Inspiration in a Chinese Restaurant

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I recently came across an article titled “That Song Doesn’t Mean What You Think.” Being someone who constantly mishears song lyrics – thus making it impossible to accurately understand the meaning of any given song – I took a look.

The article features ten songs, and if there’s a trend among them, it’s that people tend to brighten and simplify songs that are in fact written about dark and complex matters. Some of the artists included in the list have griped about this. But they should know better – an artist effectively cedes control over their work once they offer it up to the public. All they can do is steer a listener (or reader, or viewer) toward a particular meaning. For better or worse, consumers of art become co-authors, using their imaginations to fill in the gaps and arrive at meanings unique to themselves.

But that’s not what I’m really here to talk about. Because there was one song on that list that stood out to me for operating in the opposite way. Instead of twisting complex and dark into simple and bright, the public found depth and melancholy in a song that had decidedly humble, straightforward origins.

The song is Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion.” Maybe you know it. It’s a reggae-inflected tune built upon a series of infectious melodies. The refrain in the chorus is as follows:

Oh, the mother and child reunion

is only a motion away.

Taking their cue from the rest of the song’s lyrics – which, admittedly, steer listeners fairly forcefully in this direction – most listeners assumed the song was about a strained mother-and-child relationship, about a gulf that had formed between mom and kid that might be bridged if only one or the other of them would reach out to do so.

But what was Paul Simon actually singing about? A chicken and egg dish that he once ate at a Chinese restaurant.

“I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained in an interview, and “there was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’”

Paul Simon is and was, of course, well aware of what happens to a work of art once it’s sent out into the world. He knew his fans wouldn’t be able to intuit from the song’s lyrics alone that he’d found his inspiration for it in a Chinese restaurant. And by adding moody phrases like “false hope” and “strange and mournful day” – and not mentioning anything about chickens, eggs, or Chinese restaurants – Simon gave listeners a strong shove a different way.

But the real lesson to be taken away from this anecdote isn’t one about purposefully vague lyrics, about the gaps that songwriters leave in songs for listeners to fill (and that those listeners often fill in surprising ways). The real lesson here is about inspiration, and about how it can creep up on you in the most seemingly modest settings and most seemingly common situations.

Paul Simon was out to eat. He looked at a Chinese food menu and – bam – one dish in particular caught his eye. According to the fount of all knowledge (i.e., Wikipedia), the curiously named dish got Simon thinking about a pet dog that had been run over and killed: “It was the first death Simon personally experienced, and he began to wonder how he would react if the same happened to his wife at the time.”

Obviously, not everyone’s imagination would take such a gloomy turn. But you don’t need to go dark to produce a great piece of art. What you do need to do is keep your eyes open and your imagination alert – otherwise you might just miss the next great idea, sitting right under your nose.

. . .

Listen to Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” here.

Read about the other nine “misunderstood” songs here.

BATTLE BUNNY, by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett (Pictures by Matthew Myers)

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I’ve written here before about the spat of self-conscious, “postmodern” picture books that have been popping up on bookshelves over the past few years. If you’re not already familiar with the name Jon Scieszka, one thing you need to know about the author is that he was doing it long before everyone else. THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES, among others, were clever and irreverent, encouraging kids’ curiosity and creativity while telling them great – and very funny – stories.

Amazingly, nearly thirty years later, Scieszka is still offering fresh takes on the picture book, and even at this time when it feels like all the tricks have been played, like kids have already been shown all the good things that a slanted, postmodern perspective can show them. BATTLE BUNNY, written along with the always-excellent Mac Barnett and illustrated brilliantly by Matthew Myers, is one of Scieszka’s latest picture books, and might just be my new, all-time favorite.

BATTLE BUNNY is, in fact, two books. The first, original book is actually titled BIRTHDAY BUNNY, and, thanks to a handwritten inscription on the book’s very first page, we learn that the book has been recently given to “Alex” by his “Gran Gran” for his “special day.” Barring a small, quiet nod to Samuel Beckett, BIRTHDAY BUNNY is a perfect parody of the picture books popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s – painfully simple, boringly straightforward, and cloyingly sweet (think of the worst of the Little Golden Books).

BATTLE BUNNY, on the other hand, is Alex’s story, the reworked version of BIRTHDAY BUNNY that he creates by slashing through the text and enhancing the illustrations with no more than his imagination and a pencil. BATTLE BUNNY is everything BIRTHDAY BUNNY is not – uproarious, irreverent, and delightfully chaotic, full of hand-to-hand combat, explosions, cameos by the President of the United States, and the occasional fart joke. In other words, it is everything your average, typical boy could want – and is extremely unlikely to find – in a picture book.

