Story

Just Get Me In Closer To The Center: A Conversation on a Subway

Nick Jaina and Nathan Langston

CHARACTERS

NICK JAINA , a songwriter, singer, Portland resident

NATHAN , a violinist, poet, Brooklyn resident

(New York City.

The subway heaped in modern myth, etc.

At the Lincoln Center station. Nathan is carrying his violin in a case. Nick is walking with his laptop in a shoulder bag.)

Nick: (goes through turnstile at Lincoln Center Downtown A Station) Every time I put my ticket in and the little screen says, "GO" I always imagine it's telling me in a passive-aggressive way. Like it's saying, "Go. Just GO. Get out of here." You know what I mean?

Nathan: I think you're projecting.

Nick: Oh. Really?

(Nick and Nathan walk through the walkway to the train platform, where a man with a violin is performing the theme from "Swan Lake.")

Nick: This is one of my favorite melodies.

(Nick puts two dollars in the violin case.)

Nathan: So, how was New Orleans last week? You go down to Coop's?

Nick: I actually never even made it out of the Bywater. But I met this girl …

Nathan: Oh yeah?

Nick: Not like that. I mean, kind of like that, but, no. Anyway, we were listening to Cajun music, which has never really meant much to me, but I was talking with this girl who grew up in Covington across the lake. Her parents and grandparents are Cajun and she was talking about Cajun music as though it were just something that was always there, like the wallpaper or a box of recipes. And it was almost like she had never thought of it as a kind of music she could even judge, you know?

Nathan: Hmm.

Nick: It was just the natural folk music of her community. I felt at the same time really jealous of her having something cultural that was so important to her and also was glad that I could still see something like that and have it be exotic, you know?

Nathan: Sure.

Nick: I think when I moved to New Orleans years ago I originally went because I was looking for something culturally meaningful that they didn't have in the suburbs of Sacramento. But when you go and find that thing, and it's so strange and exotic to you, you want to freak out about it, but the people who live there in all that culture just shrug. To them it's so normal. But I envy the normalcy of it.

Nathan: Yeah, I know what you mean. Wait, what? Did you say you don't like Cajun music? That's messed up. Cajun music is rad.

Nick: Well, it has never really struck me, particularly.

(Nathan leans out from the track ledge to see if a train is coming.)

Nathan: But yeah, I grew up wanting to find that same thing. My suburbs outside Portland were probably not much different than yours outside Sacramento. For some reason the suburbs always felt purposefully forgetful, like ... like where you go to live in order to have no memory or history or past. It's as though everyone just appeared there out of nowhere with lawns and cars and TVs. It wasn't so bad. It was boring and safe. But there weren't any houses older than my house. The whole neighborhood and all the streets came into existence only a year or two before I did. So there's not a whole lot of culture or history, and you end up craving that.

Nick: Well, have I told you my definition of folk music?

Nathan: I don't think so.

Nick: I met this woman in Green Bay named Jana Holland.

Nathan: That's a cool name.

Nick: If we married, her name would be Jana Jaina. But no, she's already married. She volunteers at this retirement home where there are a bunch of people with Alzheimer's. She goes in with her acoustic guitar and sings them songs to cheer them up. And these are people that can't remember who they were married to for fifty years, or their children's names or anything. And this woman goes in and she sings the most basic folk songs there are: "This Land Is Your Land," "Oh Suzannah"-the stuff you sang along with in kindergarten-and she says these people just come alive and jump up and sing along and know all the words. And it's just amazing to me that there can be a kind of music that is so embedded in the culture and in our bones that you could have this horrible disease that ravages your brain and makes you forget everything you learned, but you still know the lyrics and the melody to these songs. I realized at that moment that I would be proud to be associated with folk music if it meant I was playing songs that could potentially reach people anywhere close to that level.

Nathan: I like that. Wake up music. Spinal cord music. Oliver Sacks wrote about that very thing in that book Awakenings. There's a power in some music, neurological and spiritual. I suppose my wake up music would be the old church hymns I sang as a kid. Or Paul Simon or Johnny Cash or Christmas Carols. I happen to know that the tune for "Happy Birthday" was written in the 1890s.

