Author Archives: Bryn Gribben

About Bryn Gribben

Bryn Gribben holds a Ph. D. in Victorian literature from the University of Washington and a secret MFA in her heart. She teaches literature at Seattle University, with courses focusing on such topics as beauty, dignity, and visual culture. Bryn also taught a course on "Writing for This American Life" at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle and can be heard on episode 4 on the podcast "Closed for Logging." Once, she participated in a celebrity spelling bee, under the name of "Sylla Belle."

Practice Rooms: When I Didn’t Enjoy the Silence with Amy

Last night, I went to the Tractor Tavern’s annual New Wave Cover Band Night: Love Vigilantes (the New Order band), For the Masses (Depeche Mode), and This Charming Band (Morrissey/The Smiths). It was, frankly, epic. There was a light that will never go out, and people were people on a Blue Monday. I’d been chatting up this charming man throughout the evening, and sometime during “Never Let Me Down Again,” we began spontaneously choreographing little moves.

And that’s when I missed Amy.

I believe Amy played the flute briefly, but this post isn’t about how she practiced music. It’s about how WE “practiced” music together, and why we failed, as friends.

In this case, “practice” doesn’t refer to the honing of skills through repetition; it refers to a state of being, a way of living, like the practice of yoga or the practice of non-violence. Music was a religion for Amy and me. We made each other tapes with obscure songs on them—she would hold the recorder near the record player to capture Bobby Bare’s “Skip a Rope,” and I would hold the recorder near the television to capture bits of dialogue from Singles to put in between songs. We cruised the one mile you could cruise of our town for hours, listening to Erasure and making up elaborate synchronized arm movements we could both do, even while the other was driving. We did that so much. And when I first saw Depeche Mode, on the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour, it was with her. And when he sang the line “I’m taking a ride with my best friend,” we pointed to each other.

And then, in graduate school, she dumped me.

I’ve tried to write about this before. It was the first post I ever made on this blog. We were at least in Facebook contact at that point, but after that post, it seems, it was really over. I would say that it hurt her, but I wouldn’t say I knew anything about Amy anymore by then.

This past quarter, I taught creative non-fiction for the first time, and we talked a lot about the stories you aren’t ready to write. We’d listened to a This American Life piece on “Petty Tyrants,” which, unsurprisingly, generated a lot of what is called “revenge prose” from students, as they wrote their own pieces. “Revenge prose” is when, no matter what the author says is the emotional core of the piece, the reader can tell that the real goal of the piece is to get back at someone, to make them look bad and their own selves look better. “If you feel like you’re trying to defend something or prove something,” I said, one day, “you’re probably not ready to write it.”

I said it because I’d been thinking about the Amy piece, how I hadn’t been trying to get back at her, but how I had been trying both to defend myself and to prove something to myself. I’d been trying to defend myself from my own need for the conversation that never happened after she told us we weren’t best friends anymore. She felt there was nothing more to say—she’d just wanted to say it and seemed ok continuing our friendship in a different form, although she would no longer be pointing at ME during “Never Let Me Down.” So, I wrote a piece in lieu of that conversation. I didn’t even ever think she’d read it. I don’t think it’s mean—I still think what is most clear in that piece is that I still don’t feel clear, that I still don’t understand why we couldn’t talk to each other anymore. But there I go—proving something again. Trying to prove that I tried: to understand, to communicate, but the attempt was clumsy, incomplete, unchoreographed and out of sync.

The charming guy at the show was there with his own best friend, it turns out. “I can’t tell you how much I love that guy,” he shouted during “Enjoy the Silence.” Yes, I remember that: the wordless sense of belonging with your best friend, the way your very bodies would turn in unison towards the same lights and dance the same steps. I have a weird medallion from the Songs of Faith and Devotion show—it’s metal, with the astronaut from one of their videos on it. I keep it in a box with other broken things I don’t seem to want to let go of. Maybe I’ll give it to him and accept that while I may not enjoy it, this story is always going to end in silence.

Practice Rooms: The Bands He Couldn’t Quit

It’s two weeks after E. and I start dating, and I am at Folklife, watching a 60-something-year-old drum majorette twirl her baton, hilariously, while sitting down. He is a few rows behind her, the only trumpet player under 60. It’s a good gag: the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Marching Band.

