Soothe: Nintendo lullabies, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and my young son’s love of them

There’s the old adage, “Write what you know.”  Many writers over time (Including Twain and Hemingway) have given this advice.  This tale can be titled Sing What You Know and/or Put On Music That Calms You Down When Calming Your Baby Down.  

My wife and I have one son who is age three right now.  When he was a newborn, he did the usual things a baby would do in its first year.  He woke up at night many times, pooped six times a day, required burping after bottles and wanted to be held the majority of the time.  We both worked during this period of his life so trying to get enough sleep was becoming more difficult.

I have a brother who is eight years younger that me, so I remember observing what my mother and father would do to calm my little brother down when he was crying.  Some would obviously work (Giving him a bottle because he was hungry) and some would not (Taking off/adding clothes when he just wanted held).  Over time my parents learned his cues and my brother didn’t cry as much as he got closer to his first birthday.

During those early desperate nights when it seemed we could not get enough sleep before going into work for a full day, we tried to understand our son’s needs in an attempt to get him back to sleep.  When it came time for me to take my turn in the waking up rotation, I wanted to sing my son back to sleep but I didn’t know any of the traditional lullabies people would sing to babies.  I wanted my wife to stay asleep, but I didn’t want our son to keep crying for thirty minutes.  I needed something to hum or sing that was repetitive, and there was only one type of music that came to mind in my state of sleep-deprived delirium:

Video game music from my old Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

The first night I tried using NES music, I slowed down the background music used in the above-ground levels of 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.  It worked!  My wife would get so pissed that I could sing him back to sleep with the silliest method that would never be found in parenting advice books and blogs.  When our son didn’t want to hear the Zelda music, I slowed down the following music from other games (I challenge others to try this method to see if it works on other babies):

The podium win AND the “kick the can” music from Excitebike, above-ground music from Super Mario Bros., the game introduction/general background music from Bases Loaded and the count out/winner music from Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  I added a few from other platforms, including the original “hammer” music from Donkey Kong.

As my son got older and started going to day care, I had a problem keeping him happy in his car seat on the way home.  I always had CD’s of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen in the car, so I would pop one in to see if the mellow folk music of Drake or Cohen would calm him down.  I could tell he was listening to the different instruments and the words being sung in the songs.  It was a sound completely different from what he heard in his early life.  After a few tracks, he would go to sleep.  If I knew he didn’t sleep well during the day, I would keep the music on and drive around for an hour to let him rest.

Even at three, my son remembers some of those drives home and knows their music well.  He has his own special names for each of his favorite tracks and when I pick him up from day care, we usually have Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left on when we drive home.  Instead of tossing a child’s DVD in the car and my son blankly staring at a small TV screen while we drive home, my son and I sing “Time Has Told Me”, we listen for the strings to kick in on “River Man”, all while looking out the car windows, seeing the birds fly, viewing the turkeys pecking at last year’s corn crop remnants and marveling at the big construction trucks when encountering road work being done.

I loved my old NES and when I have time again, I know I will eventually purchase the recently released Nintendo NES Classic Edition.  I love the music of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen because their poetic songs bring calm to my worrisome existence.  The games and songs that have soothed my soul over the years have provided my son with the same feelings of comfort and familiarity in a unique form.

 

The Glance: An unexpected source of compassion

In late 1997 I decided one night to drive across town to drop in on my girlfriend at the time, the aforementioned “Peach”.  Peach was working an 11-8 shift at a local restaurant where she was a hostess.  At this time she started her sophomore year of college, and it seemed she was taking less interest in me.  She claimed she was just busy with work and school, and I didn’t question her reasons for ignoring me during the end of the fall semester.

When I arrived at her job, another hostess who I did not know asked why I wanted to talk to Peach.  When I stated I was her boyfriend, the girl had a stunned look on her face and immediately turned around to find Peach.  I overheard her say to another girl that she didn’t know Peach was seeing “other people”.  Hmm.  We’ve been dating for almost four years, so what was the other hostess talking about?

Peach saw me and immediately became agitated.  She was angry that I arrived unannounced and told me to come back when she was done at 10.  I told her I thought she was done at 8, but she claimed she had to stay a few extra hours.  In my head I thought she was full of shit but I could see she wasn’t happy and very uncomfortable, so I agreed to leave without saying another word to her.  You couldn’t tell me that a restaurant with minimal bar traffic needed extra help seating people after 8 p.m.  She was planning on being somewhere after work and she needed to weave her web of lies before seeing me again.

I was too far away from my parents house to go back and return at 10, so I decided to head to the local shopping mall to burn off the two hours I had to wait for Peach to “finish up at work”.  After parking the car I headed to the food court since I didn’t eat for several hours.  I got my food and sat alone at a small table, wondering why my relationship with Peach looked to be in jeopardy.  I barely touched the food and people-watched for the majority of the time.  It hurt that I was being lied to by the girl I loved, somebody who I gave the last four years of my life to without hesitation.

