Or at least how he represents himself in interviews these days. There are two things I think a lot about. They go together. One is how open he is to new things, how excited he is to try things he hasn’t tried before, to sing songs he hasn’t sung before, to hang back and not always be the front man, and to be open to the pleasure in seeing your friends do great things. This is the kind of old person I want to be, even if I don’t have Robert Plant’s considerable success beforehand.
Last night, I talked to my cousin. It’s sometimes hard for me to talk to my cousin, because he and I are a lot alike in ways that embarrass me about myself. Once, he told me that there was something about our family that seems large and mythic (a thought I regularly entertain) and that it was like we were “from the Bible” (another thought I have entertained, but have, over the years, disregarded as stupid). And yet, I don’t think my cousin is stupid. So, you can see how it brings up a weird kind of dissonance for me. I get how attractive these ideas are, because I have them. And yet, it’s easier to see in him how these ideas stand in the way of him being happy.
I mean, how can someone caught up in a myth be happy? When the gods have you by the shoulders, what peace is there?
Anyway, last night we were briefly talking about our dead cousin’s son, who keeps making half-hearted efforts to meet up with my cousin and then flaking out at the last minute. My dead cousin was basically raised by my cousin’s dad, who took him in when his parents got divorced. So, at that level, there’s a lot of love but a LOT of heartache. For various reasons I won’t get into. My cousin’s dad is also no always easy to get along with. He’s got a big heart, but he makes sure it hurts to ever reach it. And my cousin’s dad has said some unforgivable things about my dead cousin’s grandchildren (the niece and nephew of the flaking cousin). Now, I don’t think my cousin even knows about that, but if he does know, it’s not like there’s some physical score-keeping place where he can mark down that he disagrees with the sentiment. All my flaking cousin can know is that our side of the family has been a source of pain for his family his whole life.
So, he flakes. But my cousin seems convinced that there’s more to it–that something is going on in his home or that he’s got some issues or blah blah blah. It can’t just be that he’s afraid to open himself back up to the potential for that pain.
But that’s all background for the part that scared the shit out of me. My cousin said he was going to keep trying in hopes that he could reach him eventually and then bring him back into our family which would be for the good of everyone.
I don’t quite know how to convey what scared the shit out of me. I guess it’s the way he said “the family”–again like there’s something that is “The Phillipses” that you can be in or out of, some core around which we all rotate. This Godfather stuff my mom pointed out when she was here. Like we’re a gang.
And, yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about this because it stuck with me when my mom said it, but I do think that the Phillipses do, in some ways, function like a mafia family in decline. And if only some great leader can emerge and take control, we can have things back how they were when there was money and family get-togethers and life centered around Battle Creek.
But it’s also the way he was so sure about what the right thing to do was. I heard in his voice something that I feel like I hear in my voice sometimes, that I know I hear in my father’s voice and in my uncle’s voice–this surety. We’re so used to feeling like we’re so smart and we know everything that it annoys us sometimes to have to wait around for everyone else to see how right and clever we are.
I don’t want to grow old thinking that I am the smartest asshole in the room.
And so I think a lot about Robert Plant saying that his family never sat around singing the old songs he loves now, that he’s learning so late in life. His own folk songs.
Because I have to think that you can learn to take what you’re given and rearrange it into something you can live with. Something you can be happy with.
At least, that’s what I’m trying for.