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Mulligans and American Myth

Been listening to Bruce Springsteen lately and thinking about different American myths. There’s this one prevailing myth (and it’s not a bad one) that when this life ends, we’ll receive a second. And I don’t mean heaven or paradise in any typical Western theistic sense of the word. Heaven for Americans would take place here on earth, in our country, and it would essentially be a do-over. A mulligan. It just feels kind of understood, deep down among the tacks and picture frames of our treasure chest hearts, that if we missed out on something in this life (usually instances from youth are the most replayed), or if we botched a situation or relationship, that we’ll have a second chance to correct these mistakes. That if we’re unhappy about how a certain era of our life went, that that’s OK, we’re aware of it now, and we’ll choose a different option next time. A myth so implied it has a certain nonchalance to it. I remember its calling most from childhood, when I would watch characters on TV my age who would hang out at the arcade after school, maybe hangout at a local milkshake joint, walk to the mall for comic books. And I felt a certain longing at first witnessing this, because that stuff didn’t exist in my town, and I was driven everywhere by my parents, and my friends and I really only hung out at each others’ houses. I felt that I had missed the proper childhood. But this longing was quickly replaced by some non-linguistic appeasement that somehow communicated to me — with the brevity of a thought — that this would be the life I would live during my second childhood, my do-over, which would understandably take place on the West Coast and involve all kinds of hanging out at arcades and street hockey rinks with my friends and stuff. So the pull of sadness I felt, the tug, was lifted and the weight quickly dropped back into my heart until something else didn’t quite go my way during youth and suddenly time became very real and its passage out of my hands (I realize looking back now, that this youthful melancholy might have been caused by my first encounters with time and awareness of its passing), and the tug returned. These youthful missing-outs usually involved girls or social situations and all kinds of pining. But none of the situations ever seemed insurmountable because of that comforting myth in my brain (I don’t believe it was ever taught to me) that foretold of a second life, one I had yet to live — my do-over. So the longing shifts from longing for what you had (the chance you missed or want to relive) to longing for what you will have (that second chance, which you’re already projecting in your mind). But the longing is always present, and to get back to the point here without rambling too much, Springsteen understands this longing. A very American longing. I don’t think nostalgia for people in other countries and cultures is the same (not generalizing or being exclusive here; just thinking in type). I don’t really think they believe in the second-chance, perhaps because they are realists and have had more exposure to know better, but we do and we are Americans and it is our myth. Springsteen’s song “Atlantic City” will really help pull it out of you. Everything dies baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back/Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City. He makes great connections with his music and lyrics that aren’t explicit, and may not even be intentional, but they convey this longing so well. Sure everything and everyone dies, but maybe they all come back too, and meanwhile, the time we have left is fleeting, so let’s meet somewhere bright and stimulating and romantic (at night) and feel alive for our little moment. Seems banal, and the point of banalities is that they trigger no emotions whatsoever, but his somehow triggers great sadness and hope. I’ve heard covers of this song before, and people change the inflection, and that seems to me to change the tone of the song altogether, because when Bruce does it, it’s like he’s trying to fit it all in before the clock winds down (And, and, and), or that he’s really excited, like a child, and keeps rambling on with these inspiring ideas and romantic images shooting off in his head (And, and, and). And when he can’t quite get it all out, he starts howling. He’s always howling in his songs, howling at the moon however partial or full. Sometimes I understand that howl better than his lyrics.

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