Around 9:15, just before the mall closing at 9:30, a group of three teenage girls sat a few tables away from me.  They were all about 14 or 15 and they were creating the typical laughter and early high school conversations that one would expect from girls of this age.  I continued to people-watch and didn’t look their way.  It was an awkward spot to be in since I was 21 going on 22, but I didn’t have the mental energy to stand up and go somewhere else.

Right around 9:30, I noticed the girls got quiet, and I assumed they were probably getting ready to meet whoever was taking them back home.  I took a glance over at their table and one of the girls was staring right back at me with intent.  Going by the look on her face, it’s like she could feel the pain I had in my heart.  She must have been watching me for a few minutes while her and her friends sat there, taking notice that a soulless older guy was a few seats away.  We exchanged hellos and smiles for a few seconds, and we both looked away from each other.  She continued on talking to her friends and I found some energy to finish off the rest of my food.  I was waiting for her friends to make fun of her for talking to an older guy, but that never happened.

About five minutes later, the girls got up from their table and the same one made eye contact with me again.  This time we exchanged goodbyes and smiles, and they walked out of the food court.  I remained there for some time trying to assess the situation, and I still think to this day the outcome of that moment with that 15 year-old girl went the way it should have.  And I think she knew that to be true as well.

Somehow, my 21 year-old self had a cerebral, esoteric connection with a 15 year-old high school girl, and we both knew in our hearts that we bumped into each other eight or nine years too early.  No matter what she wanted to say to me when I glanced up at her table, she already knew at her young age that it wasn’t going to create the possibility of a relationship with me.  The fond look on her face was telling, but in the end we told ourselves this will be our final meeting, at least for now.

Over the next two years Peach and I were on and off as a couple and I finally had enough of the instability.  Throughout my 20’s I wondered what my life would have been like if those three girls were college age at the mall.  We would have spoken to each other and maybe I would have started dating the girl I exchanged that moment with.  Instead, the outcome was something that Russian author Anton Chekhov would have written in the late 1890’s.

In the present, I’m happy, married and I have a young son.  I’m sure that girl I glanced upon at the mall found happiness somewhere out in the world as well.  When we meet again, we’ll have the same exchange and go our separate ways.  This time we’ll have spouses, kids, smart phones and many more responsibilities in our lives.  Lives that could have been interwoven into one if we met around 2005.  Reflecting on this moment in my life reminds me of what words Kurt Vonnegut wrote many times in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

 

“Ode to a Nightingale”: A Contemporary Analysis

In early March of 1997, my English 102 junior college professor assigned everyone in the class a poem that we had to interpret, give a presentation based on our interpretation and finally submit a short overview of our interpretation.  I was assigned “Ode to a Nightingale” by the poet John Keats (1795-1821).  What started out as an impossible task of interpreting Keats turned into one of the best papers I wrote in college.

I was a terrible writer all the way through high school and it carried over into junior college.  I went to junior college in the beginning of my undergraduate studies because I was immature, a terrible student, too poor to afford traditional college and not sure what I wanted to go to school for.  At 21, I was just starting my march toward my degree when many of my high school classmates were preparing to march for graduation.

When receiving the news on drawing one of Keats’ famous odes, I quickly informed my professor that I needed another poem to work with since I did not understand much of the language that Keats used.  She informed me that I could not change the poem I was assigned and that she believed I could complete the assignment with good results.

The presentations were to take place later on in March so I started reading interpretations from professional writers on the subject of Keats.  They did not resonate with me and I thought they all sounded the same.  It seemed like nobody knew how to truly interpret Keats’ ode to a bird he witnessed in a tree, and I was about to be dumb enough to use their reviews as my own.

When it became my turn to give my presentation on Keats, the results were the worst I ever experienced as a student.  My professor actually left the room during my time at the podium.  When everyone noticed she left, my one classmate told me I could stop now in the nicest way possible without embarrassing me any further.  Ten days away from submitting the written part of this assignment and I had zero hope of turning in any credible work.

Two days after my most gut-wrenching moment as a student, I came to the conclusion that I had to put aside all of the professional interpretations and create an interpretation that represents my own, unique opinion as to what Keats was really saying in, “Ode to a Nightingale”.  I submitted my final draft with no expectations of a grade higher than a B- since my interpretation was far different than anything I ever read about that poem.

When I got the results back in early April, I couldn’t believe my final grade and what was written underneath the grade:

A

“A superb interpretation of a grand classic–well developed, much insight and well written.”

