We are, my youngest stepdaughter and I, at the bar.
This is years ago.
It’s true there are not many other 13-year-olds poised on stools and leaning, as if expertly, toward the beer-spigots and ranks of bottles, but nobody seems to mind. The kid herself certainly does not. She swivels this way and that, bends to her straw, checks the scene. The clamor carries on around us in an ordinary weeknight way. There are dudes twirling their big-bellied glasses of wine in scholarly scrutiny. There are clutches of ladies laughing over neon cocktails. There are couples tilting toward one another. And there is, additionally, a lank-haired and, for this little city on the coast of Maine, impressively beautiful young man working the bar, who attends to each and all with an able smooth-flowing flirtatiousness.
“Yeah,” the kid is saying to me, “but he’s just so… so arrogant.”
“Sweetie, of course he is!” I say. “Wouldn’t you be? If you were him?”
In fairness to myself I should note that I have not taken my newly-teenaged stepdaughter out to a bar, or at least not intentionally. We’re not at some speakeasy or port-side dive. We’ve gone in fact to a restaurant – a fancyish French restaurant, that she chose! – which proved to be overcrowded with diners looking for a winter-night’s escape. And so we have been seated here, at this elegant curving bar. And anyway, I tell myself as I fidget just a bit nervously in my seat, what’s the harm? The kid herself, to appearances, is as deep in the enjoyment of this slight alteration of context as I am in the fact of her company. I’m noticing just now that she has grown over her last months into a kind of poise I, at least, do not much identify with the early teenage years. She holds herself so unanxiously. She still can be a touch overawed by her big sister, I know, but you can see her working not to be, not to be baited out of her self-composure. She knows somehow how to look around her, to measure and assess, without seeming to gawp. She is watchful, observant, cool.
I notice, too, that she has not stopped tracking this bartender, whose striped black-and-white shirt (in campy “French” style) does not quite manage to descend to the belted top of his skinny jeans. Tousled, bearded, lithe – you look at him and want to guess the name of his inevitable band – he is the very type of new-millenial hipster handsomeness. He’s also, in a funny way, terrible. Preening, a bit leering, so wildly overdelighted in his small-market beauty you can’t help but relish him, if a little meanly. He cajoles and chats, tells stale little jokes, receives from his patrons indulgent grins. He hands off drinks and, with the cocktail-drinking ladies, grazes their forearms with a discreet touch as he passes.
“I guess,” the kid says to me. “But nobody should get to be that conceited. It’s annoying.”
“Dude it is so not annoying. It’s awesome! It’s, like, the awesome-est part of him.”
We are speaking, as sometimes we do, of Kanye.
It’s always easy to mock the young. Their untutored enthusiasms, their volatility, their assurance in the face of complexities inadequately grasped. Pick your liability. No one, I suspect, not even the most kindly-disposed among us, would say there is nothing to cause impatience in any of this, or irritation, or an elderly roll of the eyes.
And yet and yet.
At just this moment, that default condescension has an ugly edge to it. We are greeted almost daily with news of fervent protest, and equally fervent demand, often initiated and sustained by young people. (Think of Missouri, or Baltimore, or New Haven.) This is so much the case that the public ritual of worrying over the misguidedness of the youth has become a veritable cottage-industry, the takes coming fast and hot. Some are quite thoughtful; some are, in regard to the hew and cry, thoughtfully skeptical. And then, some are just dogwhistles. Witness, now, the chorus of voices bravely standing up to chastise the snowflakes of today, their thin-skinnned preciousness, or – in something of an under-remarked paradox – to bemoan the furious assault on time-honored and sacrosanct values (“what about my free speech!”) being perpetrated by the ruthless young. Others have described more exactingly than I can the hollownesses of these accounts, penned often by what my taking-no-shit friend Joshua calls “speechbros and concern trolls.” The collective moral, for me, has been: Try to be on the side of the young people. Now as in the past, you can do a lot worse by way of first premises.
