A Perfect Day

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.”

“Um, excuse me?”

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.” And he says it three more times.

After deftly sketching some snapshots of a perfect day—a walk in the park, a moment in a zoo, me and you—the speaker/relentless monotone voice in Lou Reed’s song of that same name leaves us with that pushy, inexplicable, and echoing last line.
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Perfect Day?

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.”

“Excuse me?”

And he repeats it four more times.

After deftly sketching some snapshots of a perfect day—a walk in the park, a moment in a zoo, me and you—the speaker/monotone voice in Lou Reed’s song of that same name leaves us with that pushy, inexplicable, and echoing last line.

On its surface—and like many good songs, it has more than one level—on its surface “Perfect Day” describes just that: The small moments of togetherness that make a perfect day. Heck, I would like this to be a song at my wedding, if I have one, except for that last line.

It was the B-side to Reed’s one top-40 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” so “Perfect Day” has been a radio regular for over four decades. Of the two songs, “Walk on the Wild Side” is the less complicated lyric, being a list and description of the personalities populating Andy Warhol’s Factory in the late-’60s–early-’70s.

“Perfect Day” starts out as a verbal picture postcard:

Just a perfect day
drink Sangria in the park
And then later
when it gets dark, we go home

Just a perfect day
feed animals in the zoo
Then later
a movie, too, and then home

“Just” is a heartbreaking word. The singer does not say it was a “merely,” “only,” or “simply” perfect day. Those modifiers look down at the word they are assisting. “Just” indicates completeness. A day spent doing whatever one planned on doing, visiting the zoo or not visiting a zoo, is perfect, complete unto itself. Further, “perfect” is not a step above good or excellent and has nothing to do with the quality of the day. It is not a “good” day or a “bad” day; it is a perfect day. A complete one, a full one. If all your ambitions for the day are small and are met, yes, that is just a perfect day.

And it sounds like it was a fine day, too. The activities are unimportant in the way that the mundane details of lives other than our own are not all that important. When we hear details about a friend’s date, we nod, smile emptily, and say that it sounds like it was “nice.” When our friend tells us he went to the movies with his new girlfriend, we don’t ask about the ticket price or how dirty the theater appeared to be, even though those are details that might be interesting, more interesting than “later a movie, too, and then home.” “Perfect Day” sounds like it is about a “nice” date, which is part of why the song is loved: We all (I hope) have experienced a nice date. It makes the song seem universal.

But then something happens:

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spend it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

“Such” is not “just.” This is how tautly the song is composed, that a minor shift in the language betrays a change. “Such” is emphatic. Now, “perfect” seems to be statement about the quality of the day, and it is almost pushy, demanding agreement. “It’s a PERFECT DAY!” your scary friend declares when he has had a few too many. In performance, this is where most singers, Lou Reed included, start to sing. Here is where the music shifts, too. Up till now, it has been the singer’s voice and a piano, at least in most recordings. From the very first recording of the song, it is at this moment that strings appear and the voice gets double-tracked, bringing out the sweetness of the melody. In one famous performance, Luciano Pavarotti sings/bellows the “Oh, such a perfect day” line.

In 1966, The Supremes had a number one hit called “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Its opening verse

Set me free, why don’t cha, baby
Get out my life, why don’t cha, baby
‘Cause you don’t really love me
You just keep me hangin’ on

is not something that would be sung or spoken by someone having a “just” anything sort of day, much less a perfect one. It is one of The Supremes’ biggest hits, it is one of Motown’s most loved songs, and a songwriter can not quote it without invoking all the upset that that song contains and the declaration of independence that it presents. In Lou Reed’s song, the perfect day now is less of a nice postcard and just got interesting.

But he returns to the narrating of the day/evening/date, and now problems are acknowledged:

Just a perfect day
problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
it’s such fun

Just a perfect day
you made me forget myself
I thought I was
someone else, someone good

That is a compliment that anyone in a good relationship would like to pay to their beloved. I would love to say this to my girlfriend, except the “someone good” phrase. Someone who says that you make them think they are someone good is either fishing for a compliment (“Honey, you ARE someone good”) or thinks that he or she is not good.

In 1997, the BBC created an ad to promote itself and came up with a clever idea: have over thirty performers sing one line each of a classic song. The song was “Perfect Day,” and Reed not only gave his blessing, he performed on the single. His is the first voice heard, thus giving the single (it raised money for charity) his imprimatur. It was a huge hit and went to number one in the United Kingdom, Reed’s only number one there.

Depending on the singer, the final line, “You’re going to reap just what you sow” can sound demanding, creepy, a declaration of independence, or the promise of a treat. Because now we have a distinct you versus me, no longer a we, and the singer is passing judgement. It could be a happy judgement: the object in the song has been sowing love and understanding so the singer could be promising a sweet result. But when sung in the same song as “You keep me hanging on,” something malign is being foretold. “Reap what you sow” is something usually said as a tsk-tsk, at minimum.

The BBC rendition has several participants share duties on the line, and they all seem to emphasize the interpretation of the song that promises a happy future with more perfect days to come. Especially Tom Jones.