Nick: I don't like that song.

Nathan: You don't like "Happy Birthday?!"

Nick: No. It's a terrible song. It sounds like a dirge. What is happy about it?

Nathan: Ha! I suddenly imagined people singing you "Happy Birthday" and you holding your hands over your ears and frowning.

Nick: It's not just me.

Nathan: But probably any song could wake you up, even a bad pop song, if you were exposed to it in your formative years or if it was ubiquitous enough. I guess I'd say another important part of "folk music" is that it's music that you inherit. I like that you described the Cajun music as though it were a recipe box. I guess I get most of my recipes from the Internet, but it used to be that a recipe box was a collection of recipes that got passed down from friends and family-pies and chicken and dumplings and grandma's pot roast. You know, food that's somehow a part of who you are.

There's the train, Boss.

(Shrieking sound of train brakes as the train pulls into the station. The doors open with their "beem-boom" tone. Nick and Nathan board the train.The conductor announces the station and the pre-recorded man says in his earnest voice, "Stand clear of the closing doors, please.")

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Nick: Have I told you about what I've been thinking about with eddies and the origins of life?

Nathan: We talked about that on that flight to Cleveland.

Nick: Right. Well, yeah.I forget what I told you, but basically everything in nature just wants the easiest path, and so from the very beginning there were just little systems like swirls in the river that gained integrity and persisted. And maybe that was the start of life, just the easiest path.

Anyway, you see these cycles in every part of life, the seasons, cities, people's thought patterns. It's just a really comforting way to think that all these particles swirl around and sometimes for whatever reason they catch on in this little system, and if it persists enough, then it becomes something more enduring, and over billions of years the systems could be complex and bonded enough that they would have intelligence to them, but still when you break it down, it's just a bunch of eddies swirling around.

And maybe that's why we like patterns and ritual so much. Not just because we evolved to recognize them, but because we are them. Everything about us is just a recurring pattern. So getting to a Zen state or whatever is really just submitting to this naturally swirling cycle that is literally in every aspect of your body.

Nathan: That makes sense in regard to the wake up music. It also reminds me of ... did you ever read ... hang on a sec.

(Nathan digs amongst papers in his grubby bag and pulls out an old, wrinkled New Yorker magazine.)

Here we go. Did you read this? It's an article about the megaliths at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the oldest spiritual monuments in the world, kind of like Stonehenge. The standard theory is that religion and ritual developed after agriculture as a way to justify the stratification necessary to make civilization possible. But the timeline of these monuments suggests that maybe agriculture was developed in order to support our first monumental rituals. Anyhow, you should peek at this later. It'll blow your mind.

(Time passes. Several stations go by without conversation.)

Hand

I do buy your whole river/eddy metaphor. I'd say those reoccurring patterns you're seeing everywhere are probably archetypes like the kind Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell wrote about. You're talking about stories and patterns built into our subconscious brains that we naturally enact.

(More time passes.)

But here's my big question: You and me, we grew up in the suburbs without much formal ritual. So can we invent ritual for ourselves? Can we just improvise a meaningful set of gestures that we did not inherit? Can we invent something real?

Nick: I know, right? That's what I'm wondering too. Like, is it too late to have ritual if you didn't grow up with it? Can you just merge with someone else's ritual and have it be as meaningful? Can you make up your own?

It's mostly about wanting to belong, right? I remember being a kid and sitting at big dinner parties for Thanksgiving or birthdays or whatever and feeling very insecure if I was seated on the edge of a table of people. That just seems like the beginnings of that primitive emotion of wanting to belong. Just get me in closer to the center. Like the big pile of penguins protecting each other from the cold. I want my turn on the inside.

You grew up with religion, though. Was that ever comforting to you, or was it always just meaningless sitting, standing, and kneeling?