But if you’re old, or even just older, the temptation to correct and cajole, to instruct, can be irresistibly great. I confess I have a lot of respect for that pedagogical impulse, perhaps more than I should. There is after all a disequilibrium built in to the relations between the older and the younger. Sometimes, being young means actually needing the care, the solicitude, and even the words of older people. Not always, but sometimes. Knowing when this is so and when it is not can be, on both sides, chancier than you’d imagine. For older people, the turn toward solicitude can feel at moments less like condescension than like a responsible discharge of the obligations of adulthood – like, in fact, love. You don’t spend the time many of us do talking with young people about ideas, and reading their writing and writing back to them, without being pulled at least a bit in the riptides of these contrary impulses.
Here’s a thing about stepparenthood, and its wrought unpatterened strangenesses: it speaks up – it instructs – at the oddest, most unpredicted junctures. And one of the things you can learn from it, I am here to tell you, is that the pedagogical impulse, no matter how generously intended or italicized by love, is probably best resisted.
The young people have languages of their own.
Her big sister and I have had a many-tiered debate about Kanye West circulating between us for a while, as she knows. Like more or less everyone, the girls cycle between aversion and deep attraction. I’m considerably less ambivalent (Graduation has just come out, and is awesome), so I tend to offer defenses of Kanye’s genius spun around genre – “Can you imagine an MC without arrogance?” I say; “Can you imagine how dull that would be?” – and the world’s ever-renewing uneasiness around black men who refuse to cringe. Of course the girls know this without me telling them and, in respect to their resistances, I get it. The oldest is nearing the end of her first year of high school. Her days are spent in the company of 15-year old boys. She needs no tutorials in male arrogance and self-hyperbolization.
But the youngest, here with me in the bar and without her sister, is taking up the question and running with it. She talking about what she likes better in Jay-Z, which Kanye tracks are the most dexterous and fluent and excellent, and what she finds off-putting, exhausting, annoying. Great god, is there anything more killing than the inflection given by a 13-year-old to the word “annoying”? It straightens your spine. And so we drift, in conversation, among the limitless varieties of teenaged irritation, as I drink my beer and she attends, with winning vigor, to her steak frites, and then to mine. All the while, she keeps a watchful eye on the bartender, who minuets among patrons, striking brief poses, basking a bit in the light of all the erotic attention diffusing around him. Our conversation meanders. It shifts and grades. And this is how we begin speaking, not of annoyance in its general appearance, but of the pressing and particular annoyance of boys, boys both generic and in her direct acquaintance. On this topic, she has much to say.
She tells me of this one kid’s fair-weather kindnesses, this other kid’s jerkishness, of the modes of “dating” swimming up into sudden possibility for the world of seventh-graders. She warms to the topic. She talks and talks, and I follow. We decide together that “adolescent boy” is indeed an unpromising genre of person, though I remind her that boys too have many things to be frightened by, even if their way of being afraid is, often, dickish. Her tone is derisive and light but there is too, tracing through it, some faint urgency. I notice this and find that I feel toward it, and her, a great rush of tenderness. Like the smart kid she is, she’s trying to work it all out – girls, boys, their odiousness and attraction – and she’s doing it here, now, in real time. With me.
I have some sense that my role here is mostly that of sounding-board and I am wary, with the practiced wariness of steppparenthood, of overstepping. But it’s a delicate endeavor, especially now. By this point in our lives together, a lot that is terrible has happened around us: divorce, dissolution, separation, and, on my part, a very outsized sorrow. Before their mom and I were married, the girls invented a term for me: I was, in those in-between days, their semi-stepdad. Semi-stepdad! The improvisatory genius of it! How then to calibrate these distances and proximities, here in the more uncertain terrain of a relation no longer bound by a home, and marked by adult grief?
We eat, we talk. We tell familiar jokes. We speak of Kanye, in little arias of disparagement and praise. We take each other’s cues.
And so, here at the bar, balancing my wariness against this glancing invitation to ampler talk, I risk a little. I say, in a stage-whisper, “OK, sweetie – check this guy out.” And together, with commentary running largely to the satiric, we observe our so striking bartender, noting his coy smiles, his calculated touches, the whole wonderful preening theater of him. We try to locate him with a matrix of Annoying Boy Attributes, and decide he is conceited, though in degrees not yet near approaching Kanye-levels of self-besottedness. But he is also, without question, a little charming. Adorbs is the term we use. And also pretty. Very very pretty.
