OTR, Take 8: Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Every book is a children's book if the kid can read.

I've spent a good deal of time this week with three generations of my family, hearing stories of five generations. It's made me think a good bit about the passage of family culture and mythology, about how the different members of a family impact siblings, parents, or the next generation.

What are the things that we want to make normal? Expected? Unacceptable?

To some degree, these are conscious choices that families make. But to a large degree, it's a function of more unconscious behavior.

For instance, yesterday, my mother put on a tea party for all the ladies in town. When I say "tea party" I mean, the full spread: 30+ tea choices, scones, cucumber sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, quiche, cheddar tea cakes, clotted cream, etc. It's something my mom has been doing since she was a kid with her grandparents.

My youngest brother, Neill, and I served as wait staff while my dad locked himself away from this "girl stuff" because this is a way of raising a new generation with a certain sense of how "we" do things.

Neill and I taking our server roles with appropriate seriousness.

But what really interests me are those things we pass along that aren't quite so intentional.

Watching my two nieces and their cousins interact and play brought back the relationship I had with Neill when we were younger. I watched Evie and Helena, my two nieces, feed off each other and it was so familiar and so alien at the same time. The way Evie (four years older than Helena) would coach Helena, ignore her, prod her on, tease her. The way Helena looked up to Evie, wanted to please her but still to be her own woman. I could imagine those inevitable moments when Evie will bait Helena into doing her dirty work just as easily as I can envision those moments when Helena will get the better of Evie.

I grew up in a library. My father is a book collector and my parents' house when I was a kid was just overrun with books. When my dad saw empty wall space, he saw an opportunity for a new bookcase. It's not much of an exaggeration to say there were books in every room of the house.

I am the oldest of four. The experimental child, our parents still frightened that they're going to accidentally kill us by sneezing too loudly. We had to fight for everything, only for our younger siblings to benefit from that fight. IYKYK.

One thing I never had to fight for, though, was access to my dad's library. Except for some very rare and valuable books, I had free run of the collection.

That's how I ended up reading Lord of the Flies in first grade (yes, that little fact explains a lot about my sense of humor) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at 11. I went to school in seventh grade with comic books and Wittgenstein packed in my bag.

So it became normal to me to think that anything was appropriate for anybody irrespective of age.

Despite being seven years apart in age, Neill and I have always been pretty close. One of the benefits of being a younger sibling is getting the heads up on the cool stuff that the older sibling gets into. Neill was listening to My Bloody Valentine when his peers were listening to Hanson, watching Ghost in the Shell when his peers were stuck on Dragon Ball Z.

But I didn't curate for him. I merely provided access and encouragement.

My sophomore year of college, Neill visited. He was 12. I wasn't sure exactly what to do with a 12-year-old on a college campus Friday night, but a friend of mine ran the on-campus art film theatre. So I asked Neill if he wanted to go watch a movie.

Of course he did. He was 12.

As we were leaving the theatre and emerging on to Main Quad, I noticed that Neill's eyes were wide open and vacant.

"You good, man?"

"...uh...yeah? Can we go back to your room?"

Apparently Blue Velvet wasn't appropriate for a 12 year old.

It might have messed up my brother, but Blue Velvet is a great film!

The summer after my sophomore year, I worked on campus but I ended up heading home a bunch because my grandmother fell and broke her hip, and then passed away just shy of her 90th birthday. She was, in a very real sense, the central figure of my dad's family. It was brutal to lose her.

During one of the many trips back to Pittsburgh that summer, I went out with Neill, now 13, to a soccer field to kick around the ball. On the way there and back, we listened to today's record: Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

If you talk to anyone steeped in 90s indie, you're going to find one of only two opinions about this album, both extreme. This is a true love-it-or-hate-it record. Maybe it's Jeff Magnus's voice, maybe it's the fact that it's just weird. No matter the reason, you're likely to have an almost visceral response to it.

There's a lot of lore and mythology about the making and meaning of this record. Magnum reportedly read The Diary of Anne Frank around the time Neutral Milk Hotel's previous album On Avery Island was released and was deeply moved. He began writing the songs that came to be Aeroplane and the result is a very bizarre dreamscape of the events of WWII and the Holocaust, told through the eyes of children and in the language of children.

The first song on the album opens: "When you were young/you were the king of carrot flowers/and you built a tower/tumbling through the trees/in holy rattlesnakes that fell all around your feet." We're immediately transported into a world of the kind of imagination only children have – an imagination unencumbered by knowing how things work.

As Neill and I were driving over to the field, he didn't at first pay much attention to what was playing. Neither did I: it wasn't as though I was deliberately trying to expose him to this music.

Every song's a children's song if the kid will listen.

"Two Headed Boy" was about halfway through its chorus when Neill asked, "What the hell are we listening to?"

"We can change it if you don't like it."

He let my offer hang in the air for a moment as Magnum sang about placing fingers in the notches of your spine.

"I think I like it, I just have no idea what's going on."

So we sat there in the parking lot of the soccer field, where we were going hoping to forget the heartache of our grandmother's passing for a few hours, just listening to the rest of the album.

"Can we listen to this on the way home, too?"

"Sure thing."

I got out of the car and walked to the field to hide the fact that I was crying uncontrollably, and I kicked that ball as hard as I could for the next two hours.

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