Saturday, January 17, 2015

MTV and Me

Author's note: This piece was originally published in the 2014 edition of Quills and Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I burst through the front door, threw my books into the doorway of my bedroom, grabbed a snack in the kitchen, and ran down the hall to the den. Settling cross-legged on the blue-shag carpet in front of the television, I grabbed the silver knob and pulled. First a click, then a hum, then static electricity crackled across the screen. I had arrived at my house a few minutes earlier after an emotionally-grueling day of sixth grade. But now that the faint image on the screen was growing vibrant, I was truly home.

Music Television had debuted the summer before my fifth-grade year, but I hadn’t become aware of it until later. Living in tiny Lovington, New Mexico, limited—or at least, delayed—my knowledge of pop culture. Our little one-screen theater showed movies months after they were released. While the kids in Lubbock, a two-hour drive away, were getting tired of E.T. and moving on, we Lovington kids were just seeing it for the first time.

So I didn’t find out about MTV because kids were talking about it at school. They weren’t. I just stumbled across it one day. It took me a while to piece together what this thing was. All day and all night, MTV showed mini-movies set to popular music. One day, I made this life-altering observation: “Oh! It’s like radio, but you can see it!”

From then on, I was hooked. I filled my afternoons with INXS, Joan Jett, The Human League, The Cars, David Bowie, A Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and the Go-Go’s. I watched Michael Jackson invent pop music. Then I watched Madonna redefine it on her own terms. I watched The Police reinvent themselves with “Every Breath You Take” from their ground-breaking “Synchronicity” album. I watched for hours every day and never got enough.

I came to realize that not everyone shared my joy at this discovery. I had a friend over one day, and I turned on MTV to show her this daring new frontier. Def Leppard was crunching through “Rock of Ages,” and the lead guitarist, wearing tight white pants, was swaying his backside in front of the camera. My friend stared at it for a minute. Then she said, “My mom says rock music is from the devil,” and left the room. I kept watching as lead singer Joe Elliott swung a large, glowing Excalibur-like sword over his head as he launched into the second verse.

“If this is from the devil,” I thought, “he has pretty good taste.”

My friend’s mother wasn’t alone. As MTV’s popularity grew, so did conservative disapproval.

“MTV is destroying the very souls of our children!” I heard one pulpit-pounding preacher exclaim.

But MTV did not make me feel as though my soul were being destroyed. It actually put my soul back together. While my peers seemed to be sailing through puberty effortlessly, I remained physically and socially awkward. I was either picked on or ignored at school. I couldn’t decide which was worse. Sixth grade had not been kind to me so far.

But at home, I found solace in the flickering light that illuminated the den. Those music videos told stories that I understood. I knew the band members would never know who I was, but I knew them. Sting wasn’t just gazing into the camera in “Every Breath You Take;” he was staring straight into my soul. I might have felt powerless at school, but women like Madonna and Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox and all five of the Go-Go’s—an all-female band, for heaven’s sake—oozed empowerment and influence. When Martha Davis of The Motels sauntered through a nightclub and purred the lyrics to “Only the Lonely,” I knew she understood the isolation I walked around in every day. In this refuge glowing out of my TV, these people became my friends. School was destroying my soul. But MTV, this gateway to a new world, was where I was accepted and understood. If MTV wanted my soul, MTV could have it.

I was intrigued by Boy George’s shocking androgyny. I was mesmerized by Talking Heads’ quirky profundity. I admired Pat Benatar’s tough femininity, and I loved the way each of Duran Duran’s videos seemed to have been designed to send adolescent female hormones into a frenzy. And I could not get enough. If I uttered “Just one more video” enough times, my MTV-watching sessions could go for hours.

My parents realized how much MTV I was watching and pulled the plug by cancelling our cable subscription. I tried to land sleepovers at the houses of friends who had cable, but I missed having MTV around all the time. After my parents bought our first VCR, I discovered VHS tapes of music videos at the video store. I gleefully checked out Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and took it home and, in an attempt to demonstrate what this medium meant to me, watched it with my dad. I didn’t realize the video shown on MTV was the “clean” version, and the one I brought home was not. This did not help my case.

But then a miracle happened. My brother was playing with the buttons on the VCR one day, and MTV suddenly illuminated the screen. We didn’t know how he had done it, but we were pretty sure we were getting MTV illegally. I didn’t care. MTV was back! And now I could fill VHS tapes with it!

For a lot of people, MTV provided entertainment. But it gave me a connection and a sense of significance. Popular music had become visual, and I felt I was more than a witness to this monumental transition in pop culture. I was a part of it. Eventually, I would go on to find meaning in things other than a music video network, and MTV would replace its 24-hour video programming with a parade of increasingly meaningless reality shows. But for 14-year-old me, curled up in front of the flickering TV set late into the night, MTV welcomed me into its world with unwavering acceptance—until I would finally turn it off and go to bed. But first, just one more video.

Left Behind

Author's note: This is an excerpt from my master's thesis, Honest to God: Confessions of a Pastor's Wife. It has also been published in the 2014 edition of Quills & Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I started losing my dad in September 2011. One Friday morning that month, my parents, my two girls, and I set out for Huntsville, Alabama, for my cousin’s wedding. We stopped for lunch in Memphis. Mom and Dad had never been there. We walked up Beale Street, where the bars were already livening up for that night. Music poured out of open doors. Beer trucks lined the street, and men pushed dollies loaded with cases of beer around us as we walked at a slower pace. Dad took Mom’s hand as we made our way up the street. He loved music. It spoke to his soul in a deep and profound way.

“We’ll come back here and spend a weekend—just the two of us,” he told Mom.