I go to all their shows.

I also go to many of the shows of E.’s other band, the one we call his “Bro Band” because it is full of guys he would never hang out with—nice enough, but married and living in suburbs so far away that it takes one of them an hour to get to practice. They play covers of radio hits we don’t listen to. The summer I am in England, co-leading a study abroad trip, they tease him about possibly having killed me. “Oh, Bryn’s ‘still in Europe’? Yeah, right, E.—it’s always the quiet ones.” He likes it when they tease him—it makes him feel like he belongs.

E. often doesn’t—in either band. He comes home from Bro Band one night, humiliated that he tried to make a joke about something and failed. He wouldn’t tell me what. He hates that they are learning a Maroon Five song. He gets tired of playing Sousa at the Leif Erikson Hall or the Ballard Locks, and complains about losing Saturdays to their gigs. “Why do you stay in?” I ask, as we walk to the car with his trumpet, waving goodbye to those who notice we’re leaving. “Oh, it’s kind of nice to keep my chops up. It can be fun.” He IS adorable in the old-school band uniform they give him to wear. He stays in the Bro Band because the lead singer is a friend of a friend.

I don’t mind being a band girlfriend, though I am considered the performer of the couple. I like watching him enjoy himself, know how much he loves playing trumpet, no matter his lukewarm commitment to either band.

But E. thinks I mind. He thinks I mind it when he leaves to go practice. Here’s the thing: that’s not what I mind. I mind that we have been together three and a half years, and he still sees his apartment, where he never sleeps, which seems to have become a very expensive underpants storage unit, as the place where he gets to do the things he likes. I mind that when I ask him why he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about getting married or moving in together, he can’t come up with an answer. I mind that when I ask him why he stays with me, then, that being in love and having fun don’t seem like good answers to him because he still feels like he’s losing himself, that I am the star, and he struggles to be heard.

But most of all, I mind that I see myself becoming part of his pattern: as our couples therapist will say near the end, “E. doesn’t say ‘no,’ but he relies on you hearing ‘maybe.'” He stays with his high school girlfriend (“we were just friends at first”) until late in college, when he begins what will be an eleven-year relationship with another woman (another friendship that become more). He stays and stays; even when he’s stopped being in love, he stays for two more years. And now there’s me. But I thought I was different because he had fallen in love with me from the start. I was thinking, I realize, like the star: never surprised by the groupies at the door, never considering that they might not ever feel like your equal, even if they got to know you.

When I hand him the paper bag with the remaining items left at my house (a hand-blender, a shirt, a small fox I’d given him, some sheet music), I ask him why he doesn’t want our life, one more time, again. “I always felt there was a tension,” he says, averting his eyes. I hear: “I never felt like I belonged.”

He has his Saturdays back now, and the late nights to work on editing photos—another activity he felt I kept him from. It was a habit he’d developed when he wasn’t in love anymore with the long-term girlfriend—working late into the night on projects, instead of lying in bed with her. He works and works, late into the night and never leaves the bedroom. His trumpet case sits on the floor with the music he needs to learn but doesn’t really like. He knows he will practice it, though. You have to know your part if you want to belong.

Practice Rooms (A Musical History of Why We Failed): Jason and “Big Love”

“But Bryn,” some might say, “isn’t that what the whole blog is about?”

No. The whole blog is about music and intimacy.

But it occurred to me, as I was explaining to someone why I might be willing to give Fleetwood Mac a try, that I had the musical answers to some romantic questions raised by almost every boyfriend I’ve had. No need to tell me I’ll find love again, blah blah—I’m not just practicing what I preach. I’m watching how they practice. Because I’ve realized that the way they practice music is the sonorous foreshadowing of the problems we might have—the Hitchcock-like ominous violins building, just before the shower curtain is pulled back, and a vulnerable body is stabbed through the heart, among other places.

