Saturday, August 15, 2015

Karen Finlay - Authors in August

Karen Finlay (not to be mistaken with the “other” Karen Finley) has her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, and was the recipient of the Ardella Mills Scholarship and The Marion Boess Haworth Award.  Her work can be seen on, Muni Diaries, and Facebook status updates.  She has been honored to read her work at Litquake, Beast Crawl, Tilde, The Art Beat Foundation, Carried-Away Productions, The Mixing Bowl Reading Series, The Rebel Reading Series, and The Mission Creek Festival.  She is working on a Young Adult novel and a collection of personal essays about teen angst, a subject in which she is very well versed.  She likes pina coladas but hates getting caught in the rain.

I stayed home and read a lot, and watched a lot of TV.  Holden Caulfield and James Dean became my idols—glorious misfits who didn’t worry about sweaters.  I wanted to hang out with them, not the stupid kids at my stupid school.  I couldn’t wait until junior high was over, and I would finally be in high school.  There I would blossom!  There I would be terrific!  There I would be with hundreds of new kids who didn’t know anything about me!  There I would blend into the crowd and everyone would forget how ugly I was, and there nobody would be mean to me anymore. It didn’t quite happen that way, because I discovered the Go-Go’s.

One day in eighth grade, my mother and I went to Sun Valley Mall, a few weeks before Christmas.  After separating from her while she went to buy “new towels” (Christmas presents), I went into Musicland to see if they had the new Journey album, Escape.  It had not one but two hit songs.  I was an avid KFRC top 40 listener, and I saved up my allowance to buy new singles that I had heard.  We didn’t have a built in tape player in our stereo, so I would sit quietly next to the stereo speaker in the family room with my tape recorder, taping songs off the radio.  Inevitably my dog would come in and bark or the phone would ring or my mother would start vacuuming, so all of my tapes were pretty much useless, and I needed to buy the records in order to hear my favorite songs.  I didn’t have a big collection, unless you counted Little Golden Records Presents the Story of The Waterbabies and Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree.  I really liked listening to my sister’s old Beatles and Monkees records but they were really old fashioned, and I wanted something new.  I’d heard Journey’s latest hits “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Open Arms” on KFRC, and I was all set to buy the whole album.  I didn’t even like Journey very much, but everyone was talking about it, so I needed it.  It was played the weekend before at the winter dance, where I had sat with the rest of my friends on the sidelines in folding chairs, eating sugar cookies and pretending that we didn’t care that we weren’t asked to dance.  I hadn’t really expected to be, even though I had worn Love’s Baby Soft cologne and my Fair Isle sweater and corduroy knickers that I had saved especially for the occasion.  The last song of the night was “Open Arms,” and we all watched wistfully as couples swayed in the dark gym, the girls sticking their hands in the boys’ rear pockets, while we gathered our coats and left early to wait outside for our parents to pick us up.

 I wanted the record so that I could listen to those songs and lay on my bed and daydream about slow dancing with a boy someday.  Besides, I wanted a new record to play on the new stereo I was sure I would be getting for Christmas in a few weeks.  I had dropped enough hints and driven my parents crazy about it, so I was pretty positive I was going to be able to kiss my Mickey Mouse record player goodbye and have the real thing.  I had also seen the box when I was “looking for some change” in their closet one day when they weren’t home, and unless it was for someone else, I was going to be the proud owner of a stereo with a built in tape deck.  I couldn’t wait, and kept myself busy practicing my surprised reaction.

On my way to the “J” section, something caught my eye, and I stopped short at the “G’s”.  There was an album by a group that I had never heard of before, that had not reached KFRC yet. That wasn’t surprising – KFRC wasn’t exactly cutting edge, constantly playing “Arthur’s Theme” and “Endless Love” and a lot of Air Supply which all sounded the same to me—and there was a lot of music out there that I had no idea existed.  I wasn’t terribly adventurous or wealthy enough with my paltry allowance that I got for feeding the dog and other odd chores to buy records by groups I’d never heard on the radio.  But something about this one intrigued me.  The cover was blue, with five girls in towels and facemasks on the cover.  Hmmm.  “The Go-Go’s” it said, Beauty and the Beat.  I flipped it over.  The back cover was speckled pink and blue, with pictures of the five Go-Go’s in bathtubs doing glamorous activities; pouring champagne, reading a racy romance novel and eating chocolates, talking on the phone, smelling a rose, wielding drumsticks.  And best of all, they didn’t look like anyone I knew.  They didn’t have big hair like Stevie Nicks or the soft focused looks of Olivia Newton-John.  They looked more like the “Don’t” in my Teen magazines.  These girls had on lots of fun jewelry and makeup, even surrounded by bubbles.  And the song titles – “Skidmarks on My Heart”, “Our Lips Are Sealed”, “We Got the Beat”?  Forgetting Journey, I marched right up to the counter with it.

