In My Life: “Bleed American”, “Growing Pains”, “Ghetto Cowboy”

One of my favorite things about Spotify: It creates personalized playlists for you, based around various themes or just for general music discovery. I’ve discovered tons of good music from “Discover Weekly” alone.

A few weeks ago, users received “Your Time Capsule”, created through a formula that appears to favor your own favorite songs from years past (most of mine were the ’90s; not sure if a younger or older person would get music from their childhood years, if that’s what they listen to, or if the whole concept favored the ’90s) and iconic songs from the same era. Mine was pretty on-target, with just a few that didn’t fit.

I have a sheet of paper I’ve written all over, using up all white space, with song titles I might add to my series. Some of them were on my playlist. Over a few entries, I’ll address each song briefly, since most do have particular memories associated with them.

“Bleed American” – Jimmy Eat World
In summer of 2002, my sister joined the high school cross-country team as a freshman. The team needed a freshman coach and my mom stepped up. I’d retired from running after 8th grade track season, but since XC kept half my family busy every afternoon, and I was friends with several runners, I wound up as the team’s manager. It was a rollercoaster of a season that included

  • girls throwing up mid-meet and sobbing in my arms because they couldn’t finish the race,
  • the coaches blaming my sister’s uncharacteristically slow time at one meet on her French braids,
  • singing rap songs during practice, especially “Still Fly,”
  • my 16th birthday,
  • hearing the coaches pressure injured girls to “hurry up with getting better” so they could run again,
  • watching half the boys’ team sneak off to the woods to get high,
  • bowing to peer pressure and running a “fun race” at a meet, then throwing up in front of the whole team,
  • smelling the football team’s discarded uniforms every evening,
  • always saying the word “crotch” to my friend Amber who thought it was a gross word (but told us all about her bathroom habits…?),
  • laughing my ass off with my friend Tejal over an unintentionally-absurd lawyer ad on the back of a Mishawaka phone book in a hotel room,
  • being left out of the yearbook photo,
  • quite a few shin splints,
  • a couple of eating disorders,
  • a bunch of spaghetti dinners,
  • calculating the team’s statistics,
  • my mom coming to detest the other coaches,
  • running becoming a grim burden to several girls who once enjoyed it,
  • intuiting that my real job was to lighten the mood and make the girls feel accepted no matter their race times, because things were starting to feel really dark,
  • hearing my friend’s conservative mom talk enthusiastically about attending parties with male strippers,
  • listening to the coaches endlessly reference a girl named Marsha who set records and won state for our school in 1982, and
  • the meanest coach, a real micro-manager, telling me to never write lap times in pen, even though I never made a mistake and kept Wite-Out in my backpack.

It was a weird time, and none of my family went back for a second season. 15 years later, I can still remember how everything team-related felt, smelled, tasted, or looked. How over the season, it became darker earlier, until the season’s end when we left practice after dark each day. How the new athletic building smelled and sounded. It was during this time that my sister bought the Jimmy Eat World album. It felt earnest, honest, emotional, and desperately yearning, which also describes anyone’s teen years. Especially when you’re literally running around surrounded by pressure, fear and tension. Or, like me, when you’re helplessly watching your sister and friends do so, aware of the potential consequences. Because my sister was one of those with an eating disorder. And it didn’t go away at the end of the season.

“Ghetto Cowboy” – Mo Thugs
Unremarkable but clear memory of swimming in the indoor pool at Krannert, an Indy Parks facility, around 6th grade. This song was on the boom box and I was excited, because I’d heard it a few times but (correctly) assumed the album would have too much cursing for me to buy. These were still the days of taping songs off the radio, after all. I was probably there with my Girl Scout troop, it was probably a Friday night, and I was probably preoccupied thinking about a sudden crush I’d developed on a classmate. I’m not even embarrassed to say I still listen to this song.

“Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” – Minus the Bear
I didn’t know this song until it appeared in this playlist.

“Growing Pains” – Ludacris
A runner for the boys’ team who DIDN’T smoke weed in the woods was my classmate Ryan. We’d known each other since 6th grade but didn’t start being friends until 10th grade. He sat behind me in pre-calc; a guy named Brian sat in front of me. Brian had a mindless habit of twirling a pen around – usually by throwing it in the air just a bit, letting it spin, catching it, and repeating. To make the people behind me laugh, I started imitating him. Joke was on me, though, because it then became a habit for me too.

So if Ryan and I started enjoying each other’s company in 10th grade, our friendship was solidified in 11th during the cross country season. Not only did the teams spend a lot of time together, but he was also good friends with my friend Tejal (mentioned above as the girl I laughed with for about 10 minutes straight over a phone book ad.) And he wished they were more than friends. Tejal didn’t (or at least wouldn’t admit it), so she probably lured me into joining their conversations more often than she would have otherwise. Although really, the three of us had a blast together anyway. Our mix of deadpan, silly, and sarcastic humor combined created a trifecta of non-stop laughter.

Ryan took running seriously; he’s now a coach. During the off-season, he organized practices in nearby parks. My sister Kelly often joined him, and if I was at home when he picked her up, I’d go along for the ride. I’d read a book or do homework while everyone else was running, and in winter, I’d keep Ryan’s car turned on for the heat. And keep the music going.

Around then, I also started attending youth group at a Free Methodist church. I was a member of a United Methodist congregation but didn’t enjoy its youth social scene. (This was a long-standing problem that never really got resolved, exemplified perfectly in a moment from 8th grade: some asshole from my school called me a bitch in front of everyone at Sunday School. In recent years I’ve come across evidence that he cheats on his wife. Color me shocked.) I took religion seriously at that age, though, so I tried out any friends’ youth group that didn’t seem forbiddingly weird. Ryan’s church didn’t have a youth group, so eventually we both settled in with the Free Methodist group that several friends attended. My sister began participating too.

At some point in all this, Kelly noticed a tissue box decorated with teddy bears. In a high school guy’s car. She added tattoos, booze, and cigarettes to the bears. “Whoever did that is a real sick puppy,” his dad remarked. The box remained there for years.

Ryan kept Ludacris’s “Chicken-n-Beer” and “Word of Mouf” albums in heavy rotation, and I was surprised to hear “Growing Pains”, a wistful, soulful track between the delightfully vulgar skits and bombastic singles. I played it often, as it was perfectly suited for that stage of life, when kids start feeling nostalgic and realize their teen years will be over soon.

We also played Xzibit’s “Choke Me, Spank Me” and Nelly’s “Pimp Juice” and “Air Force Ones” all. the. damn. time. To this day Tejal and I occasionally ask each other, “Kyjuan, where you getting them colors, are you dyeing them?”

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