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May 6, 2014

Book Notes - Brian Gresko "When I First Held You"

When I First Held You

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

When I First Held You collects 22 thoughtful and honest essays about fatherhood from an impressive cast of writers (including Andre Aciman, Andre Dubus III, Rick Moody, Matthew Specktor, and others).

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This impressive collection deeply probes both the exterior and interior changes that come with fatherhood."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Brian Gresko's Book Notes music playlist for his anthology, When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood:

Up until a few years ago, my favorite lyric about parenting came from The Breeders' "No Aloha" on Last Splash, where Kim Deal proclaims "Motherhood means mental freeze." I figured the same applied to fatherhood, and didn't want to be a "freezehead." As for songs honoring the bond between parent and child? Forget it. My dad loved Harry Chapin's "The Cat's In The Cradle," whereas I flipped the station when it came on, just as I lifted the needle off Talking Heads: 77 after "Psycho Killer" so that I could avoid "Pulled Up," in which David Byrne thanks his parents for believing in him as a young adult. I could appreciate the humor in penning a poppy rock song honoring your mom and dad, but the song's just so damn aw-shucks earnest I could never comfortably swallow it without choking.

Even now, as the dad of a five-year-old, I hate most songs on the subject. What has changed in my listening is that I recognize parenting insights in tracks that aren't explicitly about the subject. That's no surprise; having a kid is one of those great divides in your life, like losing your virginity or going to college. Afterward, you see the world different. "Who the hell was that person anyway?" Frederick Reiken asks of himself pre-fatherhood in his essay, "Arcadia." For many of us, it's hard to remember exactly how we spent our time before having a child.

While the Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place (The Naive Melody)" from Speaking in Tongues has been a favorite since I was a teenager, the song's lyrics took on new meaning after my son Felix was born. It strangely — and in hindsight, blindly — never occurred to me how domestic the terms are in which Byrne describes love, even though the song opens with the word "home." Ever the iconoclast, Byrne is, as in "Pulled Up," describing a type of relationship not frequently covered in pop music, which favors hot passion and simmering romance. Noticing the passage of time and forgetting exactly how you met your love ("Did I find you or you find me?") are things that happen at later stages of a relationship, once the blush of first love has faded, its veneer cracked with a wrinkle or two.

During my last hours at home as a non-father (strange there isn't any better term for it), I blared the Talking Heads' concert album Stop Making Sense and cleaned the kitchen. My wife lay upstairs, wanting solitude as she struggled into the middle part of labor. Weeks later, at home with Felix, I walked circles with him around the apartment before nap time, singing Talking Heads tunes. In "This Must Be the Place," I'd change the line "There was a time before we were born" to "There was a time before you were born," and I'd deliver "If someone asks, this is where I'll be" with the force of a promise.

Another favorite from Felix's infancy was Neko Case's "This Tornado Loves You" from Middle Cyclone. A funny choice, maybe, since the titular tornado leaves children "motherless" and "fatherless," but the elemental force of the twister's love resonated strongly with me, an emotion that would "carve your name across three counties," writing it large in destruction. Case tempers that ferocity with gentleness at the end, when the tornado becomes an "Owl on the sill in the evening / but morning finds you still warm and breathing." There is a very basic, primal interest in your child's breath in those first few weeks of life. You listen to your baby as he slumbers, not yet trusting that his little body can support itself, that he can do this most basic thing — take a breath — without you. It's a child's earliest, most basic form of independence. The one thing that, even from the start, they don't need you to do. Letting go of your child, or realizing that you can't control their fate, that you can't protect them, is a thread that weaves throughout many of the essays in my book.

Navigating a child's contradictory needs for guidance and independence is tough — impossible at times, a lose-lose scenario. As Alexi Zentner puts it, fatherhood is "like learning to breath underwater." It's tough dealing with a toddler's tantrums, or trying to find the right kindergarten for your little independent learner, or even just getting a good dinner on the table without losing your temper. The sleep deficit piles up higher year by year, so that even now I long for a solitary weekend afternoon when I can play Brian Eno's Music for Films low on my earbuds and take a nap. In the swiftly moving current, you find yourself treading water, doing what you can to survive. I sometimes feel my wife and I are stuck in Bob Dylan's "High Water (for Charlie Patton)" from Love & Theft: both needing help, but neither able to provide it to the other. "'Don't reach out for me,' she said, 'Can't you see I'm drowning too?'"

As Bjork sings in "It's Not Up to You" from Vespertine, it's not in your power to "master the perfect day." You just have to deal with what you get, which is not often what you'd like to receive. And yet, I haven't met a parent who ever said they'd give it up. I think of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Hysteric" from It's Blitz! where the cinders that light the path are also the ones we must walk upon, blackening our feet. The song isn't about parenting at all, but listening to Karen O beautifully sing "Flow Sweetly, Hang Heavy / You suddenly complete me" — her vowels drawn out and bursting with tenderness — gives me goosebumps; my heart swells bigger than the goddamn Grinch's.

There are, of course, exceptions to my no songs about parenting rule. I love when Jay-Z raps to his unborn son in "New Day" on Watch The Throne. "Promise to never leave him even if his mama tweakin' / cause my dad left me and I promised never repeat him." My biological father walked away from my mom when she was pregnant with me, and I made a similar vow not to follow in his footsteps when I decided to become a father. Jay-Z returns to this theme on "Jay-Z Blue" from Magna Carta... Holy Grail, which he said was about channeling his fears of not knowing how to be a father. Despite wanting to be there, he dreams of cutting lose and blowing off steam, which in his case means "three weeks in The Hamptons." I can relate to the sentiment if not the specifics of Hova's escape fantasy. All parents can, I believe. As contributor Stephen O'Connor puts it, "While there are ways in which having a baby is a narcissist’s holiday — the fulfillment of one’s fondest desires and the ultimate expression of self, both existentially and genetically — it also entails a significant negation of self."

Of course, having a kid fans your faith in humanity. You have to hope that the world's going to be a better place in the future, otherwise, what's the point? No song captures this better than Radiohead's "Sail to the Moon" from Hail to the Thief, which sounds so much like a lullaby, either because of the chords slow march over the beat or the ethereal register of Thom York's voice as he sings: "Maybe you'll be president / But know right from wrong / Or in the flood / You'll build an ark / And sail us to the moon." The song gives me a surging sense of opening, recognizing life's perils (of ethics and morality, of disaster) while promising redemption and reaching the stars.

The same happens when I listen to R.E.M.'s "Untitled" from Green. I'm kind of a sucker for Michael Stipe's voice; I think I'd despise a song like "Everybody Hurts" if handled by most singers, but I'm putty in the hands of his capable falsetto. In "Untitled," he sings about how a child has stayed up late to hear him sing while he's away, a scenario that's easy to imagine as a parent. He seems to be nestling the child to bed — "This light is here to keep you warm"— and the song functions in some ways like a prayer before sleep, before saying goodbye. "This song is here, to keep you strong." But all the singer wants to say is "Just hold him." Stipe repeats this plea to the parent or guardian at home with the child, while Peter Buck and Mike Mills echo him, "Just hold him."

Or is it a higher power that Stipe is addressing? Is this, perhaps, the father's own prayer before bed? I want to hug my son when I hear this song. I remember the first time I held him as he fell asleep on my chest, not long after we arrived home from the hospital, his light weight at odds with the huge lump I felt in my throat. This complicated cocktail of emotions, the light with the dark, is one all parents understand.

Brian Gresko and When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood links:

the editor's website
video trailer for the book

GeekDad review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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