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March 21, 2019

Polly Rosenwaike's Playlist for Her Story Collection "Look How Happy I'm Making You"

Look How Happy I'm Making 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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Polly Rosenwaike's collection Look How Happy I'm Making You is filled with nuanced and poignant stories of motherhood.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"The 12 stories in Rosenwaike’s debut collection capture the vast and intimate moments of motherhood and womanhood... Rosenwaike’s remarkable prose conjures emotions so effectively that readers will feel pulled into the characters’ lives."

In her own words, here is Polly Rosenwaike's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Look How Happy I'm Making You:

My experience of having a baby was fraught, as one might guess from my story collection (though it’s fiction—fiction!), but one joyful moment I recall from what feels like the dark days of new motherhood has to do with music. Specifically, with my love of Joni Mitchell and of singing when no one else is around. The weird thing about taking care of an infant is that it’s like you’re alone, even as you’re very much not alone, but rather in charge of a tiny person entirely dependent on you. We were in the kitchen, my baby daughter and I, and she was lying on a blanket on the floor while I was cleaning up. I can’t remember which album I had on, but probably Ladies of the Canyon, or Hejira, or Blue, and while I sang along with it, my daughter looked up at me utterly enthralled. And I felt the first glimmer of what would become one of the greatest joys of parenthood: introducing something I love to my daughters and seeing how they react. They’re eight and five now, and neither one is a huge Joni Mitchell fan—but there’s still time.

This playlist indulges the sentimental side of having one’s very own child, which can be easily lost amid the challenges of daily life with young children. Also, it has some songs that both my kids and I enjoy listening to in the car, which is no small thing. This morning, while driving the five-year-old to school, I insisted on keeping the radio tuned to CBC Music (in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we’re close enough to Ontario to get the Canadian station on our airwaves), in order to hear Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” while the kid screamed and cried the whole song through for Kimya Dawson’s “Mare and the Bear.” As I tried to tell her, we’ll get to it.

“Dilated to Meet You,” Loudon Wainwright with Kate McGarrigle

Later, they would get divorced and write conflicted songs about each other, and so would their children, and McGarrigle would die of cancer too young, but when they recorded this song together, they’d just had a baby, and that baby was the great Rufus Wainwright. The title is a very bad pun, yes, but the song is a perfect blend of sly and sweet. The last two lines hit me especially: “We really think you’ll like it here / We hope that you like us.” My younger daughter tells her dad and me, “I love you and I like you,” and our dear hope, of course, is that this continues to be true.

“Montauk,” Rufus Wainwright

The Wainwrights’ rich and complicated musical family saga moves into the next generation with Viva—Rufus’s daughter with Leonard Cohen’s daughter Lorca, and Rufus’s husband, Jörn Weisbrodt. I love the way the song begins, with the direct address to a child: “One day you will come to Montauk / And see your dad wearing a kimono / And see your other dad pruning roses.” As with the song written about his birth, Rufus’s song invites his child into his world and also extends a plea of sorts, with the lines, “Hope that you will want to stay / For a while / Don’t worry, I know you’ll have to go.” It’s a stirring recognition that a child’s growing up involves her choosing for herself how she fits into her family.

“Little Green,” Joni Mitchell

I was driving to the airport to pick up my partner and older daughter, who’d gone on a trip together, when I learned (CBC Music again) the story behind this song. While struggling to make a living as a singer in Toronto, the twenty-one-year-old Mitchell had a baby she named Kelly, and gave her up for adoption. “Call her green and the winters cannot fade her / Call her green for the children who’ve made her.” I was in tears on the highway, with my younger daughter asleep in the back seat. So eloquently written, so soaringly sung—oh, Joni!

“Not Too Young for a Song,” Dan Bern

The first concert my partner and I went to after becoming parents featured Dan Bern. He and his wife had a new baby too, and he played a few “lullabies” from his album 2 Feet Tall. Bern’s wryness remains intact through the world of tummy time, and milk, and anthropomorphized animals, and makes you feel like you can have a kid and listen to silly songs without becoming totally lame. And you can allow yourself to tear up at this tender tune, because here you are, with a beautiful, wide-eyed baby, listening to music together: “Little too young / For holding a spoon / Little too young / To know midnight from noon / But not too young / To look up at the moon / And not too young for a tune.”

“All I Could Do,” Kimya Dawson

This is the opening track on Dawson’s album Thunder Thighs, and it tells a moving story of being pregnant and fearful of what’s to come, as well as recounting Dawson’s painful past: “Then I thought back to before my coma / Rehab in Tacoma, my junkie roommates / And all that I knew how to do was / Put cigarettes out on myself, I took pills and I drank / And I thought back to when I was 15 / How I was squeaky clean and I wanted to die.” My eight-year-old doesn’t like this song—I suspect because she’s a sensitive soul and is beginning to become attuned to some of humanity’s struggles, while not quite ready to confront the reality that people might want to die sometimes. (And who can blame her?) In the final lines, Dawson sings, “It’s okay if at the end of the day / All I can do next is be a good mother.” I’m wary of how the notion of being “a good mother” often keeps women down, but in this context it’s really affecting, and it lends the experience of expecting a child the sense of nobility it deserves.

