Musical Tastes and the Titanic

After I moved out of my parents’ house (for the final time), my dad told me he’d send me everything I owned when I turned 40. Luckily for me, he waited an extra year.

One of the fascinations of receiving these items (mostly movies and music) is to see what I was into at an earlier age that seems like a mistake now.

For example, Celine Dion.

Now, I’m not here to bash Dion. She has a great voice, but despite being far from my favorite singer in high school and college, I bought three of her albums: The Colour of My Love, Falling into You, and Let’s Talk About Love. Excluding classical music recordings, the only other artist who I bought as many or more CDs from is the Dixie Chicks (who I still like better than Celine Dion). True, Falling into You won a bunch of Grammies, including best album (beating out, among others, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — a better and more ambitious offering by Smashing Pumpkins), and it’s my favorite album of hers that I own, but it also contains my least favorite song by her (or by any artist, for that matter): the pure schlock “Because You Loved Me,” complete with awful melody, horrible orchestration, and lyrics that are two steps below the worst of Hallmark card greetings. I’ll be honest, I only bought Let’s Talk About Love because of the song “My Heart Will Go On.” Though about as well-written as, well, a James Cameron movie, the merging of melody and vocals make this song just about perfect in its emotional impact.

I haven’t seen Titanic since it came out in theaters, and I ended up seeing it late in its run (in 1998, but before the Oscars). I enjoyed it, but I was a much younger, more inexperienced person back then, which is not to discount my thoughts on the film, just to point out that — like all those albums I bought when younger — my tastes since then have changed. Would I enjoy it as much if I saw it now? Who knows?

I saw it with my friend and her then-boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend). The boyfriend didn’t want to be there, and said disparaging comments in not the softest voice as the ship was sinking, including a highly sarcastic, “That’s so sad,” at the emotional climax of the film, when all of us in the theater wanted to focus on our tears and not on thoughts of physical violence. Plus, I had to pee with so much gushing water on screen, and so missed part of the movie –as did many in the audience. Listening to the song again made me want to see the movie again, which then made me wonder when the last Titanic survivor died, which led to me to Wikipedia articles of the last survivors of other maritime disasters (the Lusitania, the Empress of Ireland, the General Slocum). And then I remembered that I used to love reading about the survivors of these disasters as a kid. Well, okay, I was more interested in the disasters themselves, but I was six when they discovered the Titanic on the seabed floor, and I remember watching A Night to Remember on TV (and reading the book when a bit older), so this fascination had its roots in then-current events.

In this time of quarantine, I feel we could learn several lessons from these past tragedies. First, so many people died on the Titanic because they weren’t prepared for a disaster. There were too few lifeboats and the crew was inexperienced in loading them. Second, most of the people who died were in steerage, so as in most catastrophes, the poor got hit hardest. Finally, despite the massive loss of life on all these ships (and steamboat, in the case of the General Slocum), there were survivors. Often they were scarred by their experiences (if they were old enough to remember them) and kept those scars all their lives, but the fact is that they grew up and had lives of their own for all those people who didn’t.

Updates, Childhood, and Stephen King

Already knowing that I wanted to be a writer at a young age, I wrote a letter to Stephen King when I was eleven years old, asking for writing advice. This was long before he’d written On Writing. In fact, now that I think of it, I wrote it almost 30 years ago. Since I didn’t know his street address, I addressed it to “Stephen King, Bangor, ME.”

Back then, I was a huge Stephen King fan. Okay, so I’d only read one of his books at that point: my real King years would stretch from middle school through high school. Still, The Eyes of the Dragon remains one of my favorites, and I’ve read it more than any other book.

I don’t remember how long it took to receive a reply, but I did receive one, and it made me and my mom laugh hard, since it was a form letter that apologized for being a form letter and assured me that my letter had been read. With the form letter was the much sought-after writing advice I’d asked for, based on an article King had written. It was called, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes.” And while you can find links to it online (such as this one), they don’t include the edit marks that are in my copy.

Flash forward to yesterday, when I watched the first part of IT, the 2017 movie (not the 1990 miniseries). While much is changed from the book (including a smart decision to update the childhood portion to the 80s), its tone and essence, and the camaraderie among members of The Losers’ Club, is captured much better than in the miniseries. And some of the details that are changed are for the better — at least when you don’t have over a thousand pages to play with.

Seeing the movie led to two realizations: I really want to read the book again (which I initially finished over the course of a summer), and my first novel bears similarities to King’s work — which would make sense, since I first conceived it in that style and it deals with evil in a small town, which tends to be a King specialty. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to see the movie was to find out what worked (and why), and how I could use that information to make my novel better, since I’ve been working on it, off-and-on, for almost for two decades.

Another tool to jog my memory has been home movies. Over the course of the past few Christmases, my dad had all our home movies put on Blu-rays. Over the past week, I’ve been sampling one Blu-ray in particular, since it covers the same time period in my life as my protagonists. Some of what I’m picking up are speech patterns, but also, the FEEL of those times. You can capture all the details in the world, but if you can’t capture what it feels like to be your characters living in that place at that time, you might as well be writing a research paper.

Watching these movies has been odd. I remember the events portrayed in them, but I can’t remember much beyond what the camera shows. And then I’m looking at myself from almost 30 years ago, and I’m closer in age now to that of my parents in the video. And yet, I feel I’m closer to capturing the essence of what I originally wanted this novel to say than when I started it. Maybe all I needed was to be old enough to forget my childhood, so that I could be reminded of it again.

The Tree Outside the Window

It’s funny how memories work. My emotional state seems to have more to do with triggering a memory than circumstances, though similar circumstances trigger similar emotional reactions. Eating a madeleine might trigger an involuntary memory, but so might feeling a particular blend of happiness.

Recently, I’ve been comforted by memories from childhood. They are there, ready to be remembered, which makes me think that my new apartment is as comforting as the childhood home I left almost ten years ago. In large part, this has to do with the tree outside my balcony.

Growing up, I would wake from my bed (or, on a school day, be woken by my mother) and open the curtains (or, for most of my childhood, blinds) and see a beautiful tree outside my double windows. Past the tree would be the yard, then the woods, and — past that — the field, which I stopped playing in around the time that I left childhood behind.

I see this tree reflected in the tree outside the balcony. Like the one that grew past my bedroom window, one might see a bird land on this one, or a squirrel scurry through its branches — though I have yet to see the latter.

Sunlight brings more memories.  Perhaps it has to do with the direction and height of the windows in my new place, or the way the light filters through the leaves. Whatever the cause, I’m reminded of sun streaming through autumnal leaves from decades ago, and the memories I made under them. And if I open the slider during a storm, I can hear the rain, which must be one of the most soothing sounds in the universe.

The tree outside my childhood home no longer exists. It lost its life for the sin of growing too close to the house, after a surprise October ice storm made my parents extra-cautious about anything that could fall on their home. I only have the memory of it, and the emotions from long ago reflected in the emotions of today, and that is enough.