Friday, July 8, 2011

Sarah Bird's New Book, James McMurtry Singing, and Spooky Good Synchronicity

Sarah Bird is a wonderful novelist and I've been reading her work since at least 1986. In fact, I used to read her essays in magazines and feel something like jealousy-- I wanted to be like her. Eventually, like Sarah, I did manage to find my way in the wacky world of publishing. At least as good-- let's say better-- I moved to Austin and became friends with Sarah who, to my surprise and delight, accepted my invitation back in 2007 to be part of the Dick Monologues.

Sarah's newest book, The Gap Year, dropped on Tuesday and I set aside my agoraphobic tendencies to attend her book release party at BookPeople. Yeah, me and, like 5,000 other Austinites. It was delightfully packed and I was thrilled for Sarah and also thrilled for this reminder that, no really, people still do love and buy books.

In her introductory remarks and then in a passage she read from the novel, Sarah talked about the time travel phenomenon particular to us empty-nesters who find ourselves running into ubiquitous triggers that remind us of the vanished childhoods of our young adult children. In real life, Sarah, like me, has a fine young man for a son. In the book the parent-child relationship involves a single mother and her daughter. As Sarah described the sensation of how the simplest sounds and sights can set us off down memory lane, I didn't have to work to get into the moment. I was right there with her. I adore my grown up son-- I could not be more pleased with the funny, compassionate, beautiful human he has become. But I am also visited at times by wistful moments when I so miss the little guy he was that I get an ache, like a brain freeze, only it's a heart freeze.

Hearing Sarah's reading and seeing her deserved adoration from the crowd would have sufficed that evening, giving me as it did an emotional boost. But then I decided to follow through on part two of my plan. James McMurtry was playing an acoustic show at the Continental Club Gallery, a little upstairs room in the space adjacent to the official club. James has been playing these early shows for sometime now, but aforementioned agoraphobic tendencies found me coming up with many last-minute excuses over the years to "wait until next week." But since I was already out, why not go for broke, right?

The tiny room was warm and already packed when I arrived. I spotted James right before he headed for the stage and shared a brief hug. Then I settled in on a spot on the floor, fished out my knitting, and proceeded to have an experience nothing short of holy as he played and sang nearly two solid hours of some of the best guitar and lyrics in... the world? the known universe? Have you heard James play? This is not hyperbole-- his insights and observations are unparalleled.

But wait, there's more. See, James and I are old friends. Not tight buddy-buddy, see each other all the time friends. Not FB friends. But our boys grew up together from around the time they were four years old when they met at Little Stacy Pool. They had sleepovers and adventures. And when they hit their teens, both of them took up the guitar and both have had a decent measure of success already. (Curtis also plays a mean saxophone and writes great lyrics, too).

It had been literally years since I'd heard James live, and the montage of images that crashed in as I listened to him overwhelmed me in the very best sense. It dawned on me, as I mouthed the words to so many songs, that his music had, literally, been the soundtrack to Henry's growing up years. When we weren't seeing James play live, we were blasting his CDs in our falling down rental in Hyde Park. Proust can keep his madeleines. Give me a single opening lick of a McMurtry tune and I am right back in that dumpy house with little Henry whizzing around the warped hardwoods on his razor scooter.

And then other images rushed in. James is a very quiet person, and not one for big attention-calling gestures. But sitting there, so close to him, and hearing that voice, I recounted endless kind gestures he had extended to Henry and me over the years. I remembered the time we showed up at the Saxon Pub for a late show and the doorwoman looked at Henry, then around 7, and shook her head no, I couldn't bring him in. Then I said we were on the guest list. She looked and James had listed Henry plus one. Suddenly her attitude changed, she ushered us into a reserved table, and treated Henry like royalty.

I remembered walking around Town Lake one day, and looking into the water, seeing Henry and Curtis and James and Curtis's mom in a canoe, Henry situated on the boat's floor, nestled at James's feet, and how good that felt, seeing Henry so happy like that. I remembered James gamely agreeing to be part of the NAKED Calendar project and then, as if taking it all of for the cause weren't enough, playing a private concert and going on KUT to promote it. I remembered the day I left my first ex-husband and beat a hasty retreat over to his house, where sanctuary was offered, along with a cold beer and a long nap, no questions asked.

And I remembered one of the funniest moments I ever shared with him. James has a line in Levelland, one of his best known songs, about a small town band doing the best they can to play Joy to the World. We were at a high school football game together one night when the band really did break into that song about Jeremiah the bullfrog and as I recall it, I tried to feign ignorance, though inside I was giggling like mad, a moment like this being on par to, say, hanging out with Lennon and McCartney when a walrus just happens by.

Other memories visited me, too, as I sat there on the floor listening (in fact, I recalled how James referred to the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being as The Unbearable Hardness of Sitting). Catching him play in Bandera at a Dance Hall. Watching him help out with the Teen Rock Shows that Henry and Curtis used to play.

And then it all came back around to Sarah's reading, that whole time travel thing. The synchronicity of the evening was so splendid and I had some very personal Joy to My World riding the waves of memories, and reveling in my friends' success. Thank you, Sarah. And thank you, James. Really, you make me almost think I need to get out more.

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