Nathan: Well, when you're a little kid, you don't think about it. You don't even notice it much; you just absorb it. That's probably the same if you're a Tutsi kid or a Kimyal kid or Mayan kid or a Baptist kid. It's always present, so it doesn't consciously register. For me, all that church stuff only took on shape and substance once I was old enough to compare it to something else. I was like twelve or so when I got baptized. I waded out into the pool of warm water, which was right in the main sanctuary of the church, wearing a white robe. My uncle, who was the pastor, asked me, "Do you have a confession of faith?" And I said so that everyone could hear, "Jesus is Lord." Then he put a cloth over my face and dunked me and, supposedly, I was saved. My grandpa, also a pastor, used to dunk people out in a river! If someone fell back into their sinful ways, he'd say he probably didn't hold them under long enough.

But, unlike the Catholics, we curmudgeon-y Baptists distrust ceremony and papal ritual, thinking that it's often a bunch of hoopla mumbo jumbo that gets between a believer and the spirit, rather than a channel that provides a person access to the Unknown.

Personally, and for reasons I don't want to get into, there was a time when that ritual and ceremony and faith was important to me, but the legitimacy of it was stripped away from me. I still find myself yearning for the communion of those old ways, but those gestures don't mean much to me anymore, so I'm wondering if there's a way to reinvent it. Do you suppose that that's a part of what artistic expression is-that by doing art we're devising meaningful gestures toward something bigger than ourselves?

(The train stops at a station and the doors open. Two men get on and as soon as the doors close, start shouting. It becomes clear that these men are reciting Shakespeare, specifically Hamlet.)

First Man

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

Second Man

O, throw away the worser part of it,

And live the purer with the other half.

Good night: but go not to mine uncle's bed;

Assume a virtue, if you have it not…. (and etc…)

(The rest of the people on the car have the same reaction they have to any panhandler: stare straight ahead, leave their earbuds in, pretend that nothing unusual is happening. The actors flail about in large gestures as they deliver their lines. After they finish, they announce that they are the Subway Shakespeare Company and hold out a hat for some money. They make maybe $10. Nick and Nathan both put in a dollar.)

Doors

Nick: Well, sure. I'm sure that the urge to create art comes from an unsettled feeling in my stomach that probably goes back to some desire to have a more fulfilling life all around. Everyone feels that emptiness more and more, and everyone deals with it in different ways. Most people just try to numb themselves from that pain. There are more and more ways to do it, and sometimes those methods of numbing get confused with art. Like, how a TV show can be art, but it can also be a drug that makes you feel less alone. I guess I always wanted the art I make to be a mixture of comforting things that give you hope and things that kind of cut into you and challenge you. Mostly that turns out to be music that most people just characterize as "too sad." I take that to mean that I went too far in the direction of blunt challenges to the soul and not enough comforting words of hope. Or maybe I just make sad music. Because I'm sad and empty. Because I had no ritual in my life.

Nathan: Oh pishposh, man. You're fine. It's a beautiful day in New York City, and neither of us have to go to work. Today is Shakespearian! Today's a Joseph Mitchell sort of day!

You've read Joseph Mitchell?

Nick: Yeah. I think.

Nathan: Seriously one of the best journalists of all time-probably one of the best New Yorkers ever, too. He'd just go walking forever in a random direction, compulsively exploring any detail, any person, all the strange worlds of the city that yanked at his heart.

Anyhow, this dude got really into church architecture for a while. That led him into getting really interested in the Mass. He went to Polish Mass and Italian Mass and Turkish Mass. He wasn't a believer, really. He just felt that, as the oldest continually practiced European ritual, Mass provided him a glimpse of the lives of his great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-

Nick: Stop saying great.

Nathan: -great, great, great grandfathers. He went to a bunch of ceremonies at Synagogues and Mosques too. It's just interesting that he didn't necessarily buy into the core beliefs of all those rituals but was drawn into them nonetheless. It's like he was yearning for the same thing we're yearning for.

It's like for him, the ritual was kind of like a window that he could look through. Maybe that's like how the folk music woke up the patients with Alzheimer's. Maybe it was giving them a window to look through.

(Nick catches himself looking out the window of the subway, trying to see corridors in the blackness.)

Nick: I was walking through Chinatown the other day and I thought-well, let me put it this way: If you left your home country and went to a foreign land, for employment or family or whatever reason, and there were also a bunch of other people from your same country who moved to this same place too ...

