‘I Want to Vanish’

The original concept for All This Useless Beauty, the 1996 album from Elvis Costello & The Attractions, was to have that band record songs that Costello sold to other performers: to have Elvis Costello “cover” Elvis Costello songs that audiences first heard performed by other artists.

Because Paul McCartney never recorded “Shallow Grave,” and Johnny Cash never recorded “Complicated Shadows,” and Sam Moore had not recorded “Why Can’t a Man Stand Alone,” the concept never left its life as an idea and Costello became the first to record and release several of his songs. He “covers” his own songs.
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Elvis Costello’s ‘The Last Year of My Youth’

Elvis Costello is 62 today. It might be obvious to anyone who visits these pages that I am something of an amateurish fan of his work. He is touring America (near me) this fall with a concert based on his 1982 album, Imperial Bedroom. This column first appeared in May:

* * * *
The phrase must have been much on Elvis Costello’s mind the summer of 2014: he was going to perform a set of solo shows at Carnegie Hall in June and he had even titled the shows “The Last Year of My Youth.” But he did not have a song with that title.

He did have a song that addressed aging, the folly and wonder of being middle-aged, a song called “45” that he debuted on The Tonight Show in the 1990s and then performed on his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel. He was around that age at that time and found for himself a wealth of metaphors to being 45, from the end of World War II in 1945 (“bells are chiming in victory”), to 45 RPM records and what rock singles meant when he was young: “Bass and treble heal every hurt.” One reviewer, also in his mid 40s, wrote that “45” hit him so hard at the time, “I was shaking at the end” of the song. When I hit 45, I understood this thought about the song and I also understood the song; I also found that I understood the song better than I had the day before, when I was still 44.

The summer of 2014, Costello was turning 60, because math happens, and that phrase—”the last year of my youth”—must have been much on his mind.
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‘The Last Year of My Youth’

The phrase must have been much on Elvis Costello’s mind the summer of 2014: he was going to perform a set of solo shows at Carnegie Hall in June and he had even titled the shows “The Last Year of My Youth.” But he did not have a song with that title.

He did have a song that addressed aging, the folly and wonder of being middle-aged, a song called “45” that he debuted on The Tonight Show in the 1990s and then performed on his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel. He was around that age at that time and found for himself a wealth of metaphors to being 45, from the end of World War II in 1945 (“bells are chiming in victory”), to 45 RPM records and what rock singles meant when he was young: “Bass and treble heal every hurt.” One reviewer, also in his mid 40s, wrote that “45” hit him so hard at the time, “I was shaking at the end” of the song. When I hit 45, I understood this thought about the song and I also understood the song; I also found that I understood the song better than I had the day before, when I was still 44.

The summer of 2014, Costello was turning 60, because math happens, and that phrase—”the last year of my youth”—must have been much on his mind.
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An Offer Like This …

According to NPR, by 1990 the city of Verona, Italy, was receiving over 6000 letters to Juliet Capulet each year. This fact has been celebrated in a book and a movie, both titled “Letters to Juliet,” so the outline of the story is well-known: Lovers who are in the middle of difficult plights or terrible loneliness write letters, detailed letters, about their storm-tossed affairs to Shakespeare’s fictional heroine.

“Only you,” many letters begin with, only you—the ghost of a character who never breathed a human breath—only Juliet Capulet can possibly understand and empathize.
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Age Is Just a Thing

One friend, upon hearing me describe a new ache or an old pain, used to reply, “You’ve never been (insert age here) before!”

At first, I found this insulting, then, later, very insulting. But knowing the friend as I did, I eventually realized that he was not being dismissive when he said this, but was instead reminding me to do something I did not have a long history of doing: To pay attention to my body. He has since passed on and will remain forever 65.

