May, 1984, was the first month aerobics were offered as an afternoon activity at the Fort McMurray YMCA, and my mother was one of the first women to sign up.
My Nova Scotian parents had conceived my only sibling shortly after our move to oil-rich Fort McMurray, Alberta. My mother, a healthy-pregnancy trend devotee, aerobicized throughout the process of bringing my future brother, James, to term. At four years old, I accompanied her to the YMCA twice a week for her low-intensity step classes, but I never participated. Instead I splashed, ran, and leapt around with whoever happened to be within ten feet of me. Like a sailor on shore leave, my playmates were anonymous and ephemeral.
Because the aerobics classes occurred only twice a week, my mother filled in her workout schedule with an improvised setup at home. It involved two milk crates, a two-foot length of pressboard, and the television on which I had previously enjoyed uninterrupted morning programming.
The song my mother most often aerobicized to was “The Neutron Dance” by the Pointer Sisters. She had an entire workout video crafted around this one song, looped to repeat. In between Rockette-like high kicks and hip-pivots, my mother would glance at my Sesame Street-deprived face and say “I have to do this for your new little brother or sister.”
“Won’t it be fun to have somebody to play with all day long?”
I wasn’t sure. I already had a lhasa apso puppy named Pearls. She smelled terrible and had a fondness for licking her ass, then my face. From what I knew of babies, the only change to my current playmate scenario looked to be one of head count.
But as the trimming kicks continued, Spring gave its lunch money to Summer and the Pointer Sisters instilled in me a great sense of contentment. “The Neutron Dance” became synonymous with promise. It was the song playing most often in our rented townhouse while our first real home — an 1100 square foot bungalow — was being built.
The pumping keyboard-contrived faux-brass of the song’s jitter-spazz melody line trumpeted our transition from transients to stable dwellers. I was moved into a bedroom of my own, conveniently located adjacent to the hallway bathroom that I came to believe was mine. During this time, my mother grew in the belly and continued to assure me of the future fun I would enjoy with my new sibling. “You’re going to be best friends!” sounded credible against the uplifting pop mantra of “The Neutron Dance”; life was to be an unending chorus of “All I got to do is just believe / I’m so happy doing the neutron dance / I’m just burning doing the neutron dance.”
Then he was born.
On December 29, 1984, James Patrick Corbett Lourenco, a nine-and-a-half pound monster of a boy, slipped into life. There were plenty of reasons to dislike him. It was -49 degrees Celsius on the night of his birth (-56 Fahrenheit, a temperature more commonly measured in Kelvin). It sounds petty, but you try wearing two snowsuits in a hospital for an hour while your family forgets about you while busying itself with its precious new gift and see how you like it.
Once he was brought home, things were even worse. He was allergic to everything, which meant I had to give up the company of my beloved Pearls. My personal bathroom became cluttered with diapers, powders, and baby wipes. He looked like a potato.
My first instinct was to blame my mother. I didn’t completely understand how James had come to exist, but I knew she had a hand in it. Watching her affectionate manner with the potato just about confirmed her status as my personal household pariah, but when I thought about it rationally I knew she couldn’t be the sole target of my anger. After dinner she would feed James a dish of apple sauce, it’s true, but I was given chocolate ice cream. I was made to hold my own spoon, sure, but I was spared the accompanying airplane noises he had to suffer. Also, in the months following James’s birth my mother read to me a little longer before bedtime each night.
My mother absolved of my loathing, I turned to the next most logical target of blame: The Pointer Sisters. They had been as omnipresent as my mother during the lead-up to James’s birth. And when I weighed the evidence carefully — why hadn’t The Pointer Sisters ever placed a bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of me? — the truth became clear.
Their “Neutron Dance,” with its irresistible hooks, had tricked me. Its chorus shouted “I’m so happy! I’m so happy!” again and again. Was there even a verse to the song? If there was a verse, wasn’t it as positive and joyful as the melody had suggested? I was determined to find out.
There’s no money falling from the sky /
’Cause a man took my heart and robbed me blind /
Someone stole my brand new Chevrolet /
And the rent is due, I got no place to stay /
Industry don’t pay a price that’s fair /
All the common people breathing filthy air /
Roof caved in on all the simple dreams /
And to get ahead your heart starts pumping schemes
It became obvious to me that this was a song of hardship, not promise. This was no carefree band of hopeful hearts, this was a group weighed down by the awful years living as a poor American under Reagan. The president didn’t care about the Pointer Sisters, he cared about space lasers and making Iran buy guns. Was Reagan going to drop money from the sky to save the Pointer Sisters, who I was beginning to realize were my sisters?
The Pointer Sisters had lost their Chevrolet, much like I had lost my private bathroom. They identified with common people who breathed filthy air, just as I had identified with my father when he said “Change the baby’s diaper, Dini — he smells like shit.” And their hearts, which wanted to get ahead, pumped schemes. Schemes I can only assume were similar to my schemes for suffocating James in his sleep.
Blessed with this knowledge, my anger at their initial treachery abated and I directed the fury inward. Because in my heart, I understood that “The Neutron Dance” was a warning. “Appearances are misleading,” the song said. “Your life will be hard, but you must persevere.”
The Neutron Dance taught me those lessons, and concurrently, one lesson even more important to me for the rest of my music-appreciating life: “Listen to the lyrics.” Not just the chorus. The verses, too. The words you hear most often aren’t necessarily the most truthful.