Let’s review:

Jason and “Big Love”

While I have never loved Fleetwood Mac, Jason did, and he converted me to at least really appreciating “Big Love.” Jason could belt it out like nobody’s business, but the Lindsay Buckingham guitar part is, by Jason’s own admission, a bitch. Fast, hard, and ever-changing in its rhythmic emphasis, the guitar murmurs intensely, a schizophrenic muttering on the bus, before it bursts, an intricate attack, and the chorus promises to leave your Stevie Nicks ass in search of REAL love. Big Love.

When Jason first saw Buckingham play that song live, he thought, “I’ll never be able to play that song.”

When Jason first met me, he was 19, and I was his 29 year-old grad assistant professor. When Jason and I fell in love, 11 years later, he was a wreck—a single father with a chronic illness, an addiction to multiple kinds of smoking, living at home, and still suffering, clearly, from the PTSD of his last, unhappy relationship with a narcissistic make-up artist. But we both (foolishly) thought, “But why can’t we be in love? We’ll just take it day by day.”

“But then I thought: Why can’t I learn how to play that song?” Jason told me, as he sat strumming it on my couch. “If I at least start practicing it, a little bit every day, I’ve got to be able to do it at some point, right?”

I loved him on that couch. I loved him everywhere.

We tried to date, despite the fact that he worked from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. and I worked among the living. I tried hard to accept that his smoking and his preference for Red Bull to real food were not deal-breakers. He tried to believe me when I said I believed in him.

After practicing the song for over year, Jason could still only play about halfway through. He could play it really well, really beautifully, but at some point, he’d have to stop, shaking out his cramping hand. “My arm gets tired,” he’d say to me, sheepishly putting down the guitar. “I just don’t have the strength.”

We fell in love so hard. “I can’t stop thinking about you as my wife,” he said one night at a party, pulling me aside and holding my face. Behind him, I saw a green flash—like a giant green light from the universe telling us “GO.” I later found out it was a meteorite. I saw both it and his face, lit up with its own celestial energy. He saw only me, his back to the cosmos.

Within a month, he’d stopped speaking to me, finding excuses not to come over, to leave my birthday party after two hours. At first, he blamed me. I’d said something cruel and cold that reminded him of the narcissist. I’d said it in response to a cruel and cold statement of his own. But eventually, when we broke up for good, he said it was not because we had been foolish but because our love had been real. “It’s TOO real,” he said. “And I’m not ready.”

The last time I heard him practice “Big Love,” Jason realized he had been playing the whole thing too fast–that, if he’d slowed it down, he was actually pretty good. “But it’ll still be awhile before I can play the whole thing,” he said.

Yes. I think it probably will.

Check back later this week for “Eli and the Bands He Couldn’t Quit.”


Real Phone Number, Fake Name: A Post About Music and (Non) Intimacy

Forget, for a moment, that I met him at a bar. Perhaps forget, also, that Kate and I had met for drinks at 4:30 p.m., and it was 1:30 a.m. when he first kissed me. Because while I’ve tried to take the blame on those accounts, most of my friends (oh, dear, dear friends) all roll their eyes and remind me of this: “Lots of people met at bars. Bars where they’ve been drinking. But it is just fucking weird that he gave you his real phone number and a FAKE NAME.”

It’s not even that dating is getting hard. It’s that WANTING to date is getting hard.

The only thing I knew about Nicki Minaj was that she performed under alter egos. I learned this from a student presentation in my British Literature class; she was Lauren’s example of a contemporary Oscar Wilde. And I get it: Minaj invokes a character she calls “Roman Zolanski,” who is, apparently (yes, I looked on Wikipedia), Minaj’s inner “twin brother”—he’s “gay,” a “lunatic,” and he comes out when she’s angry. He’s the equivalent of Jack Worthing taking on the name of “Ernest” in The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s the alter ego that enables him (and later Algernon) to court their moniker-obsessed beloveds; it’s the alter ego that grants them access to what they want. As Gwendolyn says, “My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”

I don’t know if I was destined to love him, but I liked him an awful lot, and he seemed to like me, too. The VPJB (Very Painful Jason Break-Up: see any post from this past fall) was over four months ago, and, instead of healing slowly, I’ve found myself angrier and angrier: at Jason, at myself, and, as a delayed bonus, angriest of all at Eli. I knew I’d handled that break-up too well.

