The Rhapsody Failure Memoirs: Things I Feel Bad About, To Make You Feel Better

me 8

(Rhapsody, 8th birthday)

Welcome back, kittens! I’m handing out the Waterford champagne flutes because we’re celebrating. Not only are we unveiling the Rhapsody Failure Memoirs, Part I: The Early Years, it’s also our twelfth post at Rhapsody in Cool.

Why mark the 12th? Because I forgot the 10th and the 100th is a depressingly long way off. But things are happening, Readers. Rhapsody in Cool has been short listed for the Long Prize, and long listed for the Short Prize.* And I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me, “That post was the highlight of my day!” Actually I can. It was twice, and by the same person. But the point is the same: Rhapsody is beloved. One salon-goer claims she “wet [her] pants” over our Title IX catalogue review, and as we all know, incontinence is the sincerest form of flattery.

And if you are brand new to Rhapsody in Cool, a hearty welcome to you, too! You may be wondering how your search of the words “Gwyneth Paltrow is an embarrassment to humanity” landed you in our salon, but I think you’ll find you’re in good company. Next time, just come right to the front door—no need to climb in the window. For a complete introduction to your garrulous hostess, click here.

And now, without further ado, the Rhapsody Failure Memoirs, Part I: The Early Years.

*Note to Fact Checkers: these are not real prizes. But rumors that Rhapsody is a shoe-in for a Pulitzer in 2015 are quite credible.

* * * *

Prologue to the Memoirs, in which we assure you that nothing truly awful is about to happen.

If you’ve been keeping up with your New Yorkers, you’ll know that Failure Memoirs are all the rage. The latest way to turn personal dross into literary gold, these are tales of fizzled careers and romantic humiliations, of not writing (or singing or acting or dancing) to the level you knew you were capable of, were it not for those large pieces of Life Furniture you quietly but determinedly placed in your own way.

Yet despite the scary name, Failure Memoirs are not declarations of defeat. Quite the opposite! Each one serves a central purpose: to bolster the author’s conviction—and by extension, the reader’s—that “failure” and all the chaos, debt and anxiety that go with it, are actually the proof of a burning yet deeply buried genius.

The more deeply buried, the more carats your Genius Diamond will have.

Rhapsody is a classic example: just look at this mess. Who but a true artist, waylaid on the road to a MacArthur genius grant, could have created such fantastic hairballs of unfinished work?

My contribution to the Failure Memoir genre will excavate humiliating material in two especially rich veins: fashion and music. I think we’ve developed the sort of elastic trust that can handle a bit of seriousness, don’t you? I trust my revelations will make us all pointedly uncomfortable, and much closer friends.

Now: someone refill my glass and let’s get started!

* * * *

1975. Rhapsody Begins.

I am born at the apex of what my mother later calls “The Earth Muffin Years.” In this period my wardrobe consists mainly of items hand-sewn by my mother or fashioned from embroidered dish towels bought at St. Vincent De Paul’s thrift shop. She also tie-dyes my diapers, a short-lived experiment in which I end up with vividly tie-dyed buttocks and a rash.

I spend much of my time in a backpack, chewing the ends of my mother’s hippie braids or trying to pull off her Russian-peasant style kerchief, while she attempts various back-to-the-land projects like mushroom picking and fruit drying, before concluding that there is, in fact, a good reason that we left the land in the first place.

On weekends, I am taken from the backpack and stuffed into a horrible thing called a “pulk,” which is a sled used by cross-country skiers to pull gear, and to mummify small children. My father is so enthralled by the freedoms afforded by the pulk that he special orders one from Norway—a splashy and exotic purchase in the days before Internet. The vehicle’s design keeps temperatures inside the pulk at a wool-itching, panic-inducing boil, while the hands and exposed face of the rider remain solidly frozen.

My aversion to small spaces, and all winter sport, is permanent.

Do not, I beg of you, try this at home.