He was saying that almost everything we experience is unique to us, yet not at all unique. That sentence is either wise in its simpleness, so simple and wise that “simpleness” is too complicated a word for it, or incredibly banal. All of the above: We are all growing older. I’ve never been 46 before. So it is.
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An Offer Like This Will Just Not Come Again

According to NPR, by 1990 the city of Verona, Italy, was receiving over 6,000 letters to Juliet Capulet each year. This fact has been celebrated in a book and movie, both titled “Letters to Juliet,” so the outline of the story is well-known: Lovers who are in the middle of difficult plights or terrible loneliness write letters, detailed letters, about their storm-tossed affairs to Shakespeare’s fictional heroine. Only she, many begin, the ghost of a character who never breathed a human breath, only she can possibly understand and empathize.

Verona has a staff of volunteers who read and sometimes reply to the letters. (“Letters from Juliet” might be a more interesting title.) They call themselves “The Juliet Club,” and it only became an official office around 1990, but people have been writing letters to poor dead (never lived) Juliet for centuries. (Here is the address: Club di Giulietta, via Galilei 3-37133, Verona, ITALY.) Verona enjoys portraying itself as the hometown of Romeo and Juliet and even has a “Romeo and Juliet tour.” (Valentine’s Day is especially important.) Shakespeare certainly did more for Verona’s economy than he did for Denmark’s.
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Daily Prompt: Punch the Clock

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 21 asks, “If money were out of the equation, would you still work? If yes, why, and how much? If not, what would you do with your free time?”
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I have my final pay stub somewhere around here, detached long ago from the check whose sum it explained. It dates from late June 2010 and I should bronze it like a baby’s shoes.

As it is for me with many other aspects of a common American—well, not just American, human—life, my relationship with work is, um, not uncomplicated. Off the top of my head, from age 15 till 40 I held 14 different clock-punching jobs from almost as many employers, with a couple employers that hired me more than once. Not included in the list is the newspaper reporter job I quit via fax machine the morning of day one, because I really am a terrible employee and I guess I wanted to prove it quickly, and the one time I was paid for an acting gig (onstage with a cardboard box on my head and a ukelele in my hands—it was a little avant garde, and getting paid five bucks made it even more so).

Life for me for the last four years has been nothing but free time, however—yet I have never been quite so productive. I am the person for whom this question was written.

I have not been another person’s employee since the summer of 2010, when I was asked to leave my last job, which I had not enjoyed very much for three years and nine months, because I had not enjoyed it very much for three years and nine months too many. The manager and I decided that I no longer needed to consider him my boss and he no longer needed to consider himself my boss. On that much we agreed, so we parted company and even deleted each other from one another’s Facebook. It was that serious a firing.

The symptoms of my diagnosis had been prominent for most of the three years; I started walking with a cane in 2007. When the symptoms of adult spinal muscular atrophy first showed, they came suddenly. Only recently have I learned that this is a common experience among people with neurodegenerative diseases. When walking becomes difficult—in my case because the nerves that had been sending (ever dimmer) signals to my legs (which had started to atrophy from receiving ever dimmer signals and thus were not being asked to work)—the end of normal walking comes as if everything had been just fine one day and the next day as if one’s shoes had been nailed to the ground or one’s co-workers had painted the floor with superglue. (I must not have liked the job very much, if I thought such a prank was possible!) It is sudden and scary when the progression of deterioration is undetected and even undetectable until the day it is completely not.

Since my last job was not a high-paying one and did not offer free or simply less expensive health insurance, I had none. So I neither spoke with anyone about my developing deterioration, nor did anyone suggest I do so. But being suddenly unemployed (so very unemployed my boss had unfriended me, please recall) meant I could get poor people’s health insurance, Medicaid. (This is before the Affordable Health Care Act, which also has in fact benefited me.)

With Medicaid came the, “Hey, doc, what gives with my legs?” conversation, and, eventually, the answer(s). With the answers came Social Security Disability, which is my sole income as of right now. If I had had insurance at an earlier date, perhaps I would have received the diagnosis and declaration of disability earlier and been able to leave my last employer on better terms. Entertaining such hypotheticals is a highly un-useful pastime, I find.

