The Well-Tempered Songbook: #47 – Love Is in the Air, John Paul Young
We were identified to the group as guys that wanted to be cool long after high school was over or something to that effect. The trainer told us we were to find, borrow, or purchase pink ballerina tutus and white t-shirts before we came back the next morning.
There were two personal training seminars: the first, an initial three-day “basic” class and a few weeks later, the five-day “advanced” class. We met in an upscale hotel conference room in downtown Los Angeles. The opening night we sat on stackable, cushioned black chairs, but soon after we found ourselves cross-legged on the hotel’s industrial carpet. From time-to-time sentimental popular songs would play through the soft hiss of the portable public address system. Hard-working volunteers manned a registration table and coordinated the event from the back. A charismatic trainer led the room up front.
“You are on my lifeboat.” |“You are not on my lifeboat.”
We were formed into a large ring around the perimeter of the room. Each of us was given eight small wooden sticks. Each stick represented an invitation onto an imaginary lifeboat. When the exercise began, the ring split and snaked back on itself clockwise and began to circulate in reverse, which allowed each student to step in front of each other student before the process was complete. Our task was to invite eight students onto an imaginary lifeboat with the sticks we held – or we were to let the person facing us know that we were not inviting them. You were instructed to say nothing else. “You are on my lifeboat.” “You are not on my lifeboat.”
There were the “have-to” distribute tickets for friends you might have driven in with, or your spouse, or a girlfriend who took the class with you, but for the most part you had to make hard, uncomfortable choices with your newfound friends. By this point in the training you had already interacted closely with many of them one-on-one or within small groups. They were already people you greeted in the parking lot while walking in or smiled at tentatively by the registration table. You had already begun to build comfort and camaraderie in your new social network, but these fragile nests were being deliberately torn apart. No to all that.
Some students kept a stick for themselves – and when we discussed the exercise afterwards much was made of the students who did not. Some gave their sticks to the first eight people they faced and then pleaded innocent helplessness to the remaining souls. Some refused to give sticks to anyone or they broke their sticks dramatically, as if to wash their hands of the farce. Some wept loudly and theatrically the entire time.
But whatever our personal strategies were, the exercise proceeded with or without us, and at the end, eight members of the overall group – those with the most sticks – made it onto an imaginary lifeboat at the center of the room. The rest of us did not. As the discussion unfolded afterwards the instructor brought more people onto the lifeboat – based on the count of sticks they held. At the end only those without any sticks where abandoned on the room perimeter. If this were an actual emergency I would have slipped away somewhere in the great middle of all that drowning, as anyone who’s known me for even a minute might have guessed.
“I trust you.” | “I do not trust you.”
In another exercise we were assembled in a standing cluster in the center of the room. Our instructions were to mingle arbitrarily about the group and then every few seconds stop in front of whomever might happen to stand before us. We were to look into their eyes for several seconds and then make an on-the-spot determination of whether we trusted this face or not. You gave them your verdict; they gave you theirs; and you moved on to the next encounter. We did this over and over. All you could hear in the darkened room were the confessional background whispers of “I trust you” and “I do not trust you.” Every now and then, you’d make out a familiar voice in the mix. It was as solemn as a monastery communion.
I was surprised by how many people didn’t trust me, by people that should have known better (or so I felt.) This was particularly difficult if they had already experiencing me directly in some other encounter or exchange. I felt confusion confronting an estrangement in their eyes that I wasn’t sure I could ever fix or alter. Justifications flooded in. It’s because I’m a guy, because I’m white, too young, too Jewish, because she doesn’t trust men, because I talk too much. I’m argumentative, loud. We’re both arrogant and he doesn’t like that. Whatever. We all had our reasons for the looks we faced.
So for some time we milled against each other until we got used to the shock of it, until we started to feel more comfortable in that new space. For those brief minutes of the exercise we spent time in a dark forest we had avoided our entire lives: the direct, apocalyptic experience of other people’s judgment. Prejudice and presentiments floated to the surface like garbage liberated from the ocean floor.
And yet, at the end, as difficult as it was, it was okay. It didn’t kill you; you went on; the other person didn’t care all that much about what they told you. It was just what was for them. In the right set of circumstances, you can grow up quickly; and like those Hindu gods of death that threaten from afar to scrape you apart with their claws and burn you with their eyes, human opinion faced directly can take your hand as gently as a young schoolteacher.
We hugged. | We allowed ourselves to be hugged.
She was a Southern Californian, straight-hair blonde, someone you’d expect to find in an advertisement for Sprite holding a surfboard she couldn’t ride. She was above average pretty but in every other regard as intentionally unremarkable as a hotel heiress. She worked a shallow, feigned stupidity with the group. She never seemed to know why she was there, and she spoke with an artificial, adolescent voice that disguised her personality like cheap, pink make-up.