I am not a reader or a critic who thinks that the absence of evidence means that whatever is absent from a work is what the work is “about.” There lies madness. Some critics have interpreted the song as a love song to addiction or at least to a substance. This is because Lou Reed was a heroin user, a junkie. Is this a love song or a conflicted love song to the needle? Perhaps, but the needle is not in the song. When Reed wanted to sing about heroin, he did, clearly and emphatically. (“I’m Waiting for the Man.” “Heroin.”) What is in the song, what the song is about, is a not-unconflicted, not-uncomplicated love story, which is every love story, and thus is about one perfect day in that.

Thus, conflicts hinted at and all, it is a nearly perfect song, but that is why it will not be played at my wedding.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 20 asks, “What’s your idea of a perfect day off: one during which you can quietly relax, doing nothing, or one with one fun activity lined up after the other? Tell us how you’d spend your time.”

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Some Time Travels

In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine writes, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.” He decides that time is an idea, unique to humans, and also unique in that we can simultaneously grasp the past in memory, the present by attention, and the future by expectation. In our minds, but only there, we are not locked to one perception of one reality.

Yesterday, I deleted everything that I had written up to that point by dragging my unbuttoned shirtsleeve across my laptop’s touchpad while reaching for my coffee. (No, I can not replicate the results in an experiment; yes, like an idiot, I have attempted to replicate these results in an experiment.) In a feat of memory, I retyped all that I had written to that point; simultaneously I remembered what I had written, was super-present and typed it attentively, and expected a future in which I regularly saved my work, a lesson I first learned, oh, 20 years ago. I was in three specific time-experiences at once, and all of them sucked.

* * * *
For decades, it has been known that subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time. In yet more recent (2014) experiments, physicists have “simulated” time travel. Science reporters tell us that time travel is in the “near future,” or, more prosaically, “just around the corner.” If this is so, no one from the future has yet visited us, because if it truly is something that we will invent or discover in the future (near or not-so) we would know all about it already. This is because, oh, you get it.

Many therapy techniques suggest remembering oneself in a childhood moment and reaching out to that younger self; the thought is that we carry every self we have yet been forward into our psychological present and can communicate something of a healing nature to those past selves. Whenever I have attempted anything of this sort, I have cried. I have received no reports from the younger self about what he made of the unexplained appearance of an older man leaning on a cane.

* * * *

How the false truths of the years of youth have passed!
Have passed at full speed like trains which never stopped
There where I stood and waited, hardly aware,
How little I knew, or which of them was the one
To mount and ride to hope or where true hope arrives.
— “I Am A Book I Neither Wrote Nor Read,” Delmore Schwartz

* * * *
The thought experiment of time travel has a long history in popular culture. Fantasists invent tools (a jet-pack in every garage) in novels and movies, tools which actually only address the needs of the present moment and do not attempt to imagine the future needs that will be answered by the future tools. In almost every science fiction work that uses the device of time travel, the several paradoxes of “a visitor from the future would influence current history and thus change their present” or “if I go back in time and change a mistake, erase an error, will I not change who I am now?” are addressed.

Many of the heroes decide or discover that the path that brought them to where they are and to the person they are now was always worth taking, errors and all. As long as one is breathing, lessons can be applied. (Ebenezer Scrooge, for example.)

It is a seductive thought experiment, though. Offer a person a time machine to return to a specific moment in the past and take up residence there, from that moment onward, and relive one’s life so one can fix whichever errors and enhance whichever successes that followed, well, it is seductive. Offer a person life from a future moment from which they can see it all unfold, … well.

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Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz’s heart-rending short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” opens with the narrator in a movie theater as he realizes the feature is his parents on their first date; he becomes frantic and yells at the screen, “Don’t do it!” and gives a list of reasons. (Oh, to have been Delmore’s mother. He was 21 when the story was published.) The audience hisses him down, as he is ruining the movie for them, but he knows how it ends.

My father tells my mother how much money he has made in the week just past, exaggerating an amount which need not have been exaggerated. But my father has always felt that actualities somehow fall short, no matter how fine they are. Suddenly I begin to weep. The determined old lady who sits next to me in the theatre is annoyed and looks at me with an angry face, and being intimidated, I stop. I drag out my handkerchief and dry my face, licking the drop which has fallen near my lips. Meanwhile I have missed something, for here are my father and mother alighting from the street-car at the last stop, Coney Island.

At the end, the narrator is thrown out of the movie theater while on screen his father is refusing to have his fortune told by a Coney Island fortune teller. And then he awakens to “the bleak winter morning” of his 21st birthday. It was all a dream.

* * * *
As Augustine saw, way back in the 4th century, we always live in the three time zones of our experience and psyche simultaneously: past, present, and future. Always.

I no more wrote than read that book which is
The self I am, half-hidden as it is
From one and all who see within a kiss
The lounging formless blackness of an abyss.

How could I think the brief years were enough
To prove the reality of endless love?
— “I Am A Book I Neither Wrote Nor Read,” Delmore Schwartz

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Neat Thing of the Day: Lou Reed reading “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (Reed had been a student-mentee of Schwartz’s at Syracuse University): In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 7 asks, “Congrats! You’re the owner of a new time machine. The catch? It comes in two models, each traveling one way only: the past OR the future. Which do you choose, and why?”