Brothers, Cousins, and the National
Typically, when you read a column online or in a magazine, you have little to no connection to the underlying subject, nothing that brings you in personally –
– Lebron James has to decide whether it’s all about winning or about being a global icon
– Julian Casablancas is tormented about performing live, solo, without his band
which is not to say that the columns aren’t interesting or informative, just that they aren’t personal to you, the reader. If done well, these columns capture your attention, maybe you even pass it along to a friend, but in all likelihood they are forgotten within hours, if not minutes after they’re read. Read a few good ones from a single magazine or website and you’re likely to return to it over and over again, even if you couldn’t cite a single piece as the reason for your return.
Occasionally, a piece will hit home in a way that draws you in on another level, such that you can imagine the way the author or subject feels, put yourself in his or her shoes. The frequency of coming across these pieces increases if you find a writer you like and stick with him. For me, this is Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, maybe even Malcolm Gladwell. In fact, this is one of the significant reasons you keep coming back to these writers. People might say you “relate” to them, though it might just be the quality of the writing that makes their subject matter relatable in a more universal manner. These writers become your “favorites” and you will follow them wherever they go, read archives of their content, probably purchase their book when it is published.
Then, there are those very rare instances – it may happen only once a year, perhaps even less – when you have no choice but to believe that the author of a piece was addressing it specifically to you. This doesn’t necessarily happen because the writer is brilliant, or the magazine is exceptional … it just happens. Often when you least expect it. But without a doubt, when it happens you know it. Today I had one of those rare moments.
“The National, Mothers, And Brothers” by Paul Shirley is not something to which I can relate. Or, I should say, it is not merely something to which I can relate. The similarities to my life, and therefore the feelings this column evoked in me, still make me shake. I can’t possibly know how this piece by Shirley will be received by others – I assume very positively as it seems like a good piece of writing – but I can’t know that because I cannot put myself in the shoes of another reader. In this rare instance I can only put myself in the shoes of the author. At the risk of boring you, and because there is no other way to explain, I’m going to take some of this line by line, excerpting from Shirley and comparing to my own current state of being:
Paul Shirley: “My mother told me that my 17-year-old second cousin had died the night before.”
Me: Two weeks ago, my wife told me that my 28-year-old second cousin had died overnight.
PS: “Details were scarce… police had discovered his body the next morning when they’d come to the house in search of the owner of the totaled vehicle.”
Me: Details were scarce … a friend whom he was temporarily living with had discovered his body the next morning when he’d come into his room to wake him for work.
PS: “I won’t pretend that I was especially close with my teenaged second cousin … Mostly, his family is close to mine in symmetry.”
Me: I won’t pretend that I was especially close with my second cousin … Mostly, his family is close to mine in symmetry.
How close? My cousin was 1 of 4 children (3 boys, 1 girl). He was unmarried, but his older brother is 32 and married with 2 children. As am I. That brother – Steven – was my best friend literally from birth (we were born 3 weeks apart, our parents took Lamaze classes together) until we drifted a few years ago, as tends to happen to married men with families. Michael’s (the deceased’s) father is my father’s first cousin and also his best friend since childhood. Our mothers are close friends too and get together at least once per week.
If the symmetry ended there, you would likely chalk it up to coincidence. Perhaps remarkable in its similarity, but alas there had to be someone out there reading Shirley’s columns who shared his experience to some degree. But that is not where the symmetry ends. In fact, it was that word – symmetry – that had been eluding me all week as I tried to describe to people the reason for my strong feelings regarding my cousin’s sudden passing. You see, I was also 1 of 4 children, also 3 boys & 1 girl. I say ‘was’ because my own teenaged brother died suddenly, unexpectedly, without cause or explanation, at the age of 19.
The shock of my brother dying in his sleep will never be exceeded, or even approached, in my lifetime. Yes these things do happen, but it had never happened to anyone I knew. The shock of my second cousin dying, and the eerie parallels to my own family, was an entirely different kind of shock. The randomness of my brother’s death was tragic; the random coincidence of my best friend going through an almost identical experience was absurd. And now, two weeks later, reading Shirley’s column online … well the odds of that being a coincidence are incalculable. This column was written for me. To me. It has to be.
Paul wrote about crying – not for his cousin, but for his mother, who like her nephews and niece had lost her brother at 17. I cried too, and also not for my cousin or even his brother – my friend – but I think for my own brother, and for myself reliving that loss.
And so the column touched a nerve. Actually, more than that – is there a phrase for something touching all of my nerves? The symmetry was everywhere – the subject of death, of the loss of one triggering grief for another, and music. Because in order to complete the similarities, we have to consider the role of the National. I, like Paul, was listening to the National when I heard the tragic news. Not at that moment per se (I was at work), but that week I had downloaded and started listening to “Blood Buzz Ohio” and later “Afraid of Everyone”. The week of mourning for my cousin’s family overlapped with the week of the National’s “High Violet Annex” in Brooklyn, where I live. High Violet Annex culminated in the National playing on Saturday night, May 15, the same night that the Jewish week of mourning concluded for my cousin. I didn’t attend the show. I was too tired, too distraught, simply not ready for that kind of live event.
Or so I thought. The next night I had tickets to see Metric which I had purchased months before. Metric, of all bands, featuring their (now ironic-to-me) single “Help, I’m Alive”. Despite everything I was feeling, I decided not to pass up the chance to see them live. Paul Shirley, who at that moment explained that he was feeling relief and guilt instead of grief, needed the National to help him “think about living a life that presents the unbearable agony of brothers dying when they aren’t supposed to, but that also grants the joy and relief of brothers living whether they’re supposed to or not.” Me? I needed to think about anything but that. I needed the sheer unbridled joy of Emily Haines jumping all over the stage, singing about Alien vs. Eel, Owl vs. Dove, having Stadium Love. Help I’m Alive indeed.
Hopefully next week Paul will write again about the business of basketball, a forgotten grunge band, or even (gasp!) Haiti. Something I can enjoy. Maybe even relate to. But please, no more symmetry.
 Full disclosure: I wrote this piece in May of 2010. Hopefully that explains the dated Lebron & Casablancas references. But as I had nowhere to publish to back then I’m running this here and now. Hope that’s OK.
 In January of 2010 Shirley wrote a column criticizing the relief effort in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. That column got him fired from his blogging assignment at ESPN and made Shirley quite a few enemies. At the time, it was a pretty big story for people (like me) who care about journeyman NBA players writing on a fledgling blog. In any event, it doesn’t diminish his musical tastes, which is all I really cared about.