother's brother, a man who traveled over to visit us repeatedly throughout my childhood. I've not been to Scotland since he died.
I spend a lot of my life wondering what could have been if certain things had happened. What if I had been bolder as a youth? What if I had traveled more?
I last saw my Auntie Audrey in 1995 just after I graduated from Virginia Tech. I stayed with her and her husband Bill in their house just north of Blackpool for three or four days. I explored around the place, saw a lot of my cousins and their children. On that trip, I kept so close to myself and my family that I did not meet a lot of people.
I was shy, an outsider uncertain of himself. For three weeks I traveled up and then down England, Scotland and Wales. Those memories have not yet faded away, but what I remember about them is this profound sense of isolation I had, but this sense of being connected by dint of genetics to people I'd never get to fully know. Because when I came home, it was back to a family that was just beginning to grow. I had two nephews at the time, but that was it.
And I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had this vague idea of being a journalist, but I didn't know what that meant. How would I get there?
I spent that summer working for my dad, when his company was in its tenth anniversary and he had a factory in Campbell County. I spent the summer learning how to edit the processes by which the various cable assemblies and wireless harnesses were written. I didn't know a thing about engineering, but I began to see the patterns of how the various lines were to put the product together. By the end of the summer, I had learned a lot about the paperwork of manufacturing as it pertained to mechanical engineering. I had sort of begun to enjoy it.
I also was continuing to dabble in public radio, continuing the internship I had at WVTF Public Radio. I'd been loaned my own Marantz cassette recorder, and I did a couple pieces here and there. But my main focus was working for my dad.
But that August, a friend of mine told me she was moving to New Hampshire with her boyfriend. Would I want to go?
I jumped at the chance of adventure. I wasn't making any friends in my hometown. I remember one incredibly awful night hanging out with people from work and they were incredibly racist and awful and I did not know how to say I was unhappy with that. I wanted to get away from Lynchburg, and I wanted to see something new. New Hampshire was sure to be exciting and maybe I could figure out a way to do some interesting journalism.
So, within a few days, I had mailed a cover letter and sample tape (on cassette!) to New Hampshire Public Radio looking for an internship. I got an answer about a week later, and had a phone call with the news director, a guy called Eric Westervelt. He said he was impressed with my credentials, and that if I came up, he could find a place for me.
I thought I was on my way.
Another night I can and will flesh out that thread, but for now I can say that the experience up there changed me and began to create the person I am today. New Hampshire was the first of two times time I've gotten away from everything I knew. And I am so much better for both experiences.
I didn't know Auntie Audrey that well, but I knew Uncle Dennis. Despite having grown up in Liverpool (I think - I'm really not sure about a lot of my family's experience), he had moved north to Scotland at some point.
It's important to point out that my mother was over a decade younger than her brother and sister. Audrey was in her mid-eighties. My mother's mother, if were alive, would have just turned 113.
But she didn't. She died in 1988 shortly after I turned 15. My dad's dad died the same month.
I think about my children, and how I hope so much they will know my parents as they grow up. They are an hour away from my parents and we try to see them as much as we can.
I don't want my children to be fragmented, because I was fragmented, growing up more or less alone without much family close at hand. Except Uncle Dennis, who would dazzle me every time I came to visit. So many of my younger memories have him in them, to some extent. I can't do him justice at this moment, but he was funny, sarcastic, biting, and he clearly enjoyed living his life. I wish I could have one last conversation with him.
He died in 2000 while my parents were visiting me in Calgary. I was living there with Pippa, my first wife. He'd contracted colon cancer and it had metastasized and it spread. My mother knew his time was limited, but they were so hopeful. He was 70 then, I believe. I could be wrong on his age.
I do know that my mother was four years cancer-free at that point. She had survived colon cancer because she caught it in time.
I know I have a very high risk of colon cancer and I know there are steps I have to take in order to survive.
As I write this, I'm listening to Dan Deacon songs on random in iTunes, going through his whole discography as I prepare to write about Saturday, the day I found out Auntie Audrey had died. I learned first through a Facebook post my second cousin Fiona had written. The Dan Deacon show I'd looked forward to for so long was that night, and I was kind of subdued after I read that and I didn't know if I was up for it.
I also had been invited to a dinner party that evening and initially wasn't sure if I could do both.
To be honest, on Saturday I was nursing a strange feeling because on Friday night I'd finally ended a causality loop that was really preventing me from moving on to the next chapter. I was sad about it, very sad about it, but I knew it needed to happen. Those details remain for another post way into the future.
