Her Bad Mother

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Come, Armageddon, Come

I didn't realize, when Nena's '99 Red Balloons' first hit the radio, that it was about a nuclear accident. I thought that it was just about balloons. I was pretty young. But it wasn't long before the subject was something that my friends and I discussed at length, titillated and alarmed (it's about bombs? BOMBS!), as we huddled around the tetherball pole in the schoolyard (OMG THAT COULD HAPPEN, Y'KNOW!!!).

It was the same way that we discussed teen pregnancy and divorce (an eleventh-grader over at the high school was rumored to have gotten pregnant that summer, and Cheri Wilkinson's parents were separating and her dad was moving to a different house): with the kind of fevered, fearful urgency that bordered on excitement. The sky is falling over there! It could happen here! What would we do? We agreed that we would never get pregnant, that our parents would never get divorced, and that if a bomb fell, there would for sure be a bomb shelter to hide in. Our parents would build one, with stockpiles of Campbell's tomato soup and Chef Boyardee and pop. For sure. They would protect us. But the song said it all - it could happen, even if we didn't think would, even we were certain that it wouldn't, even if our parents told us a thousand times that it couldn't happen here. It could happen. You and I in a little toy shop/Buy a bag of balloons with the money we've got. We shuddered around the tetherball pole, each of us thinking privately that we might need to sleep on the floors of our parents' rooms that night.

After 'Red Balloons' came Ultravox's 'Dancing With Tears In My Eyes' (The man on the wireless cries again/It's over, it's over). Kate Bush's 'Breathing' (Last night in the sky/Such a bright light/My radar sends my danger/But my instincts tell me to keep/Breathing) had been released while I was still in grade school, but I discovered it in my mid-teens and played the '45 until it was badly scratched. I had nightmares. Bombs dropping, parents divorcing. It was never clear to me which were worse: the dreams where the landscape shattered into grey ash, or the ones where my Dad disappeared from the horizon. In both cases I would wake up in tears. Sometimes, even as a teenager, I would creep into my parents' bedroom in the middle of the night to curl up on the floor at the foot of their bed with my quilt and my headphones and fuel my angsty misery with sad, scary songs while clinging to the comfort of their presence. The possibility that some epic familial tragedy might someday occur in our household both tantalized and tortured me in the same way that the possibility of some Day After apocalypse - possibly but not necessarily set off by Matthew Broderick hacking computer games - tantalized and tortured. The child in me craved the security of a world without threats. The gothy teenager relished, in some predictably twisted way, the drama and the excitement of a life less ordinary. The Catholic in me squirmed with guilt at this tortured but stubborn ambivalence.

My parents were struggling. It never seemed to me, in the full light of day, that they were approaching meltdown - a disaster on that scale was the stuff of my nightmares and of the dark, derivative poetry that I wrote, late at night, in my room, the soundtrack of my nuclear-scale angst running at full volume (come, bombs). We were a close family, a very close family, and I regarded the possibility of my parents really splitting up as about as likely as the Soviets bombing the suburbs of Vancouver, Canada - not outside the realm of an angst-ridden imagination, but also not realistically within the realm of my lived future. But that very possibility - of meltdown, of accident, of angry finger hitting deadly red button - kept my anxieties alive, and I nurtured those anxieties by holding onto that possibility as something that distinguished my adolescent experience from the white-bread normalcy of my peers. Something that permitted me to identify, authentically, with the anthems of fear that we all wanted to claim as our own, with t-shirts and concert bills and LP covers taped inside our lockers. (Oh, what a heaven what a hell/Y'know there's nothing can be done/In this whole wide world)

Those anthems of fear remained the soundtrack to my self-important postures of doom until those postures collapsed under the weight of reality. I had believed, deep down, that it couldn't happen here. But some time between Alphaville's 'Forever Young' (Hoping for the best but expecting the worst/Are you going to drop the bomb or not?) and Morrissey's 'Every Day Is Like Sunday' (How I dearly wish I was not here) the bomb dropped and my parents' marriage shattered and in the fallout the angst that I had so relished became an insufferable, toxic disease. Radioactive. Every day is silent and gray.