But by showing Alex at work, by giving kids a green light to dislike books that have nothing to offer them and actually take measures to change them, to make them better, to make them their own – this is the extra step that authors like Scieszka and Barnett so regularly figure out how to take, the reason why their books so often do more than entertain kids (not that they need to in order to be worthwhile). These authors’ books also encourage kids to question the world around them and all the things it hands down to them, and gives them the ideas and tools they need to get started making their own unique mark where they feel they can and must.

It’s possible that, after giving this book to your kids, you’ll find drawings on your living room walls and pencil edits in your novels (one good reason you might want to give it to other people’s kids). But you also might find that, in the process, your kids’ creativity has been unleashed – and that’s something worth a lot more than clean walls or pristine books.

DANNY, WHO FELL IN A HOLE, by Cary Fagan

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This slim book if founded on an elegantly simple premise: a boy, Danny, falls in a hole. On the face of it, this may seem like a complete story in and of itself, or at the very most an incomplete one that, once fleshed out, couldn’t possibly be all that interesting. But in the hands of a storyteller as skillful as Fagan, this novel about a boy who falls in a hole is by turns funny, moving, exciting, and fascinating, and never once does it come even close to being boring.

By trapping his main character – and thus himself – in a hole, Fagan earns himself a kind of freedom that a novelist spinning a more complicated, event-heavy story doesn’t have. There isn’t much for Danny to do down there in that hole, and this leaves Fagan free to explore his character with a patience and depth that a lot of writers of kids’ books either don’t get to or choose not to.

Reading DANNY, WHO FELL IN A HOLE, I was reminded of the books of another writer, Cesar Aira, who I’ve posted about here a handful of times. Aira has said many times that he never revises his novels, and that he often purposely writes himself into awkward corners just to force himself to then get out of them. In Aira’s stories, this makes for the occasional disorienting passage, but more often than not, it leads to thrilling, unforeseen twists and moments of surprising, electrifying enlightenment.

Fagan is doing something similar here. But in backing both himself and his main character into a corner, he’s doing more than drawing his readers’ attention to his own skills and ingenuity. He shows, too, what happens to Danny – and, by extension, what can happen to any of us – when we find ourselves in a tough, even seemingly impossible predicament with nothing to rely on but our own two hands and the head on our shoulders.

Before Danny’s fall, we learn just a little bit about his family, his place in it, and his relationship to the various members of it. It turns out he is the sole practical-minded one in a group of creative eccentrics who, even collectively, have only a tenuous grasp on reality. He is known – not un-affectionately, but still – as the single unimaginative, uncreative one of the bunch. Here’s a representative comment, which occurs during a family discussion following Danny’s discovery that his still-happily-married parents are nonetheless splitting up for a year in order to pursue their most-recent artistic dreams, one in Banff and the other in New York City:

“It’s not your fault that you’re not creative like the rest of us . . . To a common-sense person like you,” his mother went on, “this might seem very impractical. But dreams are not practical, Danny. Vincent van Gogh wasn’t practical. Bob Dylan wasn’t practical.”

In a way, Fagan’s book is about proving just how wrong Danny’s mom and dad and older brother are about their younger brother and son. Because sure, Danny can’t really draw and he doesn’t play an instrument, and unlike his parents, he doesn’t have a passion for baking cheesecakes or for singing opera. But forced to fend for himself in that hole of his, he shows us, himself, and also ultimately his family that he is equally – if very differently – as creative as each one of them. Maybe he won’t be the next van Gogh or Dylan, but Danny displays the sort of creativity that, say, a successful engineer or scientist might need.

This book is a good read for anyone and everyone, but especially for kids who perhaps feel out of place in their family or school, and especially especially for any kids feeling frustrated about “not being good at anything” or not knowing what they’ll grow up to be and do. The novel is also a good argument for the potential benefits that can come from properly challenging kids. Obviously, Fagan’s not encouraging any parents or teachers to throw kids in holes and forget about them for a few days. But in presenting kids with difficult problems to solve, in allowing them the time and space to wrestle with thorny questions and tackle trying situations, you give them a chance to push and stretch themselves and, beyond that, to perhaps discover abilities they never dreamed they had.