 Once home, I took the record downstairs to the basement to listen to it uninterrupted.  I opened it up, put it on, and looked at the record sleeve.  There they were again in different photos, in their short haired, funky glory.  The record label itself looked like confetti.  And the first song sounded like confetti—a joyous, jangly melody with guitars and tambourines and “hey hey heys” that made me want to spin and bounce wildly.  I had fallen in love with records before, but this was different.  When Donna Summer sang about “Bad Girls” and Hall & Oates sang about “Private Eyes,” I didn’t really have much of a clue as to what they were talking about.  But the Go-Go’s --  “Our Lips are Sealed” spoke to me – me!  “Pay no mind to what they say/ It doesn’t matter anyway”.  Hey hey hey!  Thank you, Go-Go’s!  That was exactly what I needed to hear.  I didn’t know these girls, but they were sharing my dilemma with me, something my “real” friends didn’t do.  That night, Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, and Charlotte Caffey became my new best friends.  The beat was so happy, so infectious, that my head started bobbing and my shoulders and feet followed.  In the dim light of our basement, I danced with them.  I didn’t need a partner to stick my hands into butt pockets with like at school dances, or had to do some interpretive crap like what Ms.Scoma made us do in my despised PE class.  I really danced around, jumping up and down unself- consciously, not caring about anything but the music.  If anyone had appeared in the basement and seen me, I wouldn’t have even noticed. 

When I got too tired of dancing, I studied their pictures on the record sleeve.  “Belinda Carlisle—lead vocals” had a big bow and giant earrings, and “Gina Schock—drums & percussion” was blowing a big kiss.  None of them had stupid feathered hair.   They all looked so cool and happy, so sure of themselves.  “I bet they don’t care what anyone thinks of them,” I thought.  Each time the record ended, I flipped it over and played it again and again, until the beginning crackled when the needle hit it and my mother told me to turn it off and go to bed.  I even missed “Dynasty”; I was so busy getting the beat.  I couldn’t wait until after school the next day to go home and play it again.

          I felt as though I had discovered something.  There were other people out there in the world that were just as weird as I was, but they were doing something about it.  They were wearing offbeat clothes that obviously didn’t come from Macy’s and makeup that wasn’t like a Teen Magazine makeover, and playing in bands and writing music that expressed the way they felt instead of sappy love songs or getting “Physical” that I couldn’t relate to at all.  And I liked it!  I studied the album cover and memorized all the lyrics.  I felt as though the Go-Go’s were mine somehow – they hadn’t been played on the radio yet, and I had never heard anybody at school talk about them.  For the first time I liked being set apart.  I felt special, like I was part of something bigger than I had ever known before.  “I just got the new Go-Go’s album last night,” I remarked airily to everyone at school the next day. “Who?”  Poor, unworldly souls.  They had no clue.

Of course within a few months, The Go-Go’s were on every radio station and everyone had the album.  But since I had it first, I was cool!  I had found it all on my own with no one else telling me I needed it, even before it was reviewed in Teen Magazine’s “Hot Picks”.  I had finally been first at something, instead of being in the middle or nearer to the last like in choosing teams for softball.  It made me feel more okay that I was an outsider – it gave me a freedom that I hadn’t had since sixth grade.  I started not caring so much about what the popular kids were wearing and what they were saying or doing, deeming all of that as trendy and very uninteresting.  The Go-Go’s didn’t care about Izod shirts or who showed up with a hickey at school Monday morning; so neither did I.

I started scouring magazines, searching for anything I could find about The Go-Go’s, or pictures of people who looked like them.  I took down my baby harp seal and unicorn posters I had hanging in my room, and replaced them with carefully clipped out photos from magazines of kids with rainbow hair-dos and clothes I coveted and of bands who I thought looked neat, even if I hadn’t heard them before.  On my closet door I hung a life-size poster of James Dean from “East of Eden”.  My old, babyish Nancy Drew books went in a box the closet and copies of The Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders were stuck on the shelves instead.  Once my room was more grown-up and cool, it was time to do something with my “look”…

-- excerpt from "Strange Girl, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Got the Beat"

"Though I can be a harsh self-critic, I can say that one of the things I really like about my writing is that every time I read, someone comes up to me and says, "YES!" and tells me their own personal story and how much they can relate.  (Thanks to one of my pieces, I have heard many, many women's stories of their first periods.)  To me, that is an enormous compliment, that my writing opens up other people's memories and experiences."

"I chose this piece for sentimental reasons -- it's part of a longer piece I wrote in grad school which opened the floodgates of many more subsequent coming-of-age stories, my favorite (and totally self-indulgent) topic to write about.  This is what I think of as my "anchor" piece, the one that ties all my essays together.  The experience in itself is my anchor, when my self-identity really came to be even if I wasn't fully aware of it when I was 13.  But it was so pivotal and important because it taught me how to survive outside of a world of "normal" or "beautiful" expectations, and taught me that it's okay to not fit in and to be a little weird. (And to not have big, permed hair in the 1980s.)  Thank God for The Go-Go's and New Wave for saving my life AND for giving me an outlet and for a lot of fodder to write about...  And thank you, Julie Green, for including me in Authors in August!"

Karen Finlay
August 2015

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