We ended up at Hard Rock Café, where Dad and I posed for pictures on the stage. In one shot, he’s kneeling on the floor and holding a guitar by the neck with both hands high over his head like he’s channeling Jimi Hendrix. It’s a great picture.

That night, we rolled into Huntsville for a weekend of sweet celebration with Dad’s sister and her children. Her son Sid was getting married to a wonderful woman named Evelyn. They are both professional musicians, and they had gathered an ensemble of bass violins and flutes—their respective instruments—to perform at the ceremony. Sid had asked Dad, who had been forced to abandon a much-desired music career decades earlier, to conduct the ensemble. Dad did his job proudly.

After the wedding, we talked and ate and laughed and drank with the family and friends who were gathered there. Ann, my dad’s sister, was in the process of moving far from us to Sid and Evelyn’s home in Indiana. Dad and Ann knew this could be one of their last times together. They sat and laughed and clung to each other. The Alabama humidity settled on the festivities, and by the end of the evening, our faces shone and our hair drooped with the heavy moisture in the air. Someone looked at a clock, and we were all surprised that it was 1:30 a.m. It had been a beautiful night.

Less than a week later, Dad was in the hospital with double pneumonia. This diagnosis led to the discovery of interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, an inflammatory lung disorder in which fibrous tissue forms between the alveoli in the lungs. This condition is irreversible. Dad never smoked, but he did grow up on the Texas Gulf Coast, where huge refineries belch filth into the atmosphere in the name of profit. We’ll never know exactly what caused Dad’s illness. And more bad news was to come.

Dad was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which had been brewing under the surface until the pneumonia seemed to throw it into full force. Worst of all, accompanying the Parkinson’s was dementia with Lewy bodies. This type of dementia, caused by abnormal protein deposits that form inside the brain’s nerve cells, is characterized by confusion, hallucinations, lack of facial expression—things that had become obvious in Dad’s behavior. When he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in early 2012, there were no medications approved by the FDA to treat it.
I never accepted that Dad’s changing personality was permanent. I thought it would somehow go away or he would learn to manage it, and then my old Dad would be back.

On Feb. 25, my seven-year-old daughter Jenna and I were gradually getting ready to go to my parents’ house. It was a Saturday morning, and we were planning to spend the day with Dad while Mom ran some errands. I had been on the phone with Mom, who said Dad had slept uncharacteristically late, and she was going to wake him up to give him his meds. Jenna and I were in no rush. I hung up the phone and plopped down on the couch for a few games of Words With Friends on my Kindle. Ten minutes later, the phone rang, and it was Mom again. Maybe she was calling to tell me to come later since he had slept so late. But I had a faint suspicion that something was wrong.
I picked up the phone, and she was sobbing. She couldn’t talk. I yelled into the phone above her sobs, “Mom! What is it?”
I could make out something about 911.

“Did you call 911, or are you telling me to call 911?” I asked her.

She had already called 911. So maybe he had fallen. Maybe his oxygen level was dangerously low.

Maybe he didn’t wake up.

I tried not to act too alarmed as I rushed Jenna into her clothes and to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor offered to go with me, but I wanted to go alone. Once I was back in the car, I realized I should have had him drive me. The people of Saline County, Arkansas, were out for their morning drives, creeping down the roads in their pickup trucks at maddeningly slow speeds. Or maybe it was just my panicked state that made everyone else seem to slow down. Tailgating them didn’t work. Neither did yelling obscenities and banging on the steering wheel. Where were the hazard lights on this car? I had never had to use them before.

I finally got to my parents’ street and saw an ambulance in front. A couple of EMTs were milling around the vehicle. They were in no hurry. I parked half a block away and ran the rest of the way. The front door was open, and there was Mom. Weeping, she reached for me.
After running down the hall to Dad’s room, I was confused to find his bed empty. Then I nearly tripped over the bulging sheet on the floor. The EMTs had moved him there to try to revive him. I collapsed on the floor next to him.

When I was four years old, my family was getting ready to leave for our summer vacation. Summer vacation consisted of driving 14 hours from southeast New Mexico to Houston and Beaumont, Texas. We would spend one week with each set of grandparents. The week in Houston meant driving the sprawling freeways, shopping at gargantuan malls, and going to the beach. In Beaumont, I would play in my grandmother’s garden and swim in the neighborhood pool. The car was loaded, and I had run back in for one more bathroom trip before we left. As I came out of the bathroom, I fell in behind Dad, who had made one last walk through the house to check everything. I followed him to the front door and he opened it, pushed the button on the doorknob to lock it, walked outside and shut the door firmly behind him.

As the sound of the closing door shuddered through the house, I realized he had not known I was behind him. He thought I was in the car. They were going to leave me. I was going to be in this house alone for two whole weeks. I slumped against the wall, absorbing this reality and giving in to the convulsing sobs that seemed to explode out of my little body.
Suddenly, Dad burst back through the door and scooped me into his arms.
“I would never leave you,” he said. “I would never leave you.”

I heard a sobbing voice saying, “Dad… Dad…” and realized it was mine. I reached a shaking hand to the part of the sheet covering his head and started to pull it back. I saw his ear and his hairline, but I did not want to see his face. I dropped the corner of the sheet and just sat there. He really was not breathing. The oxygen machine, which had filled the house with its humming for the past five months, sat eerily silent. The only sounds were EMTs talking in hushed voices and neighbors consoling my still-sobbing mother. No one was in a hurry.
In a few minutes, I would call my husband and tell him what happened. In a few hours, I would tell my children their beloved PaPa was gone. In a few days, I would slip a plastic razor cover into his casket. But for a little longer, and for the last time, I sat with my dad.