I was listening to ‘Graceland’ in the car today as I took Tilly to childcare. I couldn’t remember when it was released, and so as I got back into the car, after I’d dropped Tilly off, I turned the CD over to have a look. It was 1986: over a quarter of a century ago (I know!). And yet it only seems like yesterday that I was watching Chevy Chase sitting in a director’s chair lip-syncing to ‘You can call me Al’. 27 years! Is Chevy Chase even still alive?*
I’ve never really liked ‘Graceland’. Back in 1986 I hated it, in the way that you do as a teenager. Now I appreciate it, in the way that you do in your 40s, while still not liking it. And yet listening to it still brings on a painful bout of sentimentality. It seems that sentimentality is no respecter of taste. The memory of things that you despised can make you feel as misty-eyed as those that you loved.
I think this is because sentimentality actually operates like a physical force. It’s like a kind of temporal G force, created by the gradual acceleration of time as you get older. The effects are also just like those of the G force. When you first experience sentimentality (in your late twenties/early thirties), the effects are almost pleasant: a slight flutter in the stomach, and a subtle sense of the weight of your accumulating history. Over time, however, the flutter evolves into full-blown nausea, and the subtle sense of weight becomes a crushing force, as the days fly by at such speed that you find it hard to focus on the present at all.
Here’s a picture of the effects of sentimentality over six decades.
You’ll also notice that G force and S force have parallel effects on the face and body, turning the beautiful, vital youth into a saggy-faced hunchback.
At 42 (a couple of years younger than Paul Simon was when he recorded ‘Graceland’), I see myself as being somewhere between picture iii and iv. This perhaps explains my dislike of ‘Graceland’, because I don’t much like the music I am producing in my forties either. I have a theory about this…
I recently recorded (on the computer) a song I wrote back when I was at picture ii (to be more specific and pretentious, Paris in 1998 – ie my late 20s). I suspect that these years, the years following the first onset of sentimentality, are the most productive for a lot of artists – especially if you throw a bit of tragedy into the mix. This was certainly the case for me. My theory (which I am making up as I go along) is that the late twenties and early thirties are where we transition from a youthful sense of invincibility into a mature sense of our own mortality, and as these two existential tectonic plates butt up against each other, the creative forces released can be volcanic.
One of my favourite poems is an achingly sad and beautiful exploration of the relationship between Childhood and Mortality called ‘Fern Hill‘, written by Dylan Thomas. In it the poet looks back on his idyllic childhood, and mourns the fact that he is no longer oblivious to the chains of time that encircled him even then. And how old was Thomas when he wrote it? 31! I rest my case. (He also had the wisdom to drink himself to death before he was forty. He obviously wanted to avoid ever getting to picture iv).
And here is my song…
So what has all this got to do with parenting? Well, it’s pretty obvious really: obvious to the point of cliché. Kids, especially young kids, are the best antidote to the effects of sentimentality. I don’t mean connect with ourselves as children. As ‘Fern Hill’ shows, reflecting on our own childhood and lost innocence just intensifies our sentimentality and melancholy. The antidote is being in the presence of actual flesh and blood children. The intensity of their sense of the present, how resolutely they occupy the here and now, is infectious. We too can, for the time that we are with them at least, forget our many regrets and our rapidly approaching death, and just be.
Not that you have to be a parent to experience this. In fact, actual parenting can feel more like an overdose of the sentimentality antidote. Just look at the common side effects of having kids – extreme anxiety, rapid weight gain and an inability to drive heavy vehicles, to name but a few. No, I would recommend a much lower dose of kids than parenting itself.
Ideally, a healthy kid regime would be similar to a healthy exercise regime: half an hour to an hour of contact with children, three to four times a week. Perhaps, to facilitate this, childcare centres could be rebranded as gyms for the soul. You could pay a yearly fee and then drop in any time you like just to hang out with kids, and get those anti-sentimentality endorphins flowing.
It’s a thought.
As for me, my challenge is to work out how to fuse my children’s fresh, white energy with my own dark matter in order to generate some kind of creative renaissance – a form of inter-generational alchemy to produce artistic gold from the dark lead of my soul.
I’ll let you know how I go.
*Chevy Chase is alive, and here’s picture to prove it.