'Every Day Is Like Sunday' wasn't explicitly about nuclear holocaust in the same way that 'Red Balloons' was. Nor was 'Forever Young.' But my teenage angst - the deep angst, the stuff that ran beneath the surface of the superficial, black-eyelinered pop-angst that justified the brooding that hid that deeper angst so well - was never really about that kind of holocaust. It wasn't even about the possibility of that other, figurative holocaust, the annihilation of my family unit, the possibility that had loomed like a bogeyman for so many of my formative years. It was about a deeper fear: the fear that what couldn't happen here could indeed happen here. What that 'what' might be - divorce, unexpected pregnancy, nuclear holocaust - didn't matter. That the stuff of nightmares could - really could, as the songs insisted - happen was a fear that matched or exceeded the universal childhood fear that there might really be a monster in the closet. The moment of discovering that there were such monsters, that such bombs could and would fall, that the angsty-teenage postures that claimed such fears as real were not magic bullets against the actual realization of those fears - as I believed, somewhere deep down - was the moment of my coming of age.

I still dearly wish it had not come.


OK, so I didn't mean for this post to come out as dark as it did. It was written as part of a little koffee klatsch blog discussion that was kicked off amongst a small group of us - let's write some flashbacks! on Friday! how 'bout something about the songs or musicians that like totally changed your life? - and was gonna be all light and reminiscent, but somewhere along the way I got sidetracked. Probably because, as a teenager, I pretended that I loathed anything light and sweet, so. There you have it. Other participants today (more to be added later, with full post links, so check back) include:

Oh The Joys: www.othejoys.blogspot.com
(full post: Since You're Gone)
Mamalogues: www.mamalogues.com
Mrs. Flinger: www.mrs.flinger.us
IzzyMom: www.izzymom.com
Mom-101: Mom-101.blogspot.com

Feel free to join in (the topic is, 'OMG - The Smiths/NKOTB/Debbie Gibson/Insert Preferred Musical Act From Your Youth HERE - Like Totally Changed My Life OMG'). If you do write a post, be sure to link back and list the participants so that we can all find each other and not feel, like, totally self-conscious.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Catherine,music holds such powerful memories and feelings for us all doesn't it?...i was a moody anti-social loner when i was a teenager....and listened to the darkest music i could find...if i was a teenager now i could find tons of gloomy dark music to listen too....Lavandula

10:58 AM  
Blogger OhTheJoys said...

It seems sort of normal that these posts could turn out dark. The music underscored our entry into understanding the complications of grown up life.

Experiencing divorce for the first time... hard stuff.


11:10 AM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Wow and here I am writing about sex.

We so would have been awesome friends in high school. I still love Alphaville. And The Smiths. And come to think of it, my musical tastes are pretty much stuck in 1985. At least my fear of nuclear holocaust isn't.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Catherine, you write so brilliantly. I always learn something new when I read your blog. In this case, I got to thinking about my own youth and the music that affected my "growing up years".

I might have to write a post about that.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Jenifer said...

This was awesome and even though my parents divorced when I was really young the feelings are the same really.

I can vividly remember taping the Chum 30 off the radio and waiting for THE song of the moment to come on so I could tape it just right.

I can become very obsessed with songs, I liberally use the repeat button.

Two songs that come to mind for me and are Steve Perry's "Oh Sherry" and Prince's "When Doves Cry" and the funny thing is I was much more into light pop 80's like Culture Club, Wham, George Michael, etc. etc.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Viv said...

Yoinked this post and also wrote something about it on my own blog:


It was too cool to pass up.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Bea said...

One of the assigned books I read in grade eight was about a girl who was one of only two survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Cheerful stuff for a group of fourteen-year-olds, don't you think? Now, there's an odd sense of nostalgia for that good old-fashioned '80s nuclear angst.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

I remember worrying about all the same stuff. And having nightmares that my parents were killed.

