There’s a scene in Talladega Nights where Ricky Bobby’s father wakes him from hard slumber by way of a bucket of water. The parental rouse-à-la-douse, despite the trope, is almost certainly threatened more often than it is executed. While I found the stunt humorous as a kid, I never thought to question from where a parent’s motivation would originate for this and other sadistic reveille. I often reconsidered the concept during the summer of 2013 as I sat in my oldest child’s bed for hours every night, waiting for her to fall asleep.
Growing up, my parents never threw water on us to wake us up, but my dad had a penchant for bursting into my room in the morning while singing. You could never predict what he might be singing: Christmas songs, folk music, liturgical hymns, 1960s/1970s pop. But regardless of the genre, it never failed to annoy. Perhaps, it’s childish narcissism to require intentionality of the annoyance. My experience as a parent suggests that my parents spent less time thinking about us than I assumed at the time. My dad might have just been doing what comes naturally to us morning people; namely, enjoy ourselves while unintentionally pissing off everyone around us. But early morning retaliation is what I thought about as I sat in bed with my daughter, who was tired but awake. She was too excited or anxious or who-the-hell-knows to go to sleep on her own like she had for the previous four years of her life. So, I sang.
Sitting in silence didn’t work. My offspring inherited a compulsion to fill silence with speech. Reading bedtime stories seemed too much like a reward, and my parenting team had long moved beyond carrots at that point. I tried counting sheep, but that put me to sleep. So, I sang.
As I sat in a dark room with no lyrics or musical accompaniment, one of the first things I realized was that the number of songs of which I remembered the complete lyrics was significantly smaller than I assumed. Anyone who’s ever sung karaoke knows this phenomenon. You’re excited about your selection. You’re positive you know how it goes. And in any case, how hard can it be to follow along with the music and recite the words in front of you? Then you stumble, miss the chord progression, and realize you should get off the stage and back to your drink. (I don’t think it’s a stretch to read this as a general metaphor for parenting.)
But I do have a handful of songs that I know well enough, tracks from that personal compilation album that we all construct in our early decades. I am somewhat constrained by my audience; most of my songs are 1980s/1990s country. Traumatizing her with divorce and death wouldn’t serve anyone’s purpose at this late hour. While roaring Garth Brooks drinking songs to a drowsing four-year-old, I considered that this is not my customary deployment of these tunes. This is a long way from listening to a Reba McEntire cassette on loop while hogging the landline; belting out Clint Black with too many people on the front bench of a pickup truck; the Shania Twain concert with a college girlfriend; the cross-country moves with the Dixie Chicks or even my commute with Ricochet and Collin Raye. These are my favorite songs that I’ve known and sung for decades. This is the Clint Black duet from my wedding (and a great many other weddings that summer). And I sang them all, in the same order, every single night for over a year.
For the first few weeks, it was fun. After all, the whole point was to entertain myself while waiting for her to succumb to sleep, so I sang songs I liked instead of tedious lullabies. I researched lyrics a bit during the day to fill in the gaps on some rusty favorites. I choreographed an optimal set: energetic songs early to distract her and then some ballads to ease her to sleep, albeit with enough volume to cover my escape. And I romanticized that I’m building a narrative for my daughter, “those old country songs Daddy used to sing at bedtime,” instead of “all those nights that Mama and Daddy screamed at me to stay in my room and just go to sleep.” But night after night, the tradition became a tad rote. The songs dulled a little, like my mom’s off-limits sewing scissors after cutting up a couple of pieces of cardboard. Because this wasn’t the intended use for these songs.
I think of the songs my dad used to sing. Did he know, back in his university days, he would deploy the Mighty Quinn as an early-morning sonic weapon? I imagine him listening to “Brandy” (she’s a fine girl…) with my mom, presumably unaware he’d be singing the song at random mundane moments over the next forty years. Simon and Garfunkel in the grocery store, Jim Croce making pancakes, and Wendy’s stormy eyes flashing, ostensibly to embarrass us during school drop-off. These songs, lifted from vinyl or the Billboard 100, colored with experiences decades past and then the ambient background for decades since.
But even the most near-sighted would reluctantly admit awareness that our lives will change. We are each a compilation of evolving circumstances. So, what about our songs? Does the same hold? Will I still be singing “Longneck Bottle” in twenty years? Already it’s a different song to me, the edges noticeably duller. Is it possible to change the soundtrack once it’s been created? Or are you limited to skipping tracks, shuffling around this mortal coil?
I don’t know. I do know this: these are my songs. And when you don’t know what else to do, you sings the songs that you know by heart.
C.G. Baker is a writer for Linear Algebra and its Applications, Transactions on Mathematical Software, and the Journal of Numerical Analysis. He is the Head of Development at Galactic Fog, he loves #Scala, and he’s scared of geese…. and you should be, too!