(Nick looks at Nathan to see if he'll interrupt and save him from having to awkwardly ask this question. Nathan doesn't.)

Nick: …do you think you'd try to recreate the aesthetics and culture of your homeland in this new place, or would you just try to blend in with your surroundings?

Nathan: (Trying to determine whether this is offensive.) Puts on a pensive face as a compromise. Hmm.

Nick: I'm such a blend-in kind-of-guy that I'm just impressed that people would be so steadfast in keeping their culture when they move. Like, when I travel to a place where people have an accent different from mine, I start talking like them within a few hours. I don't know where to draw the line. I feel like the goal of traveling is to just roll with it as much as you can, to let go of any needs and just accept what you're given, to try to live as much in harmony with the people and the place as possible. And to me that extends to-well obviously I'll eat the same food they eat. And I'll try to talk like them too. But that's kind of an insecure thing to do, isn't it? I'm amazed by the people. Like, my ex-wife's mother, who was born in England and has lived in Canada for forty years still has the strongest British accent you've ever heard. Obviously she knows how to talk like the people around her, but there is some conscious choice to say, "No, this is how I talk, I'm going to retain it." I don't think I would do that. If I moved to New Zealand I'd start talking like Flight of the Conchords right away.

Nathan: (Laughing, imitating New Zealand accent.) I'm always trying to git you guys geegs.

Nick: But maybe that's just because I grew up without any strong traditions.

Nathan: In New York, I walk way faster than I ever did in Portland. I've grown to resent Times Square. I fold my pizza and have adopted some of the hard, blunt but secretly benevolent manners of the city. Sometimes, especially when I'm talking to some fifth generation Brooklyn old-timer, I hear a bit of that sharp cheddar accent creeping into the shape of my vowels.

But some things don't change. Some things can't be assimilated. Certain aspects of inherited culture are so entwined with personal identity that they can't get melted in the melting pot. For me, there's the food I grew up with, the songs I grew up with, a few family traditions, and the fact that rain invigorates me instead of making me sad. But you're talking about adopting traditions and adopting music and adopting rituals. What I want to know is if you can invent completely new rituals that still work.

(Nathan leans in expectantly.)

Nick: Hmm. Well, let me think about that.

Nathan: Whoa-kay. (Leans back and looks out the window.)

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(The train starts to squeal louder as it picks up speed traveling under the East River. As the train approaches the Brooklyn side, it quiets down again.)

Nick: Well ...

(Nathan leans in again as Nick speaks.)

It's like pointing at an old man and saying, "Could you ever make one of those?" You can't just jump to the end. It needs to be a baby first and then grow up and go through all that stuff. Part of the importance of a ritual is that it's been around for a long time. But certainly, you can create new ones. They just might take a while to catch on. But I guess you're asking if you can make a ritual for your own life. You just need time to carve those pathways in your brain. But that can happen in a relatively short period-like even a week. But if you're asking if you can intentionally create a ritual as opposed to just having one that's there, I think yes. Why not?

Nathan: That's a good answer. I like your mentioning old folks. I'm only 32 and living this long has been overwhelming and amazing and really, really hard. I can't imagine what it's like to do this for 85 years. I'm in awe of anyone who makes it that far.

It's probably the same with ritual. It takes a long time to assume its shape and substance and depth of meaning. It has to be touched and reinterpreted by thousands and thousands and millions and billions of humans to gather the potency it needs to strike a chord in the spinal cord.

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Nick: "Chord in the spinal cord," I like that. Wait, now that I say it I don't like it.

Nathan: It's tough to wait that long since I'm not a very patient dude.

But you're right. It all doesn't come from nowhere. These rituals don't appear out of thin air. Look at that old woman down the car with the bags-the one in the hat. It's almost inconceivable, but there was a time when she was just learning to walk, a day when she said her first word. I once saw a black and white picture of my dad, maybe four or five years old, in his front yard, holding a cat. I could barely fathom that he had ever been so new!

(The subway lurches as the brakes squeal especially loudly.)

I think another interesting aspect of the question of whether we can create new rituals is, do we have much choice in what our rituals are? If you think about what defines a ritual-the repetition of motions, words, and actions to transcend or transform our mundane lives-how many times are we in a situation that we didn't choose to be in, that is in some ways a ritual?