Teen angst. Hormones. Fears. I'm so glad I'm not a teen anymore.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The biggest fear was nuclear devastation....with all the shows and the music....

everything was coming to an end and it was all the grown ups fault.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a happy little song about nuclear disaster! Had to find this on iTunes after reading.

1:05 PM  
Blogger The City Gal said...

What a coincidence! The other day I was confiding in a friend that I secretly worry that something bad happens. I have been doing that since I was 8 years old.

I was born in Iran in 1979, in the middle of the revolution. Then the war started (Iran-Iraq) and all I remember from my childhood is war music, bloodied bodies on TV and bombs...and sleeping in bomb shelters once or twice a week for 8years! 8 long years!

Then we moved to India for just a year, where I was worried that I would lose my family. I would hold the hands of my baby brothers every night and cry.

We went back home, where many people were arrested on a adily basis and killed in prisons. At the same time, we expected that Americans would bomb us any day!

In high school my best friend committed suicide. Later on, I found out that she had been depressed and sexually abused by her own father!!!

Then we moved to Canada and started life from scratch. You know the drill, no money, no job for a while.

I am worried about bombs, cancer, car accidents and suicides. I am worried that world comes crashing down on me.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, funny, I just did this on Monday. All by my lonesome, even, but I'd be happy to be a joiner...

2:21 PM  
Blogger toyfoto said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:30 PM  
Blogger toyfoto said...

I am joining in, too. I was SO surprised at where this took me!


Thanks for the prompt.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's easy to get sucked in to actually feeling your memories instead of just recalling them. Wonderful post. Truly. Dark memories and all.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing what feelings bubble up when you hear a song from the past. There are a few that I truly can't listen to without feeling totally overcome with memories. Great post, Catherine.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing what feelings bubble up when you hear a song from the past. There are a few that I truly can't listen to without feeling totally overcome with memories. Great post, Catherine.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Catherine? You are a really, really, really talented writer.

Sometimes I think people stop telling writers that when they reach a certain level. I just wanted to tell you.

You blow me away every time.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Angela said...

I agree. Great, great writing. And I remember Nena. My daughter now refers to her as "the one with the hairy pits." Yes. Thank you You Tube.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the War Games reference. When I was 13 or whatever I thought that was an awesome movie!

As for Nena, the only thing I remember is my boyfriend saying that singer girl was hot. Forget nuclear war! He said she was HOT, goddammit!!!!!

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I Just Called To Say I Love You, i'm Lost In Your Eyes, but I Ain't Missing You, because Nothing Compares To You but she said Can't Touch This...

9:50 PM  
Blogger josetteplank.com said...

I find that it's even harder re-living those fears through your own children's fears.

The monsters in the closet are easy.

I have an easier time lying to them about Santa and the Tooth Fairy than about the real terrors that wait along the edges. And, they won't be lied to.

I wonder what music will play through their heads when they remember where they were when they first found out about a world with global warming or genocide or torture. Dramatic stuff, that. I'm thinking lone woodwinds.

11:44 PM  
Blogger AliBlahBlah said...

Beautifully written. It made me want to plunder I-Tunes for all those songs until I realised it's chuffing 5am and what the hell am I doing awake!

8:38 AM  
Blogger Bon said...

i loved Red Balloons and Alphaville and oh, oh The Smiths...my own family holocaust had occurred so early that i had no memory of an intact world before it and yet the fallout was still a dust over everything well into my teens...so these songs spoke not so much to my fears as to the recognition in me that some things were already irrevocably broken, and i found them immensely comforting.

great post.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Maddy said...

I think the age of consciousness is supposed to be around 7, when we realize that we're not the centre of the universe, just a tiny cog. I think that realization, our tininess invokes all kinds of deep seated innate fears.

Best wishes
[pop over and collect your award]

10:28 AM  
Blogger the mad momma said...

me too! me too! http://thebratthebeanandbedlam.wordpress.com/2008/03/01/blast-from-the-past-or-music-from-my-misspent-youth/

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that was really, really beautiful.

2:51 PM  
Blogger caramama said...

Wait, the balloons were bombs? Where the hell have I been??? I'm going to have to find the song and listen again with this new-to-me knowledge. How did I never know that?