When publicly confronted on the Valley Girl persona by the trainer, she feigned confusion and pretended not to understand what he was talking about even when she vacantly said “oh” after a painfully long pause. What she pretended not to see was as obviously in front of her as a volleyball net. She was just living some other kind of life I didn’t understand and didn’t care about, less of a life to be honest.
I had written her off.
The trainer would always say whoever you end up with is the right person for you, as if there was some convenient magic in it, and when we were told to find a person different than yourself for one particular exercise, she was nearby at the time. This particular exercise was about our parents, and, like everything we did in that room, it forced you unexpectedly up against someone else and against yourself.
And she was sharing something with me in the exercise – my job was to put on my best listening face – and suddenly she was right there with me, eye-to-eye and present. It startled me. As she spoke (to her mother), her voice changed, the way that people’s faces turn into their spirit creatures in the movies. In that moment her mask fell away and she was as complex and sensitive as anyone else I’ve ever known. She was having not just a, but the same experience of life that I was having. She could see everything as delicately as I. She was deeply hidden, but she was in there, an ocean bottom creature shaking clear a mask of sand and taking sudden flight. She was quick; she was alive. It was a revelation.
Now it is one thing to hope as a matter of moral policy or to believe in your heart of hearts that we’re all somehow fundamentally the “same,” that our personalities are functional masks, stubborn labels fixed on empty old jars, but it is quite another to experience a moment of visibility into the matter, to witness the common, shared, and deeply sensitive thing within each of us that has no owner, no name and no identity.
And that was the basic class.
I’d just come off my third showstopping public argument with the trainer. The first standoff had been less than an hour into the advanced class. I’d had the misfortune of waiting on the trainer and his support staff the night before the seminar started. Their team happened to show up at the restaurant where I worked. They were there for a kind of pre-seminar team builder, a little looser and drunker than they might have been if they’d known their waiter was in their charge for the next five days.
Eventually I realized from the table conversation who they were and explained, probably too enthusiastically, that I’d be at their training the next day. I noticed the trainer was cool with me during the meal, and the next morning he publicly mocked something about how I’d waited on the table. It was a dick thing to say in front of a hundred and nineteen new people, and I called him on it and we went at it. I can’t remember the second blow up, but it was the same kind of thing and now this third time he was threatening to throw me out of the training.
In the exercise that caused the problem we were supposed to stand up when we realized something or other was true for us. Like evening stars gradually coming out, each of the advanced students stood up like small town citizens in a movie crowd. And, of course, there was a big rush of standing right towards the end when nobody wanted to be left out, and everybody conveniently cottoned on to whatever it was they were supposed to believe. The flow rate and statistics for crowd conversions are as orderly as the heavens.
But I was struggling, because I’d promised myself I would proceed with as perfect an integrity as I could muster for those five days, and I didn’t think the thing we were supposed to notice was actually true for me and so a hundred and nineteen people later I was still sitting down, the last cross-legged Indian on the carpet. I felt everyone waiting on me the way you waited for the teacher and the Problem Kid to get through it in elementary school.
I told him I wasn’t going to stand up just to make a trainer happy. He said the reason I wasn’t standing up was because I wanted attention. Long silences started to stretch out between us. They were like those extended pauses in the middle of a break-up conversation. You are still sitting on her living room couch and you haven’t grabbed your bag of overnight clothes and left for forever.
I am looking at the door I can make out through the legs of all these obedient Standing People, and I imagine walking out to the parking lot with my integrity and my partial refund. I’ll be like that townie kid in Bad News Bears who drove his motorcycle through the outfield fence after causing a spectacle at the Little League home opener. I imagine myself out in the parking lot doing donuts in my crappy Honda with the blown muffler. I’ll give that Fucking Dick the finger from the car window. Fast Times! I’ll press my bare ass up against his conference room window while they cry about their miserable parents and their broken dreams…
The Standing People are waiting for me to get up. From my cross-legged position on the industrial carpet, I tell the trainer the only reason half of them are standing is because they are chicken shit to deal with him. Apparently it is not enough to be in a fight with the trainer, I need to get in a fight with the whole room world.
And as if you could reasonably get at the truth this way, the trainer asks his Sheeple if what I said was true. Is it true? Is it true? Do you stand for me or do you stand for you? It occurs to me that one honest man in this crowd will shift the universe for eternity, stars will pour from the sky like sugar, but they are all falling over themselves to volunteer, “I think that we ALL feel or notice whatever it is you want us to.” They are so locked in they can speak for each other! Tears of earnest conviction are springing from their eyes. Looks of indelible pity are cast my direction. Phony goodness. Pitying females.
All of which remind me how much I hate other people.