I'm thinking of one instance of that in particular, which is kind of the most obvious way you can be forced into a ritual, which is prison.

Nathan: Prison? How do you mean?

Nick: Well, in that you are repeating your actions over and over. You wear the same clothes, you walk the same pathways. I mean, the process isn't supposed to help you reach a divine state, in fact it's probably the opposite. It's meant to dehumanize. But when I was at Folsom Prison recently, after our gig we got to hang out with some guys who wrote songs. They were all in there for life and had been there for decades. And they had kind of a serenity to them. I mean, they had sadness and stuff, but they just accepted where they were and weren't pushing against it. Which is kind of what a ritual is about, right? Accepting that you're this small piece of a big unfathomable design and you just move through your steps and play your part? Right?

Nathan: Kind of. But there's a difference between habit and ritual. You can breathe out of habit or breathe as ritual. You can pray out of habit or pray as ritual. Same goes for eating, drinking, playing Cajun music, anything. From the outside, they might look the same, but the difference is the intention and the purpose. Those guys in Folsom are being habitually turned into prisoners with forced repetition, similar to how kids at boot camp are broken and programmed into soldiers. Because it's being forced on them from the outside, because there's no intention, I guess I wouldn't call it ritual.

Nick: Yeah, probably so.

Nathan: You think you'd ever get married again?

Nick: Why did you bring that up right after prison?

Nathan: No, no. I love being married. Just because we're talking about different rituals. I never got to go to your wedding because I didn't know you back then.

Nick: I think maybe, yeah. I mean having a big party with all of your friends celebrating love … that sounds fun. Can you have a wedding without the marriage?

Nathan: Ha!

Nick: I mean, weddings are pretty cool if you take them out of the church.

Nathan: Well, sure.

But, back to habit and ritual, I remember eventually being really turned off that so many people go to church out of habit and say prayers out of habit and sing hymns out of habit and read the Bible out of habit. A lead singer might make the same flamboyant gestures at two different shows but at one, it's with purpose and intention and the other time, it's just rote. So one show is a ritual and one show is just empty. One transcends and one succumbs.

Nick: Well, I know what that's like. I know I'd feel like a fraud if I ever played two consecutive shows with the same set list, which is dumb because the only way an audience can develop affinity for a performer is if they know what they can count on seeing and hearing when they go to that show. So the performer needs to have a repeating set of actions that they do. I can never do that and feel comfortable. I guess I wouldn't be a good priest.

(The train reaches Clinton-Washington Avenues and skids to a stop.)

Nathan: (Slaps Nick on the shoulder.) Aw, hell, pal. You'd be a fine priest. A priest is just a man. I'm positive they perform the Eucharist out of habit from time to time. Sometimes it's just a cracker and sometimes it's the body of Christ. You could sing the same song a thousand times and sometimes it'll just be notes and noise but sometimes it'll be a sacrifice or a blessing or a communion with something nameless and unfathomable, and the whole crowd will sigh.

(Nick and Nathan stand up as the doors open.)

Your being freaked out by playing the same set twice seems wrapped up in the whole contemporary art tip where the most important thing is to be new, unprecedented, revolutionary, whereas ritual does the same thing over and over and over and accumulates meaning and tunnels deep into the physical act by repetition. There's nothing new about Cajun music, which you don't like! Sorry dude, I can't get over that. That's just ...

Nick: It just always sounds like a record skipping. Gucka-docka-gucka-docka-gucka-docka-docka-docka. Although I was at that Cajun music festival that one time, and I thought the music was repetitive. And then a girl asked me to dance, and I realized that the whole point of it is to dance, and then it was the best music ever. I just don't want to sit around and listen to it. I like it in the proper context. But if you're going to judge everything based on whether you can dance with a girl to it, then that's going to improve a lot of things ...

Nathan: Suddenly, I'm real hungry for a shrimp po' boy. I know a place if you're in the mood for a little gucka-docka-gucka-docka. Maybe we'll even find you a Cajun girl to dance with! New York is sort of the proper context for everything.