And I loved the ansty music too. Dark and brooding. It's amazing where you end up sometimes when you flash back. Thanks for sharing your story with us. It was really meaningful to read, and so well written.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Childsplayx2 said...

This is my first time to your blog and what a post to read! Wonderfully written. I could feel your angst from here.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

caramama - the balloons *trigger* the nuclear the attack, because they're mistaken for bombs. Was the world paranoid much?

10:16 AM  
Blogger Mimi said...

dude. you stole my mixed tapes!! and, prolly, my eyeliner. anyhow. to this day, i turn off the radio when ultravox comes on, because I BAWL LIKE A BABY. dancing? with tears in my eyes? warm snuggles against the apocalypse while panic splits the city apart? god. can't take it. and that stupid alphaville song. radio goes off. i'm a mushy mushy person.

12:53 PM  
Blogger caramama said...

"It's all over and I'm standin' pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenier
Just to prove the world was here"

Holy moly! Thanks for explaining. I looked up the lyrics just now, and wow! I get it now, and that's pretty deep. I don't know how I never knew this. I just thought it was a cute song...

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are an amazing, smart, bright, writer. You take memories and ideas out of my head and write them in print and they appear on your blog. OMG I thought I was the ONLY ONE who thought some of these thoughts and you snatch them from my brain and put them down on electronic paper. I didn't even know there were words to describe these memories, ideas and feelings. My parents divorced when I was 12, until now I have never been able to acknowledge in words the devastation and the settling of the dust into before the divorce and after the divorce...that was then and this is now... that shaped this and that was ugly but I am in control of this and I can make if beautiful for me. Your children are sooooo lucky to have you as their mother.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Crohn's is my bitch said...

Hello! I love your blog and visit everyday, sometimes more than every day when things are rough and I have to shut myself in my room for a few minutes. I haven't been pregnant in over 4 years but damn, I remember the insane itchy boobs.

I wrote for this theme, albeit a little late, at succinic.blogspot.com. Because, once I got to thinking about the massive importance of Guns 'N' Roses, I really couldn't stop.

1:13 AM  
Blogger excavator said...

Yes, I too had no idea the song was about nuclear holocaust.

I only came of age last year. Growing up, as we all have, in the nuclear age, the idea of catastrophe was kind of like going on a roller coaster, or through a haunted house: a deliciously scary adventure.

I don't know what made the scales drop away that revealed what a potential horror it would be, along with a sense of how precarious 'stability' is. Perhaps it's having children...sometimes normal life is so difficult with them, I make a jump in my mind to what it would be like in times of upheaval. I heard a spot on mothers in Iraq, forced to keep their children inside all day, day after day, without power, often without outside company because it is too dangerous to go outside. I'm imagining how time would lag, how short tempers would be, how I'd find myself erupting in anger at the very ones I want to protect. And knowing it won't be any better tomorrow...

If you can stand it a most powerful book is called The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It immerses one in the reality of a post-nuclear world as a father tries to protect his young son. It's not for the faint of heart: I found it terrifying, but oh so well written.

Wait, wait, you're pregnant--this is probably not the best book to read now. It's no fair that you still have to feel crummy. It's so hard when you already have a toddler who can't understand why Mommy doesn't want to keep getting up to get her something or help her with something. I hope you get your honeymoon soon.

Also, I just wanted to see if I could qualify as a Bad Mom and join. I send my kids to school in clothes they had on the day before. I don't make them wear coats in 20 degree weather. Right now my little one is recovering from the latest passaround illness and I'm grateful he's downstairs with a movie so I can write in here. And I SHOULD be doing vision therapy exercises with him.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't have a particular song, and I admit, my post is much more about having fond memories. Maybe I'll do the dark ones another day...

Thanks, as always, for a brilliant post.

red pen mama

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I decided to play along, too. http://albamaria30.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/rock-n-roll-is-here-to-stay/

red pen mama

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are a talented, gifted writer.
Talented, talented, talented!
Gifted, gifted, gifted!
I cannot say it enought times.

10:57 PM  

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