So, I was subdued. I went for a run that ended up with me realizing my recent knee injury happened because I had been running on trails and the unpredictable footfalls twisted something that was not completely felt until later. Isn't that always the case? You do something new and you get hurt. Does that mean you stop doing new things? Or do you learn how to do new things smarter, retaining a sense of self-preservation?
I did the run, came home, and continued to invest reasons why I shouldn't go to the dinner party.
But, at some point, I realized, to not go to the dinner part would have meant that I would have lost an opportunity to talk with my friends, to meet new friends, and to generally feel human and connected to my community. Uncle Dennis would have gone to such a party, no question.
And I went, and I had a fantastic time. But when I was there, hanging out with people my age, I began to doubt going to see Dan Deacon. Hell, I'd been doubting it all day, but at the party, I wondered if I wanted to go and see a show that I would not have invited any of my dinner party colleagues to go see. I'm certain they wouldn't have enjoyed it, and I wanted to protect my enjoyment of the show.
But suddenly I was wondering. Would I actually enjoy it?
I'm not Uncle Dennis. I'm Sean Tubbs. And my life has been so vastly improved and guided by learning about Dan Deacon's music. Most people are not going to get it. I know that. But most people also didn't have a serious desire to make their own music. Most people don't fake their way through a punk rock band, fail at that punk rock band coming to life, learn electronic music synthesizing software as well as digital audio editing as a way in attempt to express the same feeling that were communicated through that punk rock band, used those audio editing skills (minus the electronic music improvisation) to resurrect a public radio career that fizzled because of an ineptitude related to analog recording, and then used those skills to move to Charlottesville, and then had two incredibly dramatic two divorces, and then remembered that playing music was a simple way to feel alive and human despite what anyone else thought.
That last one?
Dan Deacon is the reason.
After my last marriage broke up, I moved out of the house I'd bought seven months before. I lived with a friend, and I began to imagine what my new life was going to be like. I went to the gym and got in shape.
My soundtrack at the time consisted of podcasts. One of them was NPR's All Songs Considered, which packaged all sorts of things that were hip and contemporary. I'd listened to it for a while, but when the show played Dan Deacon's "Get Older" I about had a fit when I was lifting weights one day in February of 2009. (please don't read any of the text appended to the video below. At least, cringe along with me)
I heard this track and somehow it let my brain afire. I didn't know the name of it, but the explosions of sound reminded me of the sort of music I would have wanted to make if I'd had the confidence to do so. Listening now, I still feel that. I felt that the music was plugged into my brain, and all of my synapses fired in exactly that way that feels like harmony.
The other night, I shook Dan Deacon's hand for the second time, but we'll get to that in a moment. At that time, I didn't really get obsessed with the music. I was just simply enamored about this furious concoction of fast-paced beats streaming straight into my brain through my earbuds while I lifted weights. I was making myself into a better person.
I've written about this before, so I won't repeat now.
I'll just say that since seeing Dan Deacon at the Southern in October 2010, my life has continued as lives continue. I've continued becoming a better journalist who is incredibly tuned into his beat.
But personally, my beat has been arrhythmic. I've not yet figured out how to dance to a sustainable groove.
And time is calling me. I'm halfway through my life, possibly less, given the lifespans of my ancestors.
So, the dinner party was successful. I had a great time, a great chat. After two other guests left, I decided to make a graceful exit so I could get to the Jefferson. I had so much doubt about going alone, but I drove there anyway.
And I went. I fought off the urge to just go home. I wasn't terribly excited. I was intimidated by the fact that I was going in alone, didn't know for sure if anyone was there. I was scared for some reason, but I went and bought a ticket and went through the line, registered my credit card with the bar, and proceeded to feel ridiculously and stupidly old.
I was easily the oldest person there by far. And I was intimidated. I didn't recognize a soul in the place. And I was disturbed that there were not that many people there. This was Dan Deacon, for goodness' sake!
I only caught the last three songs of the opener, Chester Gwazda, who is also Dan's producer. He seemed good, but nothing as visceral to me as the guy who helped make Bromst and America possible.
So I drank my beer. And had another.
Upon my ordering a third I met an acquaintance who was there with a couple. The guy in the couple knew of Dan Deacon, had seen a show and knew what was going to happen. He was trying to convince his girlfriend and my acquaintance about the genius of Dan Deacon.
I came alive.
"You have to understand, what Dan Deacon is doing is very important," I said.
What did I mean by that? Could I back it up? Did I want Deacon to be universally understood? Was that possible? Could I explain the joy I felt hearing his music to anyone who had not heard him before?
