Michael Leviton is a New York musician and author who has a children’s book forthcoming from Hyperion next year. The video above gives you an idea of his worldview: It features accordion and glockenspiel, warbly soprano vocals, and lyrics about how all the normal beautiful people are having fun in the summertime but the speaker is lonely and disillusioned because he’s so quirky, unique and sensitive. The video contributes to the atmosphere, spinning a nostalgic yarn about a 1940’s sailor who falls in love with an emaciated mermaid and is lured by her coquetry to a watery grave. I posted it on my Facebook page, and one music fan was moved to comment on the song’s “incoherent lyrics, extremely amateurish singing, and worst of all, an acoustic guitar (technically ukulele) with which absolutely nothing interesting is done,” observing that “Benjamin Franklin invented electricity for a reason.” I think it sounds like an imitation of parody of a Stephen Merritt/Belle and Sebastien cover band. You might like it, though!
Why am I telling you about Michael Leviton? Because he is the author of the latest “Modern Love,” and the subject of this post. But before looking at his writing, let me shift gears for a moment. Why do people write embarrassing stuff about themselves? Everyone has done dumb stuff they feel bad about, but why publish it for all the world? It’s hard to say. Yet autobiography, memoir and standup comedy would all be impossible without the speaker’s penitential urge to be bracingly honest. No one wants to read a story about how you went to Stanford, didn’t do drugs, got a job at a financial firm, bought a Prius, and married someone just as upwardly mobile as you. Or maybe they do, if you’re in the New York Times wedding pages, but that doesn’t make it interesting. So it’s lucky we have some writers who feel compelled to tell the ugly truth.
What makes “Modern Love” so terrible, then, is not that the authors make themselves sound pathetic and insane. That’s great! It’s not what they include, but what they leave out. What is that secret ingredient? Critical distance. You can’t be bracingly honest if you are secretly convinced that your grade-school pants-wetting, borderline stalking or heroin addiction were actually rather endearing. If you don’t have perspective on your failings, your self-portrait will be filled with excuses and weird evasions. It can take many years of dearly bought experience to attain such mature perspective. That is why Jean-Jacques Rousseau — the father of the embarrassing memoir — did not write his Confessions until he was 57 years old.
But today’s memoirists don’t want to wait that long. They need a book deal, or free publicity for their forthcoming book. Aware that compelling memoir requires both embarrassing mistakes and a self-critical epiphany about those mistakes. So they force a monumental epiphany, writing a half-assed final chapter of THEN I REALIZED I WAS KINDA WRONG, OR SOMETHING. Consider, for instance, the Tiger Mother (subject of many pseudo-intellectual maunderings in the Times), who wrote a whole book about how successful her parenting was, then at the end she had some kind of realization… and was humbled… by how successful the methods were… or something?
For a look at a real memoir, let’s turn to Rousseau. In Confessions he tells the story of his love life, which got off to a difficult start with his desire to be spanked by his foster mother, and ends in a string of failed love affairs because he is “too bashful to declare [his] taste” to anyone. He winds up this account of masochism and thwarted desire by writing that “I have taken the most difficult step in the dark and dirty labyrinth of my confessions. It is easier to admit that which is criminal than that which is ridiculous and makes a man feel ashamed… One may judge what such confessions have cost me, from the fact that, during the whole course of my life, I have never dared to declare my folly to those whom I loved.”
So he’s pretty tough on himself. What about Leviton? Does he have anything in his past which is ridiculous and should make a man feel ashamed? You will be able to judge for yourself when I tell you that his piece begins, “To woo her, I needed a music box. I conceived this idea the night I met her.”
Well, that’s weird. How did this all begin? “I’d gone alone to an open-mike night. I was 22 and new to the city. I wasn’t at this open mike to launch a career as a ukulele-player, but to meet new friends.” Yeah, but I’m sure getting a foot in the door of the fast-paced ukulele biz didn’t hurt, am I right? In the ukulele game, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know! If you want to make bank, you gotta network!
So, he’s out mixing business with pleasure. And it doesn’t take long for a fine-ass freak-folk lady to appear. “As I waited for my turn, a girl with bad posture hopped onto the stage, a giant gummy grin pushing her cheeks to their brink, her freckled hands fidgeting like a child’s.” What up, girl! Can I holler at you?
