Close to Fine

by Bex Schwartz


Do you remember the first time you heard “Closer to Fine”??? Maybe you didn’t even know who the Indigo Girls were yet. Maybe the seniors who were soooo cool performed it as a duet at the national high school show choir competition at a convention hall somewhere deep in Annapolis. Could anything be cooler? There they were — Marti, the best actress in high school, and Nicole, the star of the musicals — harmonizing on this song as if they really meant it. Could you ever be so impossibly cool? And would you ever grok what that song was all about?

Then at camp, “Closer to Fine” was the biggest campfire singalong. And everyone knew every word. It was the first thing you ever learned how to play on your guitar. There is a power in massive-group-two-part harmony and that is the “Closer to Fine” schism: Are you an Emily or an Amy? Choose your part — high or low. Choose carefully because that decision will influence and inform you for the rest of your life.

Twenty years later, you’re still going to be either an Amy or an Emily.

This has nothing to do with personality or appearance or any other differences between Amy and Emily. This is all about: Which part do you do? There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line.

But enough Indigo Girls digressions. Indigressions.

So, this song, “Closer to Fine.” This song — these lyrics that infused every moment of your tweendom — when did they start to make sense? Did you forget about them for a long time? Were they triggered by that recent episode (the end of episode 8, let’s say, theoretically) of Transparent? Or did you maybe have a moment as an adult(ish) when you were with your friends who also felt similarly about that particular song and could you maybe call it a Moment with a capital M? It’s only life, after all.

Well, darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I’m crawling on your shores.

I get that now.

(My mom heard this song on one of my camp mix tapes and demanded to know if they were singing “I’m crawling up your shorts.” I’ve never heard it any other way.)

In terms of wrapping your fear around you like a blanket — look, I get it. It is comfortable and safe if you wrap your fears around you like a snuggie. Once I was on the receiving end of a sad-tervention (that’s an intervention, but it’s because you’re very, very sad) and the ambushers said that depression was comfortable. This is true. They were right. It’s easy to sink into the snuggie-fear-fleece-blanket that lives on your couch. But it is better if you can sail your ship of safety ’til you sink it.

Maybe your fear is fire. Perhaps you are with your women friends and you are enjoying the Great Outdoors. Perhaps it gets cold. Perhaps you are actually REALLY GOOD at building a fire because a) you spent many winters with a wood stove and b) there is no way you’re ever going to survive the zombiepocalypse without knowing how to make fire and c) have you ever seen those Tribal Councils on Survivor where two contestants have to get a spark going and they just can’t? Those people will die when the zombies come. Don’t be like them. Learn how to make a fire.

Maybe fire is scary because you had a friend in nursery school who fled the flames consuming her home with her stuffed animal named Didi. Maybe that friend’s family rebuilt their house several blocks away and named it “The Phoenix.” Maybe you once went to see Batteries Not Included and on the way home from the Hawthorne movie theater, you heard sirens. And it turned out that your front lawn was completely scorched, all the way to the edge of your house. You, like all of your neighbors, had zoysia grass and it colonized most of northern NJ and it turned into hay as soon as the temperature dropped. Someone maybe flicked a match or a butt and your lawn went up in flames. Your whole house smelled like smoke. You started sleeping in your bedroom doorway so you could make a run for it if you had to, if it ever happened again.

But then you dated someone who had a wood-burning stove and you learned how to build a fire. And you learned that you, a mere human being, could control fire. And that it was nothing to be scared of.

“It’s getting cold!” you said. “I’m going to build a campfire!”

Your friends all called their loved ones just to alert them to the fact that a campfire was going to happen. You thought they might be worried. But you sail that ship of safety, lady! YOU SAIL IT.

I built the campfire. It was fucking awesome: It was warm; it was pretty to watch; and it definitely kept the zombies away. I taught my friends that they could also control the fire and how easy it was to place the logs in the right place. I was not afraid.

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper
And I was free.

It wasn’t until we listened to “Closer to Fine” on repeat around that very same campfire that I actually grokked the song though. I took the Amy part, of course — I can’t really sing but I can slightly figure out the low harmony. I dated a guy once who never did see a B movie, and I want to say: fuck that shit. If you don’t know Spaceballs and What About Bob and Three Amigos because you are watching high art, just fuck that shit and see a B movie. You, who have never seen The Goonies or The Monster Squad — you will never see through me.

I loved college, but one of my fellow campfire friends did not enjoy it very much. She very much felt like she “got my paper and I was free.” It was only then that I realized they were singing “prostrate to the higher mind” and not “prostate” and that definitely changed a lot of things.

I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
I went in seeking clarity.

We don’t have to talk about this verse. We all had our early-to-mid twenties.

We go to the bible, we go through the workout
We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
There’s more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line

I had a journal, a floral-covered notebook that my stepmom gave me. We passed it around the fire. I can’t share any of it with you because it won’t make sense but just know that we fully embraced being ground gremlins and all was right in the world.

The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine

I wasn’t just close to fine — at that Moment, I was for-real fine. I was happy. I was not worried. Everything felt like it was going to be a-okay, my buddy. And then we came home and eventually I started to become afraid again and I was sad and I was further and further away from fine.

My job-company asked me to make a movie for the holidays about joy. I was not feeling a lot of joy because the world is too much with us and everything is horrible and it’s really easy to be afraid. But I thought about what it was like around that campfire when I was close to fine: I wasn’t scared and everything was going to be okay.

I realized I hadn’t felt that way since I was a little kid who was obsessed with outer space when I wasn’t worried about the ice caps or global famine or disease or what the future was going to be, because there was just so MUCH TO LEARN. Remember when you were a kid and there was always something you didn’t know? That is something that brings me joy — the notion of wonder. So I tried to channel wonder into hope for the future.

So I made this:

Because I remember joy. I was happy when we were closer to fine — I was happy when I felt like I was almost maybe approaching fine. And I regret that I forget how to feel that way, most of the time. I regret being far away from fine. I want to get as close as I can, even if I never get to Mars. (METAPHORICALLY. IT’S ALL A METAPHOR.)

A short anecdote: I have a recurring nightmare in which there is a monster alien from the X-Files on my fire escape. It’s just a thing that I dream every so often. This morning, I dreamt there was an alien monster from the X-files on my fire escape. I shook it off and got up to feed the cat and start working. The super came by a few hours to later to ask if I’d heard anything on the fire escape because there was a burglary in the building. Which means: IT WASN’T A DREAM.

I was really scared that maybe a bad person could still be lurking around the fire escape. But that is a crazy thing to think! Facts and figures and television shows and our dad being rational teach us that a burglar would not hit the same building twice! We’ve all seen SVU!

The point is: It doesn’t do us any good to be scared of invisible aliens on our fire escapes, so we might as well stop feeling bad about feeling bad. We should just try to be closer to fine.

Photo by Martin Cathrae

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.