Some people feel really empowered by anger. As a rule, I don’t. And I don’t shy away from strong emotions. But the thing I don’t like about anger is that Anger doesn’t care about being fair. I can handle righteous anger; I know when to stand up and speak. But the kind I’ve been feeling is both overly simple and not simple enough. It’s not cleansing. It’s my default feeling at night, when I can’t sleep. It’s Elizabeth Kubler-Ross anger—which is to say, it’s the anger associated with grieving.

It’s the anger I’ve felt when friends didn’t bother to tell me they’d invited Eli to something, and when I say that I would appreciate at least a heads-up, I’m told I “should be over it by now” or that I’m only ostracizing myself. It’s the anger I felt when he got invited to Passover, and I got passed over. It’s the anger I felt when I was promised an Eli-free Christmas party, in recompense for Passover—a promise to which, I was told, he agreed—only to find out a few hours before that he’d asked to be invited anyway and would be coming. It’s the anger I’m feeling as I realize I will have to let go of a group to which I’ve belonged for years. It’s the anger I feel towards him now, as I lose the good feelings I had remaining for him, because he is perceived as someone for whom to feel sorry and I am perceived as unforgiving.

I’d spent a year doing so well: sad but resolute. Better to be without than to remain with someone who couldn’t make a choice. And then . . . there was Jason. Jason, choices made too quickly, my own intuition ignored because it felt so good not to be sad anymore.

And then came the break-up. And then came the anger. And then came more anger.

So, two weeks ago, at karaoke, when a witty, animated, incredibly handsome guy told me that I “killed it” with my performance of “Back to Black” and asked me for my number, it felt good not to be angry. He texted me immediately, so I would have his number. He told me his name was Nick, and while it didn’t inspire “absolute confidence,” it at least didn’t inspire any negative emotion. And when he kissed me later that night, one might have almost forgotten sadness and anger ever existed.

That is, until I did what any self-respecting 21st-century person would do the next day: I Googled him. The images that came up for the name he’d given me . . . were not him. Had I had that much to drink? Nooooo . . . I’d asked if he was a Nickoli or a Nicholaus, and he’d said, “Nicholaus.” (To protect the poor man whose identity had been handed over to me, I won’t tell you the last name, but I’d been given one. He lives in Germany, just for the record.) He’d told me he headed a marketing firm and dog-sat for a company called rover.com. Well, he doesn’t work in marketing—he works at World Spice, behind the Pike Place Market. How do I know? Because he does actually dogsit for rover.com—and they have a list of their sitters. With pictures. And bios.

Real number, real dog-sitter, fake name, fake career. Let’s hope he was telling the truth about being divorced.

Reading the bio, and, I’ll confess, looking at his Tumblr page, I can see that I would have really liked Chris. (Chris is, of course, his real name—I’ll spare you the full name reveal, if only to show I am not wholly lost to dark inclinations.) He is an artist and paints pictures of foxes. He has the Fantastic Mr. Fox ON his Tumblr page. He seems silly and wears cool clothes. Does it really matter that he lied about his name?

Hell yes. Because what made it ok in The Importance of Being Earnest was that Ernest really was Jack’s name, in the end—the alias was a surface deception that actually had depth. The real person never changed, and the alias wasn’t an escape as much as a practice run at being himself. Wilde meant for the play to demonstrate the malleability of identity, but always, at the core, the play is supposed to be funny. Names don’t matter if the deception doesn’t hurt someone.

Why doesn’t this seem funny? Why, in fact, does it hurt?

Apparently, that night at karaoke, Chris sang Nicki Minaj’s “Superbass,” which accounts, I guess, not only for the text he’d sent (“Hey Bryn–this is Nicki Minaj”) but also, perhaps, for the choice of “Nick” as alias. I’d been in the bathroom at the time, but the irony is not lost on me now. Somehow, it makes me too sad to be angry—all that hope turned out to be just another trick. Maybe I need to summon up a Roman Zolanski, so someone else inside me can be angry for awhile.

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 5: My Best Friend’s Best Friend

The Song
“Love” by The Sundays

The Memory
This is not a memory about a lover at all. Instead, it is one of those myriad associations stored up in memory, a link that may seem weak and yet, in fact, makes me feel like there is an ever-stronger web of joy netting me into this life.