I like to play my mother’s small collection of folky records, but my heart belongs to just one: the sound track of “Zorba The Greek,” the 1964 movie starring Anthony Quinn, to which I dance to complete exhaustion, wearing my favorite pair of black boots. The tune “Zorba’s Dance” sends me into an almost religious frenzy of joy.

I spend the rest of my life trying to recapture this feeling.

Until the end of the decade, I am still clothed in hand-me-down items designed for another era, and gender. My mother gives me, and my younger sister, haircuts she calls “pixies” that makes us look something like Mia Farrow cross-bred with a gnome, and maybe a bit of Cabbage Patch doll. I am unhappy about looking this way, but I have no control over what I wear or how my hair is cut.

I simmer quietly with resentments and dream of growing my hair long enough to blow wispily in the wind.

* * * *

1980’s. The Early Education of Rhapsody.

My first-grade teacher is as radiant as Cheryl Tiegs in the JC Penny catalogue, but taller and more deeply tanned. In our class picture she wears a rainbow-patterned skirt with a white blouse that sets off her bronzed (we would now call it pre-melanoma) skin and waist length, blonde hair. She seems to me as blindingly beautiful as I am troll-like. I still have short hair, three exuberant cow-licks, and boy clothes.

I am regularly mistaken for a boy, even by children who know me.

One day, late in the afternoon, I discover that I am wearing my pants backwards. I spend the remainder of the day yanking the hem of my t-shirt down as hard as I can to cover this, and in my mortified state I also have time to wonder at myself—and my mother—for letting this happen.

It is not the last time that this happens.

We move to Utah in 1982, where the 1950’s are still going on. I learn at school that God should be called “Heavenly Father” and that there are two kinds of religion: Mormonism and Satan worship. In 1983 I am given a radio for Christmas and, in the sanctum of my room, I find KRSP on the dial, and become a fervent autodidact in pop-music. There is little agreement between Rhapsody’s parents on music or indeed anything, so the record player in the living room is seldom used except for the occasional Zorba revival.

My room is a temple to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with a few liturgical selections from Madonna and David Lee Roth. “Down Under” by Men at Work brings me into something like the trance state of Zorba, but without the wild dancing. I am studying this music for clues about the world, and about what it will be like to grow older and be part of the world from which KRSP is sending these signals and signs.

The wallpaper, chosen by the previous teen inhabitant, is a giant blown-up photograph of a forest. I live in the woods, on my canopy bed, and this is Thriller, Thriller night.

A poet in residence, or as the principal calls her a “poetess,” comes to our school and teaches us that poems do not have to rhyme. She is offering an after school class and after approximately a half hour of hiding behind a post in the main foyer of the school, I dash forward to grab the handout for her class, and race home to tell my mother to sign me up.

The poet wears soft clothes, and soft practical shoes. I begin to form an idea of the poet’s wardrobe, the poet’s way of talking. She reads us Wallace Stevens and Denise Levertov. I love the line about “jackrabbits rolling their eyes.” I have decided to become a poet—specifically, this poet. Shoes and all.

I write an ode to thunder. In our poetry class, she tells us about something called “the third eye,” which I will later understand is a sort of Buddhist metaphor but at the time I imagine that I am actually a Cyclops– a gnome/troll/Mia Farrow Cyclops– with an eye that can see poems.

My life in letters has begun.

Me. All of 1985.

And that’s all we have time for today, dears. Tune in shortly for the second half of the Rhapsody Failure Memoirs, Part II, including high school and later, more expensive ventures into graduate school, marriage and motherhood.

It will either come right before, or right after, the eagerly awaited 2014 Sundance Festilog! 

See you there.




5 thoughts on “The Rhapsody Failure Memoirs: Things I Feel Bad About, To Make You Feel Better

  1. Hilarious! This made me (literally) LOL numerous times and actually spit on my computer once. I’m a survivor of the pixie haircut as well. My brother and I were indistinguishable for years. Well done!

  2. Pingback: The Failure Memoirs, Part II: Rhapsody Goes to Writer School | Rhapsody In Cool

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