My barber asked me recently, “What do you do?” And I replied, “I am a retiree.” As I have written elsewhere, I am an alcoholic in recovery, sober several years, and I am living “Mark’s Life, Version 2.0.” The universe has afforded me a second life (not the online virtual community, a real second life), and the opportunity is not being wasted. I am writing, every day, on a schedule of my own fashioning, speaking with and sometimes counseling people.

There are three jobs every person in recovery thinks of pursuing, as I certainly did: becoming a counselor (but the hours of training are arduous), becoming a truck driver (perhaps because a desire to escape partly fueled the addiction and does not leave), and, after being told by enough people, “You oughta write a book about your stories,” a writer. Luckily, I already was a writer.

From Elvis Costello’s 1983 album, Punch the Clock, “Everyday I Write the Book”:

(Daily Prompt) 45 and Me: A Love Story

The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 27 continues a recent preoccupation with age, aging, adulthood: “‘Age is just a number,’ says the well-worn adage. But is it a number you care about, or one you tend (or try) to ignore?”

One friend, upon hearing me describe a new ache or an old pain, used to reply, “You’ve never been (insert age here) before!” At first, I found this insulting, then, later, very insulting. But knowing the friend as I did, I eventually realized that he was not being dismissive when he said this, but was instead reminding me to do something I did not have a long history of doing: To pay attention to my body.

He was also saying that almost everything we experience is unique to us and not at all unique. That sentence is either wise in its simpleness, so simple and wise that “simpleness” is too complicated a word for it, or incredibly banal. I’ll go with banal. We are all growing older.

Age is a statistic and mine are these (feel free to play with the age calculator for your own numbers): As of July 27, 2014, I have been here for 16,687 days, which is also more than 400,000 hours and approximately 360,461,595 breaths, and 1,730,215,656 heart beats since I was born. Have I made each one of these days, breaths, and heartbeats count? Have I lived “each day as if it was my last?” Of course not. I spent at least 12,000 of these days either waiting for payday or avoiding late fees and deadlines. I also do not dance like no one is looking and rarely think before I speak.

I am 45 (and a half), which is somewhere in the middle of the middle. (I knew a woman in her 90s who used to tell people, “I am 93-and-a-half!”) Either I have already seen more sunrises than I have yet to see, or I have not even seen half of them. (I get up late, anyway, and have missed at least 16,000 sunrises.) I still possess a lot of my boyish lack of wisdom and am adding middle-aged foolishness to it. It’s a complicated age.

It is also an age that is not given much positive attention in art, music, or literature. Not just 45 specifically, but mid-40s. A character in his or her mid-40s is often tragic, a figure who is in need of change and perhaps pursues it but is incapable of changing, which is where the tragedy lies. Or he—and it is usually a he in this case—is in a mid-life crisis (in need of a change) and his pursuit of a solution is comic, impotent, or merely silly, and he learns his lesson and returns to his old ways. Karl Marx wrote, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” In art, a 20-year-old character’s life is romantic, passionate; the life of a 45-year-old with the same emotions: farce.

It is the Age of Assessing Things, which would have sounded as boring and banal to my 25-year-old ears as it must to any 25-year-old’s ears.

(Not that there is not passion in my life; there is, and love now seems to count for more and feel more enduring than any love I have yet experienced. Life is amazing when one starts paying attention.)

Element 45 is rhodium, which is very rare—part of the platinum group of elements—and very expensive and yet we encounter it every day on our roads. It is used in catalytic converters, which of course are employed to convert the pollution our car engines create into less toxic pollution. My view of the age 45 is influenced by this coincidence of element and age. Forty-five, for me, is the age at which a lot of the life I have lived so far is being converted into something more breathable. That is not farce, but my life is not literature.

What have I learned so far in this life, and how many of these things do I really need for the rest of the journey? Which of these things are worth keeping? A lot of them, as it turns out, but not all. This particular lesson is not often the theme of art, as I wrote above, but around when he was 45, Elvis Costello wrote “45,” in which he sings:

Here is a song to sing to do the measuring
What did you lose?
What did you gain?
What did you win?

Enjoy.