When I think of this song, I think of J.E. Johnson’s friend Tobias Becker. There are layers of removal from intimacy there: one of my college best friend’s high school best friends. I probably only ever hung out with Toby under ten times. I know he loved girls wearing sundresses and once made the most beautiful teapot in ceramics class–one with the face of Hermes on it. I know that now, he is happy, with many babies. What was always clear was that he was a gentle soul, and he loved this song, and I remember him singing his favorite line from it, unabashedly:

Well, if yoooooou
don’t have a clue about life
then I’m happy, happy, happy to say
neither have I
although I’m not going to shrug my shoulders and suck my thumb
Thiiiis time

Sometimes, people I adore move in and out of my life with a speed that should make me nauseated. As a teacher, I’m only just now getting used to the fact that students who bond with me during their four years (or even just in their first year) will probably disappear into the ether after graduation, our closeness like a B-12 booster for their growth.

Of course, the opposite is true, too: I maintain many, many deep connections with many, many people.

But part of Valentine’s Day for me is always about the time-lapse film of connections running through my head. It could feel like a string of losses. Or–and this is what I like more–it could feel like the end of Cinema Paradiso: a reel of all the good parts, spliced together, separate from their narratives but beautiful all alone.

The Sundays – Love

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 4: Meow Meow Meow

The song
Made-up songs we sing to our cats.

The Memory
Alright, this isn’t really a memory, as much as it is a daily activity. And I do think I make up and sing more songs about Judy than any other cat I’ve ever had.

The most common one is a short ditty: “Judy / the Wonder Cat / not too tall and not too fat.”

The other morning, the first words out of my mouth were a spontaneous song to her, celebrating our differences: “You are made of furrrrrr / and I am made of skiiiiiiinnnnn / Your name is Judy, and my name, dear, is Bryn.”

Real love songs aren’t always good because they’re true or profound. They’re good because you want to sing them, to tell another living creature your heart fills with music because they are near.

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 3: PJ Harvey and the Cosmos

The song
PJ Harvey’s “One Line”

The Memory
The night before I started my move to Missouri, the Final Ryan and I went to Golden Gardens beach. I did not know my move would be temporary, that I would not be able to stand being away from this city, much less this magical beach, which is scattered liberally with the glass hearts of others for the weeks after Valentine’s Day. He had already broken my own glass heart once that summer when he told me he wasn’t physically attracted to me and then, mysteriously, continued to want to be with me for the rest of my time. More mysteriously, although perhaps not, given my own fragile state, I let him.

We split a bottle of prosecco and an iPod, and in one of his more boyfriend-y moments, he put his sweatshirt on me, since the night was cool. We could hear another couple making out nearby us, and we couldn’t stop giggling. Then we were silent for a long time with the stars, and this song came on: “Do you remember the first kiss / stars shooting across the sky?”

I kid you not. We saw a shooting star. And Ryan, who was not as in love with me as I was with him, gasped, grabbed my arm and kissed me.

I called him the “Final” Ryan even at the time, not only because I’d dated too many Ryans in a row but because I knew, even if I didn’t want to know, that while I might see him again after I moved, this was really the end. I also knew he was syndecoche for all of Seattle. What I still don’t know is what I was for him.


Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge: Day Two–How 80’s Music Ruins Our Lives

Day 2
The Song: “For Just a Moment”–the Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire.

The Memory
This isn’t a love memory for me as much as it is a memory of driving. During high school, I took piano lessons thirty minutes away, in another town. There were no towns in between my town and that town. There was a feedlot and some scattered roadside farm houses. Every week, I would drive myself to piano and, since it was the early 90’s, I listened (on tape) to SO MANY love songs. I preferred sound tracks , in those days, and this love song, I would argue, is typical of the kind I favored: a song about lost love, nostalgia for a time gone by, or simply the pain of growing older, time passing as we speed towards death. (Others of its ilk included “Separate Lives” from White Nights and a song from a movie called Stealing Home, which I watched obsessively on HBO, every time it came on.)