“That’s the thing,” I’m saying. “Boys are annoying in so many ways. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to want to, like, smooch his face.”
She gives a quick braying laugh. I have no idea where the phrase comes from – smooch his face! – but, just as soon as it’s been uttered, it sticks. It will pass between us as a term of art, a shared bit of idiom, for years to come.
“Sometimes there’s a boy and he’s whatever he is, he’s this or that. And you just want to smooch his face. And that,” I say, “is totally fine. I mean, don’t let anybody be nasty to you, but you know that. But sometimes, you know… sometimes you want to smooch somebody’s face.”
She’s bright-eyed, maybe a shade abashed, but also grinning. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s true. Sometimes you just wanna smooch his face.”
This is how she and I learn how to talk about sex.
“Anyway,” she says, “if you think Graduation is better than College Dropout you’re, like, super-high.”
Everything about that night at the bar came back to me recently, when the kid stopped over on a spring-break visit out here to Chicago. She’s 19 now, not 13, which is to say she has places to be, deadlines to manage, friends from a spinning galaxy of locales blinking into presence on her phone. Her time in the city was necessarily brief – quick tours through hipster disticts, chatty lakeside strolls, an ice-cream parlor lunch – and, for me, a bright blur of delights.
It’s hard to name the particular radiance that comes from being in company with this kid, the strange cocktail of elation and relief. It’s been years – years – since the routines of our lives overlapped in a daily way. So many of those early seasons of separation were, as I say, rough. What this means now is that, whenever we’re set to pass long hours together after a period of separation, some small ghost of that roughness revisits me. I can feel it stealing over me: I brace up. I know, by now, what it is, this little premonitory wincing of spirit. It tastes of grief, of course – I had so not wanted to lose those girls – but also, more nearly, of shame. So much had happened that was unhappy, to both of us, and here was the thing: I had prevented none of it.
How would they ever forgive me? Would I deserve it?
But then, within the space of a few minutes of easy-flowing chatter, whatever coiled fret I’ve trundled along with me to our reencounters… it unclenches, and dissipates, and is gone. A comet-trail tracing out the darkness behind us. Rushing into its place is just the kid herself, the charmed atmosphere she makes for us to move in, and all that we have always had to hold ourselves together: talk and counter-talk, gossip, old jokes, unceasing fashion commentary, dude-appraisal, disputes about movie stars, TV shows, songs. This is our togetherness, reknit in each new scene. And I will tell you: that the kid enters with such grace into this strange reparative labor – into the work of devising anew a way of being together – prompts in me these great surges of amazed, grateful love. No matter how often we repeat these little rituals of our closeness, I ride a little bubble of elation. This visit is no different.
And I mean, not for nothing, she’s fucking hilarious. For instance: right now, like many another stylish teenager with a finger firmly upon the pulse of cool, she is cultivating a connoisseur’s taste for – and I swear to you this is true – the Nineties. The bands, the shows, the insane sartorial choices, everything. It is like an arrow speeding directly for my middle-aged heart! There she is, a vision in patterned fleece, ultra-highwaisted jeans, and the kickass Blundstone boots I identify wholly with indie-rock and she with collegiate fashionability. It takes about 18 seconds in my house before I realize, with a jolt of wonder, that we are, the kid and I, wearing the same boots.
The vain delight this causes me is unseemly, perhaps. It is also very very real.
“Dude,” I say. “You’re up in my wheelhouse,” which is a helpful reminder to a girl upon whose childhood I had inflicted dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hours of Helium, of Superchunk, of Liz Phair.
“Dude,” she says, deadpan. “I know.”
And this, friends, is how we come to be listening, and listening again, and then again, to a song so beautifully awful, so inextricably terrible and delighting, I’m almost ashamed to tell you about it.
