Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

This week the world lost two iconic artists: Adam Yauch (MCA) of the Beastie Boys and children's author, Maurice Sendak. And all week, I have felt strangely and overwhelmingly melancholy.

I started college at the University of Vermont in the fall of 1987. I brought two posters with me; one was a life size photo of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the other was an illustration from Where the Wild Things Are. My musical tastes were pretty much limited to what I could find on the radio and The Talking Heads (whom I had discovered at summer arts camp). I had grown up an hour and a half away from UVM in a small town in northeastern Vermont, and most of my suitemates had also come from small towns all over the state, except for L. from Poughkeepsie, NY. She was Korean-American but spoke French. She dressed all in black, and liked the Sex Pistols and the Smiths.  Her friends were New York City punks who crashed our suite, living in the common area for weeks (even months at a time), smoking Turkish cigarettes. They did drugs and shoplifted and loitered. I was afraid of them and fascinated by them. L. was naughty but also terribly sweet. She introduced me to Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and  The Beastie Boys.

The Beastie Boys' music represented, for me anyway, a safe rebellion. They were a hardcore punk band that got radio airtime. Their music was loud and fast, but it was also wonderfully silly. The appeal that the Beastie Boys had for me was the same that I'd found in Max from Where the Wild Things Are. Max was a naughty boy who got sent to bed without supper. And without leaving his room, he was able to travel "in and out of weeks, and almost over a where the wild things are." And better still, after being crowned king of all wild things, he was still able to go home where he found his supper waiting for him.

When I was a little girl, I loved Where the Wild Things Are. It was probably my favorite book. Inexplicably, I identified with Max. I was not a naughty child. I was, actually, quite the opposite. I did well in school. I rarely "made mischief," and I don't recall ever getting sent to bed without supper. But the allure of that bedroom that turned into a forest and the possibility of running away to a place where big-footed monsters gnashed their terrible teeth was one I was mesmerized by.

It was that first year at UVM that I decided that I wanted to be a writer. Not a journalist, not an English teacher, but a writer. I gobbled up the short stories assigned to me in my creative writing classes. I scribbled poems and crafted my own stories. And when things started to go badly in my real life, I sought refuge in the fictional landscapes I created.

I was Max. 

In my writing I could be bad. I could be naughty. I could go places I was too afraid to go in real life: scary places inhabited by the terrible creations of a vivid imagination. But the beauty of writing was that I was still the one in charge of all these wild things, and I could also "tame them with the magic trick of  staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once." And best of all, after all was said and done, I could return to my room (my dorm room and later my tiny apartment and now, my office) where all of the comforts of home awaited.

Music and writing have always offered an opportunity to imagine other lives without leaving the safety of my home. (It's no coincidence that the antagonist in my first novel was named Max. Or that the cat that purrs at my feet is named Max as well.) And so I mourn the loss of these two men. Adam Yauch's death was tragic, untimely. I'm certain there was so much more music to be made. Maurice Sendak, on the other hand, was an old man who had lived a full, rich life. He found literary success and happiness with a partner of nearly fifty years, but in his final interview with Terry Gross, he suggested that his lack of faith made this dying business just a little bit harder than for believers.

And so with a heavy heart, I thank you, Mr. Yauch and Mr. Sendak. I hope that wherever you are, there's a wild rumpus of funky monkeys, and that after all is said and done, your supper's waiting for you....

and it's still hot.

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