Stuff I Write, Stuff I Like

Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

Stuff I Write and Stuff I Like: Cole Porter, My Father’s Voice, Mercy, Hope, Painted Lady Butterflies, and Begin the Beguine,

In Uncategorized on October 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Cole Porter died 49 years ago today. I’m not a big Cole Porter fan, but his death gets to me because my father loved his songs.


“They’re so cheesy,” I’d say, and my father would say, “You wouldn’t know class if it bit you on the ass.”

My father’s been dead for years, too. I’ve never stopped missing him.

People say time heals things but I’ve never found that to be true.

My father wanted to be a singer. He wanted to wear fancy suits like Cole Porter and stay in the luxury suite at the Ritz, but my father drove a beer truck, then he went to war on an aircraft carrier, World War II, off the coast of Japan. When he came back, my father said he didn’t want to be a singer anymore. He came back as a mill worker, a machinist who worked in graphite, a practical thing.


“I’m not like you. I don’t have time for pissing around,” he’d say.

He’d fall asleep on the couch, head back, snoring like a dump truck. He liked cop shows, “Ironsides,” “Murder She Wrote.” He liked “Jag,” a show about a former Navy fight pilot, a hero in a sharp white uniform, who turns good-guy lawyer. My father liked a hero. He liked lines that were clear — good guys, bad guys, justice as entertainment since he didn’t see much of it in his life.


“You think this is a dream world you got another dream coming,” he liked to say.

Time for me doesn’t heal anything. It just makes things go deeper until everything echoes everything, until I can almost hear my father’s voice when I’m stuck in traffic, stuck in a meeting, stuck. “I don’t know when I’ll ever be old enough to stop being pissed off all the time,” I told a friend the other day.

My father always sounded angrier than he was. When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he was happy about it, I think. He paid my rent in college. He called me every week. He said, “You never were good at math.” He said, “How are you for money?” He said, “Are you eating good?” He said, “Most people are cockroaches. Remember that.” He said, “Maybe there are one or two good ones.” He said, “Sweetheart, are you happy or what?”

My father was probably my age when he gave up singing. He was younger than me when he stopped believing in most people. I try to remember that, and all the unhappiness it brought him.

If he were here now, I’d like to give him a call and check in. I’d like to tell him I know the world is a shitty place, that lately lots of shitty things have happened to me and to so many people I love, that people hurt and go on hurting. But I’d like to tell him I know, too, that hope is the only way to work through some days. I’d like to tell him this because I need to remind myself of it. I’d like to say that even on the worst days, there’s bound to be some small beautiful thing there and sometimes that’s enough to keep going to the next day and so on.

Today I’d like to tell my father about the painted-lady butterflies my daughter’s keeping in her room. She mail-ordered caterpillars — part of a science project she’s doing for school — and together we watched them transform. There were six caterpillars. Five butterflies have hatched so far. The sixth chrysalis fell, so we followed the directions and nestled it on a napkin against the side of the butterfly cage. One of the other butterflies has been staying next to it since yesterday, keeping watch, maybe, worrying, who knows. I like to think the chrysalis will open, despite the odds. I like to think later today my daughter will come home and she’ll find six butterflies.


My father died before my daughter was born. My daughter could sing before she could say words. Her voice teacher says she has perfect pitch.

“Where did she learn to do that?” he says and I say, “Baby Mozart tapes?”

I tell my daughter she’s like her grandfather. She asks if I think her grandfather would have liked her and I say, yes, very much.

Last night before she went to sleep, she said, “I think he’s going to make it,” meaning the butterfly of course, and I said, “I hope so.”

If my father were here I’d like to tell him that hope, even if it’s ridiculous, is a beautiful and comforting thing, like watching a butterfly learn to use its wings for the first time. Like putting a favorite song on replay.

When I think of my father, I put Mary Gauthier’s song “Mercy Now” on and play it over and over. It’s a good song. It’s about what the title says, about how we all could use a little more of it.

My father was a complicated man. I think Cole Porter, from the little I know about him, was complicated, too. All those bouncy musicals, all that sadness of his own split life.

When I was very young and people would ask me what my father did for a living, I’d say he was a machine. In the military, people are called property. When soldiers are hurt and other people are held responsible for it, the charges say “for damage of military property.”

A few years out of the war, my father sang when he drank but then he stopped drinking. Then he’d sing only in church, so loud it embarrassed me as a child and I’d lean into my mother, like my father was some crazy person who’d followed us in, a stranger whose hand I didn’t want to shake when it was time to offer the sign of peace.

My father was obsessed with Elvis, the way he played at being a soldier, the way he gave away cars, the way he took all the pills the Colonel gave him and died alone and was buried out back in Graceland by his swimming pool. He was obsessed with Sinatra, how in the end, after all his mob years, Sinatra was afraid to go to sleep, he was that afraid of death. My father was disappointed when Johnny Cash cleaned up, fell in love with June Carter and lived. My father was happy, I think, that Cole Porter was, mostly, miserable.

My sad father latched onto other people’s sadness like parachutes. Their disappointments, their failures, meant he wasn’t falling alone.

He loved Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” most and when I was very young, my father bought me the sheet music and asked me to learn to play it on the piano. It was the only song my father ever asked me to learn to play, so I did. For a while he’d want me to play it over and over. Then, for no reason I ever knew, he stopped asking me to play it.

He never told me why.


Mill Hunk

When he was young, my father sang
on the radio in Braddock.
He cut a record and dreamed of Broadway.
He dreamed of sleek suits, silver boxes
of fat cigars, the best bourbon.
He sang “Begin the Beguine,” a song
Cole Porter wrote drunk at the Paris Ritz.

“Begin the Begin,” my father called it,
in the years before he got married.

Then he grew up, wised up, buckled down.
He worked in the mills. “Face reality,”
he said. “This isn’t a dream world.”
Even after he retired he wore work clothes.
His skin showed through shirts stained black with graphite.

“I can never remember it,”
Cole Porter said of that song.