An irritating, affected guy slips into the pregnant vacuum and starts to make a rambling, suck-up speech that isn’t even making the trainer’s point properly. He’s been doing this the entire training. Why isn’t he getting the attention speech? I make a face to demonstrate that I’m in migraine pain from his voice and his absurd argument, and I ask him, as if pleading for mercy, if he will just stop, but he will not. He would not, could not shut his mouth. Not on a plane, not on a train… I adopt a sharper, more aggressive voice and tell him the cure for being an ass-kisser is to stop being an ass-kisser. You don’t need a five-day seminar. (Now the room has two trainers.) The Sheeple stir nervously. They are waiting for their trainer to tell them what to do, what to think, what to believe, how to act. I point that out. From the corner of my eye I see the woman I drove in with wondering how she is going to get her ride back to Pasadena.
And just like that time in Minneapolis when the flight attendant nearly threw me off the Northwest Airlines flight for contradicting her, You imagine yourself turning off your electronic device and stowing your bag just like you’re told, setting your tray table upright, smiling politely, being wise, timely, and obedient. Because I know Sheeple and I know You and, no doubt, you’re on the other trainer’s side, but I’ll tell you this: if I had gotten thrown out of that conference room it would have been one of the proudest moments of my life. I was this close to becoming my own personal hero. I may never be so unfairly misunderstood again. You have no idea.
I stood up.
On the second to last day of the advanced training, a handful of young men in their early to mid-twenties were called to the front of the room. There were about eight of us, and the tall, heavy-set, not all that handsome trainer referred to us as the imaged out. We were identified to the group as guys that wanted to be cool long after high school was over or something to that effect. We came to the front and greeted each other cautiously, nodding almost imperceptibly, true to type. The trainer told us we were to find, borrow, or purchase pink ballerina tutus and white t-shirts before we came back the next morning. When we returned the next day we had to wear the t-shirts and tutus beneath our regular clothes. Then he told us to sit down. That was it. It was like that with him.
The next day, towards the end of that last evening together, the eight of us were called up again to the front. We were asked to strip down and stand in a row. The support staff got busy and started to swirl around. The room was dimmed, the conference room divider pulled back. Our clothes and shoes were whisked away. While we stood there in front of everyone in our tutus, the fold-up chairs and poster paper white boards were cleared away. The other students were arranged around a cleared makeshift theater in the round.
There had been some nervous laughter from the others when we disrobed, but it was scattered and we ignored it. We understood immediately who we were being called upon to be, and we were as serious as a football team about it. There is much to not like about the imaged out that want to be cool long after high school, but you can’t say that it isn’t the mask of a serious person. The trainer lumbered away into the darkness at the back of the room like a bear into hibernation. Several of the female support staff put their arms around each other as they leaned back against their table. They knew what was coming; they had been here before, and for another five years they would return until the organization that put on these seminars was crushed beneath the weight of participant lawsuits.
We were not told what song they would play. And, of course, there was no time to rehearse anything. We were just told to dance when the music started. When the speakers started to hiss with oncoming song, we checked into each other’s eyes to make sure we were still there. Then one of us folded his arms over his head like a ballerina and the rest of us followed suit. (We were as orderly as the heavens.) We held that position: chins raised, backs arched, poised to the tips of our delicate fingers.
We waited on our song.
The song has always been associated with forsythia on the roadside, that color guard harbinger of spring. My mother is driving my brother and me to school in our Volkswagen minivan. It is a bright, sunny morning in April. We are turning onto 206 towards Lawrenceville from Carter Road. A stretch of forsythia bushes is suddenly ranged on the roadside to the left. They are the first of the season.
The three of us are singing with the song on the radio. We are carried away: making singer faces for each other, holding imaginary microphones. We are very close to the high school now, and I am dangerously oblivious to whether people in other cars might look into our own, but for one teenage microinterval I am beyond caring. This song and that exact moment by the stoplight as we turn up the hill are one complete, hermetically protected, joyful, snow-globe of a life moment. And the swirling, cherry-blossom feeling inside that moment is what I tried to bring to my ballerina.
There is so much to love in the naked charm of the song: the Travolta-smooth voice; the warm, thumping heartbeat of its bass line; the cricketing castanets; the cheerful click of wood sticks; the discoing gold platter of high-hat; the background Pips boogie of electric clavichord. There is the lovers’ climb of the verse turnaround that suddenly opens up onto that rollercoaster bridge and the piano and ecstatic strings climbing against each other with their any-second-now, any-second-now promise of eternity.Love is in the air in the whisper of the trees, Love is in the air in the thunder of the sea,
And I don’t know if I’m just dreaming, I don’t know if I feel safe…
The sugarplum fairies moved out through the audience that last evening with their imaginary cherry blossoms and their white ostrich feathers. Their arms cascaded and pumped like swirling downy fountains. And for just a moment they did not wear their masks. They met the eyes of the others in that room in the exquisite presence of a thing that has no owner, no name and no identity.
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