No. But I felt good in the moment to the people I was in front of, to an audience.
We separated and I went to perch before the show began. I wanted to maintain an ironic distance for some reason. I wasn't sure why I was there. I was older, and I could feel the youth around me.
When my uncle was 39, did he go see shows of bands he liked in Perth? Was that acceptable behavior? Everything in me was telling me I was in the wrong place despite a voice in me telling me that I was about to experience something incredible.
I had stepped outside for a moment while the ensemble was setting up, but when I came back in, I was amazed that Dan was right there. The guy who made the exact kind of music I wanted to make while I was dabbling in Fruityloops, learning music as a way to replace the visceral experience of singing atop a live band.
I watched as he fiddled with an elaborate set-up on the stage, an aspect different from his Southern show when he was right on the floor, manipulating his audio Tardis like the Doctor, transporting me to so many different parts of my self.
I did not write down the details of that night. So I shall substitute the 10-28-2010 rendition of Crystal Cat at the Southern. I'm visible in certain portions.
Almost two years later, the show was very different. First, Chester was on stage, and there were two percussionists. He did play Crystal Cat, and I found myself sort of an observer, trying not to be seen for reason.
During the first song, I was completely and utterly not dancing. I was nodding my head a little, but something was holding me back. Some force of the universe.
I looked over and saw one of my enemies, someone who I'd failed at some point for reasons I won't go into now. He was there, holding a beer, and he clearly looked unhappy and unsatisfied with the music. I did not want to run into him, so I kept a low profile and moved closer to the stage so he couldn't see me.
So, for the first three songs or so, I just watched and took in the technical spectacle. I was content to just enjoy that.
But nature called, and I had to go to the restroom. On the way, there was my enemy, and I went up to him and shook his hand and said hello. Then I went to the bathroom because I wanted to get back to the stage.
On the way back I grabbed another beer and walked back down to the crowd. I stood against the wall.
A Dan Deacon show involves a lot of crowd interaction. He creates the crowd's actions as a true master of ceremonies. In one of the first incidents of Saturday's show at the Jefferson, he asked the audience to divide into two halves, and then appointed representatives of each side to take part in a dance contest.
I was still maintaining an ironic distance, so I stayed against the wall. My enemy was also looking at me, daring me to let go so he could have ammunition to use against me.
The rules of the dance contest is that each representative swap out about every 45 seconds or so. Someone standing in front of me was selected, and I delighted as one of their friends was selected and she went off into the middle of the Jefferson and they cheered. I smiled and felt my shell began to fade a little.
But, I didn't right away. I kept moving around the theater to get different views of other people having fun. I felt separate from everyone and thought it best to stay apart and just appreciate this show on a technical basis.
Then Dan announced another crowd dance. He told us all to move towards stage-right and then selected two people to stand facing each other towards the stage. He asked them to raise both hands in the air and then to form an arch by placing their hands together. He instructed two other volunteers to go through the arch, and then face each other, raise hands, and to touch each other's hands together in order to follow a tunnel. Everyone was to go through the tunnel and then continue adding to it.
I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it this time. My enemy's presence subdued me, and I wasn't feeling like dancing at all.
But then he told me us they were going to play Lots, a song off the new album America. The song had meaning for me from the first time I heard it, much in the same way Get Older had for me three and a half years ago. And, that was how he was going to provide the soundtrack for my journey through the human tunnel.
I'd done that before at the Southern, and it was incredibly fun.
I picked a spot at the back of the line, downed my beer, and then went through the chute. And, suddenly, all of my inhibitions were completely gone. I was dancing my way through, going past all of those people in style. I felt all of the objections to having fun disappear. Up the stairs I went, through the lobby, and down the stairs back to the end of the line. People ended up going behind me, and I stopped at the end, and some guy who looked just like me was on the other side and we formed our part of the arch, and people kept storming through.
For the rest of the night, I danced as hard as I could. I was reminded of how freeing it can be when you let go a little.
An hour later, I had danced so much that my shirt was completely drenched. The last part of the show was a performance of the second side of America, which is called USA. It's an amazing composition that I was so happy to see live, performed with two drummers, at a time when I really needed to be reminded of how joyful life can be.
All times that all humans have ever lived in have been sad, because the human condition is such that bad things will always happen. Sometimes these threaten to drag us down.
But for each of us, there are always oases from the threatening world. There are always places we can go to remind us of how amazing life can be, and how our own moods can change if we simply can let go.