I’m pretty good at being a grown-up. You can drive your own car across New York state, stop and buy and consume a bag of disgusting malt vinegar-flavored potato chips; alternately enjoying and being repulsed by the chemicals and think “oh just a few more,” then fling the empty bag across the car and listen to classic rock while the miles roll by.
You can check into a Hotwire hotel near Buffalo airport. Turn your nose up at the graphics and loud music that probably felt edgy to a marketing executive when this chain was spawned a decade ago. Sit at the bar alone, eating buffalo wing flatbread (makes as much sense as a rib sandwich), drink a glass of Chardonnay and listen to two male pilots having a chaste love affair a few stools over: “And you know what, I’m not just saying this cause you’re Jet Blue, but do you know what my favorite airline is?”
A grown-up can finish her Zadie Smith novel, cry a little bit and then watch Bridesmaids for the fifth time. Wake up to a snowy airport landscape outside her Aloft hotel window and say “Shit – why did I stay by the airport in Buffalo? This is really depressing!” but kind of enjoy it at the same time. Pretending to be a criminal on the run is a good part of being an adult, possibly better than being one for real.
A grown-up on her own can arouse suspicion at the Canadian border, enough for the immigration officer to demand she go in to the office to give further information. “I’m doing an artist residency at the um…University of Western Ontario?” “What’s the name of the university? Have you done this before? When was the last time you traveled to Canada?” I never think about how seriously they take it at this border until I’m sitting there with the car window rolled down trying not to be vague.
A grown-up can sit in a McDonald’s in London Ontario to use the free wifi so she can figure out how to reach her friend Norma’s house without GPS. Norma is a professor at the university and set up the residency. Going back to school and being an authority is a part of being a grown-up I’m not sure I’ll ever have a handle on. There I said it. My future as a Professor Irwin Corey (RIP) of singer-songwriterdom is far from secure.
I’d been fretting about talking to Norma’s university students because I don’t know how to describe what I do, I don’t know how to sustain a career or find more of an audience, all I know is how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but I hope maybe that’s a tiny bit of mature wisdom I can share. The truth is when put in a position of authority I’m afraid I’ll be exposed to not be a grown-up at all.
I’d put together a little powerpoint of images because I figured that was a way to show the students who I am, where I came from, what things have been like for me, because that’s the only thing I’m sort of an expert on, but I was so filled with doubt about what a twenty year old Canadian pop music student knows or cares to know, that I sped through half the images, lingered too long on the other half and figured maybe I should just play a song because in the end those are the three minutes where I actually feel like I’ve got it down.
Talking to the students, I teetered between Mel Brooks 2,000 Year Old Man (which none of them have ever heard of, the 2,000 Year Old Man or Mel Brooks) emerging from a dusty tomb to croak how “there was no email! Everyone was looking for a record deal, and we had to find a payphone to book a show in the next town, have any of you ever seen a payphone before?” and Catherine O’Hara’s Marilyn Hack character in For Your Consideration (at least she’s Canadian, so there was a slight possiblity one of my references would ring a bell with somebody):
“Oh my darlings, you are so talented. That’s why you’re here, with me. But you are so – full of yourselves!” The students look at me, pens poised above blinding white notebook pages unsullied by any nuggets of wisdom. “Oh, I wish that I could jump cut you babies, right now, to the happy place that I’m in. I wish…but that’s your own journey.” Pause. “It’s worth it.”
I don’t know how to be a grown-up in these circumstances, or I can’t summon the authority to be anything but an imaginary film version of a grown-up. Rather , I’m an awkward fourteen year old in the school cafeteria asking some wiser kids who’ve deigned to let me sit at their table – which is better, the crappy hamburgers or the lousy pizza? My sentences tail off – “Is this making any sense?” I say. Unless we’re all just having a conversation, about finishing songs or booking gigs, or hopes for the future. Then I feel alright. Maybe this is the way to do it, writer to writer, musician to musician. So I have thirty-odd years on them. I’m still trying to figure things out. When I stop, I guess that’s when it’s over.
On Facebook I asked how others would explain to these youngsters about songwriting – and the answers and comments poured in. But listening to their fully formed songs, or honestly, before I heard a single note, I sensed nobody in the class needs help expressing themselves in that way or if they do they are set up to find out in their own time. These kids had to audition to be here, an audition I probably couldn’t pass. I know a lot and have done my time writing and playing but again, I can’t bring myself to expound on much of anything. I hope I gave them something helpful to chew on but in general I’m more myself writing or performing than talking about those things.
“You were really helpful,” one of the students said at the end, “because we could look at you and see ourselves doing that!” Hmm. All part of the service ma’am – I’m so ordinary, I make everything look possible!
I drank some wine at Norma’s house and we talked and watched films and videos together and I magically felt myself coming back to full-fledged adult. By the time I breezed through US immigration and hit the NY State Thruway, I was practically Large Marge, the badass lady trucker who terrorizes Pee Wee Herman.
“Gimme a coffee, regular and a chicken panini, kid,” I said with more gravitas than I’d felt in days, sending the girl behind the counter at what would hopefully be my last Tim Horton’s in a while scurrying for paper napkins and creamer. “It’s going to snow later tonight,” my voice boomed now, summoning my dormant inner oracle. “You can count on it.”