I only let one person from my class read that paper.  It was the student who told me to stop my presentation when our professor left the room.  She couldn’t understand how I crafted this unique take on a Keats classic after I completely screwed up during the presentation portion of the assignment.  She claimed that my paper was the best class paper she ever read, but since we were both walking in circles at a Pittsburgh junior college, I didn’t think her complement had a lot of weight attached to it.

Nineteen years later, I have decided to share this same paper with anyone who is having trouble crafting an assignment on Keats.  It is my own view on what Keats was actually expressing in “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Since I prepared this for an introductory course, the length is under 1,000 words.  At the end I included my works cited, and yes, one of the books I acquired information from was written in 1899.  Holding that book in my hands was a delicate process since I feared the spine of the book would peel away from the pages.

Before reading my interpretation, here is the poem. Read the first four stanzas on the left, then move to the top right:

ode-to-a-nightingale

*****

(Written on March 31, 1997)

In 1819, a friend of John Keats named Charles Brown described how Keats created “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Brown claimed that upon one sunny morning in the spring of 1819, Keats took a chair from his breakfast table out into the backyard and sat under a plum tree with pen and pad in hand.  Up in the tree was a male nightingale resting, for his day (which was night) was coming to a close.  By observing the bird, Keats was reminded of its graceful song and its carefree lifestyle, a life Keats wished he could lead.  From this wish “Ode to a Nightingale” was created.  The only way Keats could escape into the world of the nightingale was through his poetry as stated in lines 31 through 33:

Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

 In stanza one Keats tries to forget about his painful life caused by the early death of his brother Tom in December of 1818, and his discovery that he contracted tuberculosis from Tom while he was dying.  Keats uses words such as opiate (opium) and Lethe-wards (river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology) to symbolize forgetfulness.  At the middle of stanza one Keats shifts his attention to the nightingale in the tree.  In line 9 the nightingale is described as having “shadows numberless” and in line 10 he sings in “full-throated ease”.  These two lines create an impression that the nightingale’s world is full of life and health.  These two qualities that the nightingale possesses are the same two qualities that Keats wishes for.

In stanza two Keats imagines that he can enter the world of the nightingale.  In lines 11 through 20 Keats would love to taste (experience) the countryside as much as he loves to drink a well-aged wine.  Keats continues this fantasy into stanza three, and at the same time reminds the nightingale in lines 21 through 30 why he wants to follow him into the countryside.  In line 26 Keats is believed to be talking about his deceased brother Tom, further emphasizing his need to release himself from his worrisome life.

In stanza four, Keats comes back from the imaginary world and back into reality.  Stanza four is simply the setting for stanzas five and six.  The moonlight in line 36 symbolizes Keats’ imagination toward the life of the nightingale at the twilight of the night.  The darkness described in line 38 symbolizes Keats’ belief that death will be upon him very soon in the future.  In stanza five Keats describes a funeral scene that may resemble his brother Tom’s ceremony.  In stanza six, Keats admits his preoccupation with death and calls upon spirits to take his soul away.

Keats enters the world of the nightingale for the final time in stanza seven.  Keats reminds the nightingale that humans do not hunt them for food (lines 61 and 62), but have enjoyed their song throughout the ages, especially in times of despair as Keats expresses in lines 63 through 70:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

For the eighth and final stanza, Keats returns to reality as stated in lines 71 and 72:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Lines 73 and 74 conjure up a belief that Keats’ long time love Fanny Brawne, is having sexual relations with another man:

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Keats believes that she is not in love with him anymore.  Because of the tuberculosis, Brawne cannot receive the love she desires from Keats.  Keats is confident that this belief is true, and reflects this in lines 75 through 78:

Adieu!  Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

The nightingale’s fading song symbolizes the slow loss of life in Keats.  This is caused by Keats’ belief that Fanny Brawne has a relationship with another man and his bout with tuberculosis.  Keats now believes that he has no reason to live, so he shows this by the nightingale’s long journey to the forest (the symbol of life now far away).  In the final two lines of the poem (79 and 80), Keats wonders if the nightingale he saw in the tree was real or in a dream that he was having:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?

In line 80, Keats asks how he can hear the beautiful song of the nightingale once again.  If the encounter was in a dream, then Keats will go out and seek the nightingale’s song.  If the encounter was real, then Keats will dream about the beautiful song of the nightingale.

Stanza eight unveils the stage of Keats’ illness at the time he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Keats now accepts that he is losing his lady love and his life because of tuberculosis.  Keats enjoyed observing anything that reminded him of his wondrous, romantic lifestyle before his illness, including the beautiful melody of a nightingale’s song.

*****

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., et al., eds. 20th Century Interpretations of Keats’s Odes.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Bate, Walter Jackson.  John Keats.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Jacobus, Lee A.  Literature:  An Introduction to Critical Reading.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1996.  844-846.

“The Complete Poetical Works of Keats”.  Cambridge 7th ed.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.