I was 17. What did I know of love at all, much less love lost? I was always moving towards pre-emptive nostalgia, missing the thing before it had happened. Did all those songs prepare me for the worst or prepare me to let go too soon?


Valentine’s Day Week Writing Challenge: Day One

(A repost from a new project–see “These Arms Were Mine” in previous posts for a full version of the story.)

Valentine’s Day Week Writing Challenge: every day, I’ll give you a love song and a memory. If you have a memory associated with this song, please write a comment.

Day One
The Song
: “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding.

The Memory: I was a camp counselor at musical theater camp, and I’d been carrying on a destructive and illicit affair with a camper since I was a camper myself. I think I was 19 and he was 16 or something bad like that. I was trying to break away from this kryptonite-like attraction and had mostly successfully pushed him away that week. But at the camp dance, he walked up to me during this song and simply took me in his arms to dance. There was no divide for 3 minutes. The physical spell was so powerful that we both forgot about all the bewildered eyes upon us and sank into that song in a way I’ve never danced again.


You Remind Me of the Babe: Labyrinths, Tegan and Sara, and Going Nowhere With Love

“That is what I HATE about American Buddhism,” my friend Sonora says. “Everyone thinks they’re detaching to GET something, instead of just BEING.” It’s true—we even need to make NOT getting, not going, a kind of getting and going. It’s “growth,” it’s “moving towards enlightenment.” My favorite Buddhist saying reflects the futility of trying to make meaning of one’s own growth in the moment it is happening: “Oh, my friend, going in circles—you may enjoy going. But not in circles.”

So the saying . . .goes.

As much as I hate the name “Tegan,” smacking as it does of made-up sorority girl names, there is one Tegan and Sara song I think of, with terrible regularity: “Where Does the Good Go?” Its chorus refuses Buddhist detachment and demands an account of feelings remaindered like unpopular books: “Where does the good go?” While other clever lines clarify the singers’ losses, what sticks out is simply the repetition of this refrain, always calmly, as if it were not a desperate statement.

I often pass, while on my way to work, a church with a bulletin board that periodically invites you to walk its labyrinth, an invitation to meditate while walking, meeting obstacles as they come.

Is that labyrinth, too, supposed to “go” somewhere? Or are you just supposed to know, with each false turn, each dead end, that God is waiting in the center? Or is he/it walking with you, “Footprints” style?

I make no claims to believing in any guiding force, but I don’t mean it as a theological (or anti-theological statement) when I say I’m coming to think of Love as a labyrinth with neither Minotaur nor Goblet of Fire in the middle. (And, frankly, if you’ll recall, the Goblet of Fire itself was actually no prize but a trick, a monstrous, deadly trick of a port key.) When the obstacles aren’t glaringly obvious—red flags of ivy and of thorn (he has no career! he has no hope!), they seem to grow up in front of you, almost of their own accord, Harry Potter-style, with no purpose but to block your way. “Try again,” they whisper, and so you turn around, try to remember which routes you’ve tried and which you still have left.

Is this growth, this retreading of old ground? Is this blog, with its obsessive reconfigurations of the past, the story-boarding of my life with an ever longer soundtrack, a discography of singular moments of intimacy and B-sides of my heartbreaks . . . is it growth? Or are these several loving walks down Memory Lane ending, again and again, with the same sign at the end: Trail ends here. Turn around.

Where does the good go? The literary soul in me feebly makes the case for Roethke’s claim that “we learn by going where we have to go.” But that, too, turns all that desire, the deep pleasure in a former loved one’s face, the feeling of their hand in the dark, into a roadmap going somewhere—turns all that glorious love into mere accumulation, the shadows of some greater “There.”

In a movie from my childhood, Labyrinth, David Bowie plays the Goblin King and talk-sings a little ditty with some now-forgotten creature:

Bowie: You remind me of the babe
Creature: What babe?
Bowie: Babe with the power.
Creature: What power?

In that labyrinth, the search is for the thing you think you didn’t love until it was taken away from you. In this one, this writing of my own emotional maze, its hedges taller every turn, I sometimes wonder if that’s what I’m searching for, too—as if, somehow, by revisiting myself as the babe with or without power, I could find out where the good goes.