My husband and I like to watch TV together after the girls (finally) go to bed: we go through jags of obsessive show-watching that become part of our shared language and repertoire of catchphrases and inside jokes. It all started back in ye olden days of TV shows on DVD, when we got hooked on The Shield and ended up at Blockbuster at 11:30 at night checking out the next disc. In the past, we’ve gorged on sitcoms such as The Offices both UK and USA, Arrested Development, and Spaced; and when parenthood wore down our ability to follow shows with plot (sorry, The Wire) or intense brutality (Brian did The Sopranos solo), we turned to non-fic. And lo, the umpteen series of Top Gear did flow like water, as did every available season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. More recently, we’ve turned to rockumentaries because we are both rock afficianados, amateur musicians, and wannabe hippies. We’ve watched many a feature-length rock-doc (and highly recommend Stones In Exile, Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who, and Pearl Jam Twenty), but favor the series Classic Albums, which offer recaps of some of the greatest albums ever made in an easily digestible 60-minute format.
Don’t mistake Classic Albums for some hack version of Behind the Music: it features legit interviews with all (living) members of the band, producers, at least one scene in which they play isolated tracks and discuss the recording technique, and a lot of detail about how the actual songs came to be. In other words, it’s not about love, loss and heartbreak or sex, drugs and rock and roll (although those form the context from which the music emerges): it’s about the music. It’s really a show about extremely talented people finding each other and working at their creative peak. Maybe you don’t like Rush, but you will come to admire and respect their genius when you realize that Rush came thisclose to breaking up because their drummer quit right when they hit the big time. You’ll be amazed that they find a replacement who is even more perfectly suited to their style: it will give you hope in second chances.
I don’t care if you hate hair bands and think Mutt Lange is an overproducing hack, you cannot deny Def Leppard’s talent after watching them pull together Hysteria, which is, as they say in the show, a Greatest Hits album written before the hits become #1 singles. And watching Rick Allen recover from amputation to be an amazing drummer (awesome drummers: theme!) is fucking inspiring.
I’ve noticed that lately I will watch these shows with a strange hunger, cueing them up as I do the dishes or as backdrop to whatever play the girls are into (they are happily family-friendly and give me the bonus of not hating every blessed second they’re on, unlike, say, Angelina Ballerina). I’m hooked, but I walk away from the shows feeling a strange mixture of elation and depression. They make me feel both happy and sad. They make me feel… old.
I realized the other day that I am also experiencing something akin to jealousy when I listen to the Stones talk about living and playing 24/7 in a villa in the South of France, or The Band converting Sammy Davis Jr’s pool house into a makeshift studio to record “Up on Cripple Creek.” There seems to be something magical about throwing a lot of talented folks into a house together and not interrupting them. I wanted to be a musician so badly as a kid – it was the main thread in my many, many embarrassing romance stories – but we didn’t have the resources to get instruments or lessons. I loved the idea of performing, and now I can also see that I loved the notion of collaboration and creativity. Musing on this, I posted a status on facebook that asked:
What is the literary equivalent of being in a band? Because I want that.
I think in some weird way, I thought grad school would provide that kind of experience: a lot of supersmart people, staying up late, talking, collaborating, and coming up with new and exciting ideas. Sure, they may not be creative, but at it’s best, the life of the mind is about innovation. When I couldn’t find that in music, I turned to strengths I already possessed: namely, my brains. And there were late-night talks in college, fueled by Marlboro Reds and gin and tonics that came close to that kind of ecstatic kinship where we all shared a frequency, stumbled to finish each other’s sentences, and connected on some deeper level (although these flashes of insight were as likely to be shared with a group of women discussing the music we wanted to play at our weddings as it was a mixed group discussing Hemingway – I’m looking at you, Kara “In Your Eyes”!). Perhaps it’s a truth universally acknowledged that an intellectual who thrives at the college level must be in want of more of that. I went to grad school not just because I thought I was a hotshot, but because I wanted to connect more with more smart people, people who I might be even more likely to meld with in that thrilling way. People who might be able to make something happen.
I was talking to my therapist about this (oh yes, therapy is a requisite when you abandon grad school: get yourself a good one) rising desire for something interesting to happen, for something exciting to come along, and she said (at some point, during some conversation), “It makes sense – as humans, we seek those kinds of ecstatic experiences.”
And she hit the nail on the head: I find myself thinking a lot about that kind of ecstatic experience in which you feel on point, absorbed, and fire on all cylinders. This state of “flow,” as described by the brilliant Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is:
“…our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved.”
Unshockingly, grad school failed to deliver the goods on flow or ecstasy or even connections with other brilliant minds. But I’m still left with that desire, and also worried that I missed my chance to strike out and try something. I mean, flow requires some things I don’t have: namely time, energy, and uninterruptibility. I am experiencing flow right now because I’m writing and I fucking love writing, but it’s only because my husband is distracting my kids with cheese and crackers and Spongebob, and I guess since part of me is hyperaware of that, I’m not really flowing, I’m just working really fast before things fall apart.
I want flow, but where? When? How? Do I look for a job I really love? Did I ever experience flow as a teacher? I love teaching intensely, but I think I’m seeking some kind of social aspect of flow that involves connecting on a deep level with other human beings, and trying to get at-risk college kids to get into books (even when they’re willing) or first-years to think critically about public education policy is a bit too teeth-pulling to fit the bill. Is there any job where people experience true flow, or can it only be found in those deeply personal pursuits that bring joy (sports, sex, music, reading)? It strikes me time and time again that the guys in Classic Albums bands (and that show is sadly and overwhelmingly male, and white) are in their twenties or early thirties and unencumbered by children. I’ll never be like that: I will never be younger or without family concerns. Where can I go with this? What can I do? It makes me sick to think that I clawed my way through school in pursuit of some personal peak, and now I am starting back at square one with no idea what mountain I should climb next, and a lot of things weighing me down when it comes to striking me in a new direction (my kids aren’t “weights” but jaysus, the fatigue is!).
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I’m just putting it out there. I find myself in need of something bigger. Grad school wasn’t it, and I’m not convinced work is it, either. So? What is it? And if you’re in the mood to feel the same way, you can watch most episodes of Classic Albums streaming on Netflix, or in chunks on Youtube. We like these best of all, although YMMV because it does help a lot if you also enjoy the music and are familiar with it:
- Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
- Def Leppard: Hysteria
- John Lennon/The Plastic Ono Band: John Lennon/The Plastic Ono Band
- Rush: 2112/Moving Pictures
- Duran Duran: Rio
- The Band: The Band