For Billy Corgan on His Thirty-seventh Birthday
For most of the decade that was my twenties, my life consisted of enduring ennui-inducing deprivation. No TV or popular music. No alcohol or animal flesh. Two hours of swimming every morning to stay fit. I didn’t socialize much with my peers, choosing instead to spend time with Wittgenstein, Frege, and my older Dutch professor. My life had become tidy and elegant, just like the linear proofs full of lambdas and deltas I wrote. I was going through this charade under the belief that if I proved myself enough as an adult, my wayward adolescence would magically disappear.
It didn’t work. I awoke in the summer of 1998 to find myself living with my mother in Las Vegas, Nevada, after hastily dropping out of a Ph.D. program in linguistics and breaking off my engagement to the professor. When I left the East Coast, I had a vague feeling I was doing the right thing, but I didn’t know why or what to do next. Consequently, I filled my days by working for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository Project in a secure position I was morally opposed to on many levels. But what else could I do? Nothing, I believed. And so I dutifully showed up every day in my ironed dresses to help seal Nevada’s fate as the keeper of the nation’s hot shit.
Even worse, I was hurtling toward my thirtieth birthday in an old Ford Taurus I had bought from my Aunt Maisie because of its high safety rating. I passed the commute time by systematically working through the great rock bands of the ‘90s. I had missed grunge completely. I put in Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, and Nirvana, and let ’em rip. I’d rock out to songs about alienation and love gone wrong. Yeah! I got it. Or so I thought.
Then I put in the Smashing Pumpkins. I listened to the first half of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as I drove to work and was stunned by my reaction.
I fear that I’m ordinary, just like everyone
I was … jealous. I sat in a DOE parking lot and listened to “Muzzle” over and over again.
my life has been extraordinary
blessed and cursed and won
time heals but I’m forever broken
by and by the way …
have you ever heard the words
I’m singing in these songs?
I became acutely aware of my staid existence. To me, the song depicts a moment similar to the one that is said to happen right before death, where a person sees their whole life flash before them.
and in my mind as I was floating
far above the clouds
some children laughed I’d fall for certain
for thinking that I’d last forever
but I knew exactly where I was
and I knew the meaning of it all
and I knew the distance to the sun
and I knew the echo that is love
As I listened, I knew that if my death were imminent, I would not see such a landscape. It’d be dark, and small. A parade of dreams unfulfilled, loves kept at a distance, and choices borne from fear. A “safe” life.
At age six, I taught myself how to play piano using the Liberace Big Note Songbook that I had begged my mother to buy after seeing it advertised on TV. (Don’t laugh—it worked.) Clarinet lessons followed. I joined sixth-grade band and learned flute, saxophone, and oboe. In seventh grade, violin and cello. I could play any instrument I picked up within weeks, exciting even the most jaded band teacher.
It was the same with writing. I completed my first screenplay at age thirteen and sent it in to a production company. I received a rejection back from a kind producer who told me to keep writing, that I was off to a good start. (Don’t laugh—he wrote back.) My first print publication came at age fourteen in a national magazine with a glossy cover. I never cashed the check.
From a young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to play music and make movies. So how did I end up working at a nuclear-waste dump? I asked myself that many times as I listened to “Muzzle.”
I had been an angry teenager. I was mad at my parents for giving away my dog, mad that they sent me to live with their friends in Los Angeles when they divorced. I quit band in high school. I started doing drugs and sank into despair, finding solace only when I’d lose myself in the writhing crowds of Grateful Dead shows or the occasional slam pit.
Contrite, I sobered up and entered college a few years late. It’s no accident that I studied linguistics. For most, it’s a beloved pursuit. But for me, it was an exercise of the old joke that linguists are people who never got over the fact they could talk. I was muzzled, afraid of what might come out if I stopped talking about talking and started talking. Afraid of myself.
Ultimately, I decided: so what? I couldn’t kick myself for giving up. Otherwise, what had I learned? There was only one purposeful way forward—I had to pick up where I left off. I resigned from the DOE, replaced the Ford with a high-maintenance, unsafe-but-fun-to-drive Volkswagen, picked up a guitar, and got to work. My mother labeled it an early midlife crisis.
I finished my first (adult) screenplay before I turned thirty and sent it straight into a drawer. I wrote a second one while taking a screenwriting course at a local university. It was a farce about a late-twenty-something girl going through a life change, aptly titled She’s Got Issues. When I first heard my words read aloud by the class, a chill went down my spine. My fellow students were laughing so hard they were crying. Who knew nuclear waste could be funny? I’ve been hooked ever since, turning all of my dumb choices into comedy.
Almost six years later, I’m no longer jealous when I hear “Muzzle.” I can play guitar and sing along with it. None of my screenplays have been produced yet, but I’ve come close enough to know it’s only a matter of time if I stay focused. Now the only moment I feel fear is when I think of how close I came to never finding this place.
It was the plaintive voice of Billy Corgan that inspired my own. He’s my muse.
He’s my favorite rock star!