OTR, Take 54: U2 - The Joshua Tree

One of my favorite concepts to noodle on is time. You may have heard my riff on how our notion of time is merely the phenomenological result of our mental incapacity to comprehend all of this, our brains serving as an event horizon of experience so as not to experience everything at once. Or you may have heard me go on about how our modern notion of time didn't really exist three hundred years ago, our time-regulated existence being an artifact of industrialization. Or...well, I love to go on about this shit, but it's not why we're here today.

Forgive the late-in-the-day release of this OTR. I had written a completely different one, discussing Los Campesinos' We Are Beautiful, We Are Damned and realized 3/4 of the way through it I was avoiding the Thing. And, you know, sometimes you just have to say the fucking Thing. So, time be damned, we're throwing out that OTR and getting down to business: time, but not in hours and minutes, but years and generations.

This isn't me, though I'd understand any confusion. I wasn't born in March 73.

Our sense of time is more attuned to connection and relationship than any clock. A smell can open a wormhole in time and place you instantly elsewhere, everything in that moment accessible. Hell, the more we learn about epigenetics, the more apparent it is that we carry experiences and traumas with us from our ancestors. Our experiences aren't something beholden to time in the way we generally think about it, so much as an artificial construct placed over our brief experiment as a cell in the ongoing human project.

If it seems as though I am circling an idea without being able to hit the target, I feel the same way. Yesterday, I posted on LinkedIn that I would issue OTR today, and then who knows, as Audra and I are going to become parents imminently (perhaps immanently, too). There were jokes about folks looking forward to future OTRs on Baby Shark (thanks, Chad!) and, after shuddering and conspiring to ensure such a thing would never happen, it began to really hit home how much things are about to change. That and the fact that we ended up in L&D triage at the hospital yesterday afternoon for a false alarm has brought a lot of hypothetical things into stark relief.

As I was drafting the abandoned OTR on Los Campesinos! I was reminded how OTR got started, over two years ago now – and, let me tell you, things come full circle.

Every Saturday morning, I wake up early, well before Audra gets up, and take Clare for a walk. When we get home, I make a cup of coffee and peruse my records. Then I play a record, sit on the floor, and just listen. No phones, computers, books. Just music. It is one of the few times I can count on during the week that is expressly and solely for me. It is one of the main pieces of my mental health routine.

But that's not how it began. I listen to records on Saturday mornings because my dad would sit down with me in our old house in Mt. Lebanon (a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, for those who aren't Yinzers), turn on the hi-fi and play a record on Saturday mornings. Often, he'd already been to the office and come home. And, if it was a fall weekend, I'd not only get time with him listening to music but a Notre Dame game with him in the afternoon too.

I know I've mentioned this here before. My dad is a wonderful man and one of my best friends. When I was a young child, he worked like mad. Off to work before I woke up and generally home after I was in bed. My time with him was limited, so I cherished any time I could reliably count on with him. Saturday morning vinyl was and remains a sacred time for me, first because it was time with dad, then time for myself, and – perhaps – soon time with my son.

"There's an Irish band I want to play for you, Owen!"

Setting the needle down on "Where the Streets Have No Name" transports me to the morning of March 14, 1987. I was 5, in kindergarten, and not to turn 6 for several months. Those three months until my sixth birthday would have been about 4.5% of my life, a meaningful amount of time. That's akin to nearly two years of my lived experience now. Logarithms, man.

Anyway, because of my age, my dad generally would spin jazz or classical music on Saturday mornings, with an occasional Beatles album thrown in for good measure. (There was also the time my mother was away and we listened to Talking Heads, an experience more strange than confusing, but definitely not something I was ready for.) So, at five years old, I was pretty familiar with Glenn Gould's 1955 version of the Goldberg Variations, but not super up on rock. But that Pi Day, my dad walked into the living room with a brand new record and declared, "There's an Irish band I want to play for you, Owen!"

He placed the record on the table and lowered the needle. Even at five years old, I knew. I knew this album was something different, something unique. It's hard to get back to that space now because U2 has become so fucking omnipresent, just a constant presence in our cultural firmament. It sounds normal now, but it was something alien then, something that immediately stood out. (I say this as someone who isn't much of a post ~2000 U2 fan – but everything through Achtung Baby? Gold, Jerry!)

Generally speaking, dad would just sit there quietly and listen to the music. (I was certainly silent, as heavy breathing would annoy him and risk my participation.) But that morning, he had a different energy. And, really, can you blame him? Is there a better four-song opening cycle on an album than "Where the Streets Have No Name" --> "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" --> "With or Without You" --> "Bullet the Blue Sky"?

No. The answer is no. Maybe some as good, but none better. I will never forget how happy he was in that moment, and how happy I was that he was happy.

Over the past month or so, I've been asked the same question ad nauseum: "Aren't you so excited?!" It's an invitation to the club. "It's the best thing you'll ever do!"

It's more complicated than that, though – isn't it? Am I excited? Of course I'm excited. But that's not all: I'm also nervous, apprehensive, annoyed, scared, and mournful. These aren't things that we're "supposed" to be, though. Our vocabulary about having children comes in, basically, two flavors: it's unmitigated joy or a catastrophe. You can play out the different valences of those flavors. I feel that there's a whole, very real and powerful, set of emotions that we simply gloss over and ignore.

I'm thrilled that I'm going to have the opportunity to be a father; I've wanted this for quite some time. Audra and I have spent an ungodly amount of money to make this happen. And yet I do mourn the passing of a version of myself and the suffocation of a future path. Each major life event stifles potential lives we could lead. There are trade-offs, no? Parents, don't tell me that there aren't days you wish you could just up and fly to the Amalfi Coast with your spouse without any ties, just because. Hell, just having a dog makes that difficult. Don't tell me you don't sometimes wish that you weren't an unpaid Uber service or that you didn't have the Paw Patrol theme song constantly playing in your head.

"Oh, but it's worth it!"

Yes, and that response gives away the fact that there's a trade-off.

I am stupidly ambitious. I don't want this child to get in the way of that ambition. He will, almost certainly, and it will likely be worth it. It's a choice I've willingly made. This might well be the best thing ever, the best thing I'll ever do, and yes, I'm excited for it. But I am also feeling these other things.

We must kill off versions of ourselves to become who we want to be. It's the nature of how all of this works. We define ourselves not by potential but by elimination, and as Audra and I are stepping into a brave new world, we are also mourning the loss of potential selves.

This is normal and we should be able to talk about this openly, without shame.

The closer I get to having a little monster to care for, the more empathy I have for my father. I've long thought about and understood the sacrifices my mom made for my three siblings and me. She is a sainted woman. But I've been hard on my dad in my mind. He worked a ton and I thought this was selfish. I am beginning to understand the existential weight of it all.

Thank you, old man.

When I was a newborn, dad read me Gibbons's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as he was trying to pacify me to sleep. (This turned out to be a mistake: I have always been fascinated by the Romans and did not sleep much as a baby.) Me? I'm thinking Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago or maybe something happier like Mann's The Magic Mountain.

I have a theory that parents overcorrect for the mistakes their parents made and don't pay enough attention to what their parents did well. While I'm sure Audra and I will be overcorrecting for certain behaviors, I want to double down on some of the things our parents got right – and there was a lot they got right.

So, fear not: OTR is going nowhere, nor will it be featuring Baby Shark. Perhaps, though, it will morph a bit into an intergenerational exercise.

"Hey, little man! I've got a new one I want to share with you this morning!"

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