July 16, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Moose is Stephanie Klein's memoir of several years of fat camp as a kid, consolidated into a single summer. Klein's accounts of adolescent pettiness as well as her often painful experiences at camp are painfully honest, but her sense of dark humor always shines through. This is no fairy tale account of weight loss and self-discovery, but a thoughtful and true account of the author's adolescent years that everyone (of any size) can relate to.
I created the playlist for Moose before even writing Moose. That's the kind of procrastinator I am. I was on the hunt for new music, prowling for newer artists whose lyrics would inspire me. Really, I was looking for songs that tapped into moments of abandonment or freedom, songs that made me ache and feel alive. There was also mood music to consider. Playing a big red Barolo of a song while writing about food always helps. I wanted to taste a wooden spoon in a song. Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano" kept me company into the night. That's the thing about good music: it sounds like a warm story you're told by a stranger at a bar.
The newer artists, however inspiring, weren't getting the job done. Instead, I'd need to entrench myself in a time I affectionately refer to as The Thunder Years. I crammed my office with camp letters, mix tapes, and puffy bedazzled childhood diaries—in whose pages I'd pronounced my fierce love for Peter Cetera. As mortifying as it was the first time 'round, I'd need to relive the "Glory of Love" if I had any chance of writing about it.
Four of the chapters in Moose get their title from songs on my playlist because that's how I filtered my world at thirteen. Through mix tapes and midnight dedications on radio Love Lines. The songs I include in Moose are the ones that ground me to a childhood campfire, to the freckled boy with shoulder-length hair, to the first time I went skinny dipping in the lake—only at fat camp, we called it "chunky dunking."
With a title like Moose, it's easy to go to the obvious place: "Fat Bottomed Girls." Stretch further, and you can almost hear the camper skit nights, where we'd point to empty McDonald's bags, singing En Vogue's "My Lovin'" with special emphasis on "No, you're never gonna get it." But having spent five summers at fat camp, I've learned that it's never that easy.
"American Pie" by Don McLean
Aside from Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," I'm not sure it gets more classic than "American Pie" as far as camp songs go. The eleventh chapter of Moose shares the same title because it's here where I reveal a major turning point, and fall, in my story. And what better song than one depicting such a monumental moment in music history. Throughout the chapter, I weaved lyrics and imagery from McLean's song—even changing the name of a girl I knew to "Holly Valens"—wanting to underscore the power of that pivotal falling moment for me. "When she opened her eyes, and looked into the pupils of mine, her response to my presence was measured, slow and exacting, as though read from a recipe for disaster. She just smiled and turned away."
"Blame It on the Rain" by Milli Vanilli
It always seemed like there were thunderstorms at camp during rest hour. But the threat of a storm never interfered with our shaving parties. Girls sat V-legged on the pavement with basins of foamy water, shaving cream, and orange Bic razors. A boom box blared Milli Vanilli's "Blame It on the Rain" as plump teens swished plastic razors over their meaty legs, hoping that night, someone else might be touching them for the first time. Back at home, we weren't noticed for our legs unless it was for their cellulite. At fat camp, the playing field might have been wider, but it was leveled. And far from the watchful eyes of their parents, left in the care of teenage counselors with their own libidos and agendas, campers would spend the summer exploring and discovering a bit more than their bodies, themselves. They'd explore the opposite sex. Thus 350-pound romances would ensue. And they'd extend way past dirty dancing at the DJ Dances. In loco parentis, I'd learn that summer, translated loosely to "petting past curfew." Soon there would be evenings spent naked in groups, in bushes, pranks leading to chunky-dunking, sex in cabins, wiggling to fit two on a single cot without making the bed squeal. Tramp out in the woods behind the infirmary, and you'd see camper sex—imagine two pigs fighting over a Milk Dud. But for now, there were shaving parties and a slight possibility of an afternoon thunderstorm.