“She squinted and sang in an excited whisper the names of cross streets, directions to a lamppost in the Bronx. The crowd quieted. She’d heard a legend that this particular lamppost could grant a wish if you kissed it. She lamented that no one had tested this; the world’s only wish-granting lamppost lay hidden in a place where no one believed in magic. So, she decided to try it herself. The song ended with the moment before the kiss.”
You know, that does not sound like my kind of music. The words “contrived,” “nauseating,” “cloying,” and “vomitously twee” do come to mind. But that’s not really the point of the post. This isn’t Portlandia, “LookatThisStupidHipsterImSecretlyEnviousOf.com,” or anywhere else one might find such trenchant satire.* Some people like that sort of thing, and Leviton is clearly in her target audience. “I wanted to kiss the lamppost and wish she would fall in love with me.”
*Portlandia is crappy and under-written. Deal with it.
You wanted to kiss a magic lamppost? Are you twelve? Is she Justin Beiber? Luckily, he does take (non-magical) action. After this ragin’ concert, he goes up to buy her CD and attempt awkward flirtation. “When I asked her about herself, she answered quietly, so I bent down close to hear. She told me she lived with her parents and wrote songs all day in her tiny bedroom.” Boner alert! ” ‘I like people who spend time alone,’ I told her. ‘We’re more genuinely ourselves when we’re alone.'”
His response to these overtures displeases him. “She smiled and cracked a joke, which I found disappointing.” Yes, readers, it’s come to this. This is like that Superman bizarro world where good is bad, black is white, and raw kale tastes better than Ben & Jerry’s. I know that in the world you live in, smiles and laughter are probably considered good things, while poor posture and being alone in your parent’s guest room all day are bad. But that’s what makes you so boring and conventional. You’re a sheeple, man! Where are your quirks, your individuality? You might as well be reading Dan Brown and listening to the Dave Matthews Band!
They “spoke for a half-hour before she had to leave” — about what, I don’t know. But he didn’t get her number and ask her on a date.
No, Leviton’s is the coward’s way: Through the pretext of being a fan and fellow musician, he goes to all her shows and talks to her a lot, gradually nurturing the illusion of a healthy friendship. And her Narnia-ass acoustic jams don’t lose their hold on him. “I thought, ‘These melodies belong in music boxes.’ I decided that, as soon as I knew her better and built up the nerve, I’d give her a music box that played one of her songs.”
Leviton has placed a huge, time-consuming hurdle in the way of doing anything about his crush. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’d always loved music boxes. I loved the texture of tiny hammers on metal, and the rhythmic irregularity of the slowing and speeding clockwork. A few years earlier, I’d bought a glockenspiel so I could mimic music box tunes.”
Leviton continues hanging out by himself and fiddling with his glockenspiel. He starts to become anxious about his obscure object of desire. In his view, she’s “withholding her true self. Her conversation would feel like her music only if she loved me.” Leviton sees other guys looking at her from the audience, and assumes they are “other admirers.”
It’s clear that this infatuation is more about him than Lamppost Woman. We haven’t even gotten one line of dialogue from her! Nevertheless, he engages in a Herculean effort to see things from her point of view. “I imagined how it would feel to inspire such infatuation. She wasn’t even particularly beautiful. In fact, if she had been a great beauty, falling for her would have felt less romantic.” HERE LET ME FIX THAT FOR YOU. “She was flawed enough to seem unlikely to reject me. In fact, if she had been a great beauty, I would have dismissed her as a boring, shallow mainstream chick, thus concealing from myself the fact that attractive, confident women intimidate me.”
But the seeds of doubt have been planted in Leviton’s asexual Garden of Eden. Is he truly special and unique for fixating on this unconventional-looking woman? “I scrutinized her interactions with other fans…. I considered myself different from the rest; I understood her better and wanted her more. Surely, none of them planned to give her a music box.” True enough.
“I hadn’t asked her out. I knew I was being a coward. The girls I confided in discouraged me. They said that going months without making a move disqualifies a man as a romantic possibility; by now, she had cemented her feelings.” He disagrees. However, who cares? What about not waiting for months to make a move because it’s a damn waste of time?