“Mare and the Bear,” Kimya Dawson

This song comes right after “All I Could Do,” and the transition from Dawson contemplating becoming a mother to her daughter’s excited “Mommy” at the beginning of this playful number is so poignant. It’s the most requested (most screamed for) song in my car. The five-year-old calls it “The Marey and the Fairy”—there are no fairies in the song, but that rhyme is irresistible. Seeing her in the rearview mirror mouthing the refrain, “And they were friends forever,” makes me not mind hearing it multiple times in a row.

“St. Judy’s Comet,” Paul Simon

I adored this lovely song about trying to get a little kid to go to sleep long before I learned how maddening it can be to try to get a little kid to go to sleep. In my story “The Dissembler’s Guide to Pregnancy,” the narrator, a woman in her mid-thirties, wants to have a baby with a younger man who won’t commit to her. He plays guitar and sings folks songs—which makes her all the more smitten—and she thinks longingly of the songs Paul Simon wrote about his children. I’ve always been a little in love with Paul Simon (who shares my birthday!), especially when he sings here, “If I can’t sing my boy to sleep / Well it makes your famous daddy / Look so dumb.”

“Mama’s Gone to the Mail Boat” (also known as “Bye-O-Baby”), Traditional American Lullaby

Speaking of trying to sing children to sleep, this was my favorite go-to lullaby during the endless years (in reality, about six) when I had babies and toddlers that would not drift off without complicated sleeping arrangements, tortuous bedtime rituals, and utterly exhausting parental assistance. (Now they lie down in their bunk beds and we can actually leave the room before they’ve gone to sleep! Though they still get to bed way too late! The topic of bedtime makes me very agitated!) The simplicity, repetition, and slight mysteriousness of this song used to calm me down. Basically, it goes like this, ad infinitum: “Bye-o, baby, bye / Bye-o, baby, bye / Mama’s gone to the mail boat / Mama’s gone to the mail boat / Bye.” I found the concept of one’s personal mail arriving by boat to be quite romantic. And I was also charmed by the fact that the speaker of the song had to be someone other than the mother. Mama’s gone—she’s off in the dark, romantic night, meeting the mail boat. Bye-bye, baby. Good luck to you. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, when I looked into the origin of this lullaby, I discovered that it did not hail from some wonderful egalitarian realm—where, let’s say, the fathers, or maybe the well-paid nannies, took charge of getting babies to bed while the mothers were out—but was rather a song sung by slaves. There’s your American history, baby. Welcome to the world.

“Sari,” Nellie McKay

This fiery, political, self-mocking rap of sorts is emphatically not for or about children. McKay’s 2004 debut album Get Away from Me sports a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label. I’m including it here because my daughters are nonetheless fans, and while I wonder about playing for them lines like “Tit for tat / You fuckin’ bureaucrats,” and “I don’t wanna say ‘diiiie motherfucker!’ / But I wouldn’t mind if you did,” I’m persuaded by the song’s spitfire speed, ironic swagger, and complicated references that they’re way too young to get it. And if they did get it, they’d be well on their way to becoming the super-smart, wise-to-cultural-and-political-bullshit sort of girls I would not at all mind if they turned out to be.

“The Great Gig in the Sky,” Pink Floyd

Also not about children, unless the few lyrics in this Dark Side of the Moon instrumental plus gorgeous wail, about being “not frightened of dying,” makes you think about how we’ve all “gotta go sometime” to make room for the children and for their children’s children, etc. In my story “June,” Natalie’s aunt is dying of cancer as Natalie is about to give birth to her first child. Dina, the aunt, cites “The Great Gig in the Sky” as a kind of spiritual-guide-to-death song. I love Clare Torry’s astonishing shrieks, her ethereal “Ooooh’s” and “Aaaah’s” and “Waaah’s”. If only the screams of labor sounded like that.

“Loving You,” Minnie Riperton

In 1975, when Riperton recorded this swoony song she’d written with her husband Richard Rudolph, she ended it by chanting their two-year-old daughter’s name: Maya. A year later, Riperton was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and became one of the first public figures to speak openly about it. She died in 1979, at thirty-one, when her daughter was six—and that girl grew up to be the great comic actress Maya Rudolph. This is the kind of mother/child story I find devastatingly moving—the mother, an amazing woman in her own right, who doesn’t get to see what her child grows into. (I think, for instance, of Barack Obama’s irreverent and pioneering mom, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died of cancer at fifty-two. He was thirty-four at the time, but I find it so sad that she would never know that her son became president.) And Riperton’s song, about “making love,” but also, it seems, about what can come from that, loving a child, sends me into the best kind of sentimental state: in which I remember how incredible it is, this ordinary thing—that my partner and I have made our own family together.

Polly Rosenwaike and Look How Happy I'm Making You links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Fiction Advocate interview with the author
Literary Hub interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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