We have been driving neighborhood to neighborhood across the city, and she is controlling the music, so naturally we are listening to some algorithmicized 90s ROCK programming, which soon has us sputtering with laughter and derision. Smashing Pumpkins! Fiona Apple! Counting fucking Crows! But then, slicing through the radio-fare, with no sufficient warning, there it is:
“Oh, man,” she says.
“Oh, man, she says again.
And then, “This is kind of amazing.”
This is how we come to be listening to “Semi-Charmed Life,” by an afflictingly bad band called Third Eye Blind.
Do you remember “Semi-Charmed Life”? My bet is, if you heard it twice – if you were sentient in 1996, and had a radio – you do. It is malevolently catchy, and so deeply of its moment it could be part of the fucking geologic record. It’s like the anthemic Ur-text of the alterna-bro. Put it like this. There’s this picture of me, taken in about 1998, in which I appear, slouched and rumpled, in an overlarge flannel shirt, hair falling in lank scraggly curls in front of my face. On that face too is a goatee you could only describe, if you wished to be charitable, as ill-conceived. As I would say of this picture when it found its way to the spaces of social media: Everything you might have hated about the 90s, there in one place.
“Semi-Charmed Life” is that picture, realized as song.
Except it is also, unlike the picture, full of a weird, awful, fantastically persuasive charm. I don’t mean that it’s so hooky and hydraulic that you forget it’s a song about being coked off your face and missing your girlfriend who is, like, superhot, or you forget that it’s sung by the pure anticipatory embodiment of the future generations of techbros who would one day rule San Francisco, like fratboy Pharohs. Categorically, you do not. There is a vileness here that seethes, unrepentant. And yet, somehow, the song overwrites this awfulness with its own winning, unhindered, unbelievably stupid exuberance.
“Seriously,” I say to the kid, who cannot get enough of it, “this is more like a staph infection than a song.”
But she knows, oh she knows, and has no need to be told. In fact, the idiot infectious hilariousness of it is making her all but levitate with pop glee.
“Oh my god,” she says. “I may never stop singing this song.” And sing she does. “I’m not listenin’ when you say” – huge indrawn breath – “goodbyyyyyyyye….”
I laugh at this, and join her in the next chorus, and the car fills with our voices, and with the sounds of 90s guitar-rock at its maximally confected. And for a flashing moment I’m filled with the wonderful sense of this song, this terrible song from back in my own joyous and embarrassing youth, coming into a brighter destiny than anyone could have imagined for it. By the strange swift magic the kid just carries around with her, she has remade it into something sweeter, and funnier, and altogether lovelier than it had ever been.
Hereafter, I think, it will never not have in it this visit, the kid at just this pre-adult instant, the two of us in this epoch of our own rekindling improvised love. Everything, from her companiable silences to her laughing volubility, from her 90s overalls down to her asskicking boots, will sound out inside of it. And this will be true even after she’s gone – she’ll be gone in a day – when the sudden sorrow of her absence makes me feel hollow and bereft, and the hours of missing her will start up little fires of the old, still-combustible grief.
Those hours are coming, I know it. And maybe because I do know it, I find I want to say so much about this song, to tell her about San Francisco in the middle-90s, the MTV takeover of punk rock, the delicious wretchedness of this lyric or that. (“Sweetie, this is a dude who believes in the sand beneath his toes…”)
But I try not to, not too much. Look at her. She does not much need these words. I try instead to pay attention to the laughter in her ringing voice, and to what’s within it.
“I want something else… to GET ME THROUGH THIS!” she’s singing, and so am I. But we’re saying something else. We’re saying that nothing, not even something this terrible, is beyond transformation. She’s reminding me that it’s not unusual for awful things to reemerge, through paths you could never have imagined, as occasion for hilarity, and closeness, and nourishing delight.
Sing along, I tell myself. Shut up, for once. Listen.
She sings and sings. She learns the words. She hits repeat.
Pete Coviello: The best barfighter around.
*Our Noise is the title of the excellent history of Merge Records, written by John Cook with Mac MacCaughan & Laura Balance. We reference it here with enthusiastic love.