She asks him to open for her on a show she’s playing Valentine’s Day, which is also her birthday. “She was daring me to do something bold.” Or… she just wants an opening act?
Nonetheless, if he wants to do something bold, he really needs to pull himself together. Just ask her up to your place, then whip out your glockenspiel! Maybe when she sees it, she’ll love you! But Levinson isn’t going to abandon his convoluted scheme. “I spent that night searching online for ‘custom music box melodies.’ I found a company that made custom music boxes for $50 each, suspiciously cheap.”
The search proves fruitless. “I read the guidelines. The last line said, ‘Minimum order: 100 units.'” Damn those custom music box capitalists! Now, I have to point out that I think Levinson is aiming far too low here. The pages of the NYT Styles section are littered — littered! — with profiles of artisans who have returned to the old-fashioned ways of hand craftsmanship and begun making their own cabinets, quilts, furniture, butter, cheese, tofu, oak sap-flavored ice cream, axes, you name it. People are farming heirloom chickens and swiss chard. This guy doesn’t even live in New York, and he built a meditation cube in the middle of his loft! You are telling me that a musician in New York City doesn’t know any artisanal woodworkers who can teach him how to make a homemade music box? If you really loved her, you’d learn carpentry!
“In my despair, I fantasized: I could max out a few credit cards to buy 100 music boxes and then give her just one. I would keep the other 99 in my closet and she would never know what that one music box had cost.” If Wes Anderson ever decided to do a horror movie, that is the exact premise he would use.
“Of course, I compromised. I recorded myself performing music box interpretations of her songs on my glockenspiel.” That is the least warranted “of course” in the history of English prose. “I planned to give her a CD of the recordings and tell her about the 99 music boxes I wished I had in my closet.” I’d play it cool on that… like, give her the CD, but only mention the 99 music boxes if 99 music boxes come up naturally in conversation.
So he goes to the show and gets talking to this woman’s other weirdo fans. One of them “was a small, nervous musician with crossed eyes who wrote and performed melancholy songs.” This dude is hella bragging about the thoughtful gift he got. “‘I took a picture of myself kissing the wish-granting lamppost. I’m giving her the picture.’ This gift struck me as self-obsessed, even creepy, but I couldn’t help but smile. I felt a kinship with any creative, starry-eyed fool.” Leviton is conflicted. Lamppost Woman’s other friends are exactly like him, and he doesn’t know whether he loves that or hates it!
So after the show, he gets in what he describes as a line of gift-givers. But, disaster! The first two guys in line give her quirky gifts, a painting of a horse and a mobile that “created an optical illusion that formed the shape of a heart.” Confronted with his own derivativeness, Leviton desceds into full-on psychosis. “I then noticed that the line was almost entirely made up of nervous suitors with gifts. Many even physically resembled me. I watched one admirer give her what I presumed to be a mix CD. His present looked nearly identical to mine.” After this nightmarish hall-of-mirrors hallucination, he starts picturing her apartment full of weird stuff deranged fans have given her. “I feared she would take the CD home and forget about it. I thought, ‘If only a CD could play like a music box.'”
I would like to point out at this juncture that if you don’t know what to get a lady for her birthday, you can’t go wrong with chocolate, some good Scotch, or a Sephora giftcard. That’s what I’d probably want. Just throwing that out there!
But Leviton isn’t worrying about her needs. He’s worried about all the other dudes there! They are giving Lamppost Woman birthday presents left and right, and she is thanking them all “equally.”
This unwonted display of manners and conventional decorum triggers the author’s epiphany: the contrived Moment of Realization that qualifies this essay for inclusion in the pantheon of Sensitive Personal Essays. Are you ready? Here it comes! “Our presents were…attempts to prove we really were the romantics we longed to be. These gifts were not for her, but for us.” There is only one thing to do. No, not “stop caring so much about being unique, and give her something she’ll enjoy using.” That’s ridiculous. He has discerned a way to keep his sense of uniqueness intact: leave the line without giving her anything. So that’s what he does.
“I kept her gift in the closet where I could have stored 99 music boxes.” Couldn’t you just have put it on a shelf with your other CDs?