"Baby Can I Hold You" by Tracy Chapman
On rainy camp days, I listened to Tracy Chapman songs on my boom box as we played jacks on powdered cabin floors, sitting on one another's beds, asking about the photos another camper had posted to her walls. "Maybe if I told you the right words, at the right time, you'd be mine." Story of my life; story of every teenage life. If only we could think up the right words, the cool slang, find that perfect opportunity to make everything in our lives change forever. Oh, well. Too bad. Quit moping. It's time for slimnastics class. With rows of rain boots by the door, we'd lie on the padded floors of a weight room, doing leg lifts to Terence Trent D'Arby's "Wishing Well" as the rain spit in through the window screens.
"Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-a-Lot
My last summer at the fatty farm was spent as a counselor, teaching obese eight-year-olds how to pee in the woods and walk so their thighs don't rub together (Baby powder is the ultimate salve when it comes to combating chub rub). But their schooling didn't end there. For camper skit night, my co-counselor choreographed their moves, and we led them onto the stage, where we all did a bit of rump shakin' to "Baby Got Back." Unfortunately, they committed all the lyrics to memory. But far more disturbing than an eight-year-old singing "knock-kneed bimbos walkin' like hoes" was what I overhead one afternoon during rest hour.
"I Don't Want to Be Your Friend" by Cyndi Lauper
As soon as I heard it I looked up. One of my campers was sitting on her bed folding laundry, singing. It wasn't a purposeful singing, where you sing into a broom handle or into the mirror or in the shower. The lyrics to Cyndi Lauper's "I Don't Want To Be Your Friend" were turned out unconsciously as she continued to fold. Here I hadn't only taught them the importance of diet and exercise, but I'd unintentionally set them up to expect catastrophic romantic breakups. I'd blared songs about unrequited love as if they were mantras to a religion rooted in scorn. "I'll forget I ever let you into this heart of mine baby" aren't exactly the words you'd expect to hear from a girl who wears Wonder Woman pajamas.
"All Out of Love" by Air Supply
One night when I'd snuck into my camp boyfriend's bed, he placed his headphones on my ears, instructing me to listen to the lyrics. The words were about hurting, about missing, "thinking of you ‘til it hurts." He played me songs about being "tormented and torn apart" while we were still together. It was a luxury knowing what you'd miss, just as it was happening, even before having a chance to. It made us hold on tighter. The summer was almost over.
"When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge
According to Percy Sledge, when a man loved a woman, he'd "sleep out in the rain if she said that's the way it ought to be." So if there was some guy camped out in a thunderstorm to prove his love, I wasn't about to let by camp boyfriend off with a simple, "Sorry" after one of our routine fights. He'd need to prove it. Beg for forgiveness in the middle of the night holding a stereo above his head. I wanted to love the way people did in the movies. It's why I have a chapter in Moose titled…
"Hurts So Good" by John Mellencamp
My camp boyfriend and I were sitting in the movie shack with the rest of our division watching Ghostbusters when I swore he used his finger to write I LOVE U on my palm. By the end of the week, just before Family Weekend began, he handed me a mix tape he'd made for me. He'd listed all the song tracks on the back of the cassette case, modifying The Police's song title to "Every Little Thing Steph Does Is Magic." There was an asterisk beside "Storybook Love" from the Princess Bride soundtrack. And the mix culminated with "Hurts So Good," which seemed to be true about everything except love.
"Cecilia" by Simon & Garfunkel
Every night, we'd fall asleep to the muffled sounds of classic rock, courtesy of our counselor, who was sitting OD on our cabin porch after lights out. "On Duty" entailed keeping watch for trespassers, dodgy strangers who might penetrate the barbed wire periphery of camp. She composed mixed tapes on our porch—"Pinball Wizard," "Desperado," "Hotel California," and "Fire and Rain"—while wrapped in an unsightly afghan, burning a citronella candle, with a bundle of stationery and envelopes of stickers at her side. When we made too much noise, she'd threaten us like an impatient young mother: "Don't make me come in there." When I think of camp, I think of the songs that, if you knew their lyrics, you'd earn an invitation to sit with the cool group by the campfire.
Stephanie Klein and Moose links:
also at Largehearted Boy: