When I was 10 years old, David Seidenfeld’s mother made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while we played. Upon a grainy, slightly dense but still airy bread, she buttered and jellied evenly and all the way to the crusts, utilizing some divinely golden ratio of the stunning creation’s only two ingredients. When I bit into that sandwich, for the very first time in my life I could see so clearly that my own family was deeply flawed.
Not that a sandwich does a family make — even if in my case that sandwich is on some gummy white bread with an oily glop of off-off-brand peanut butter clotting and seeping through the sandwich’s middle while the surrounding, mealy real estate spurns what’s left of the appetite — but the details of our decision-making, these are clues that articulate who we are in ways we are often far too close to see.
I do not speak or understand a single word of Korean. In turn, I do not understand a single lyric of the song Please Don’t Bother Me Anymore. But in 1957, a 19 year old Korean boy named Shin Joong Hyun started playing shows at US military bases in South Korea. He was deeply inspired by the “American music” he managed to pick up on his hand-built radio, listening through poor reception and terrible static to jazz, psychedelic rock, soul music, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Charlie Parker, and more… It was the start of what would become a decades-spanning superstardom in South Korea that was eventually derailed by conflict with the government, leading to his torture, imprisonment, and marginalization. What remains of his work are but a few albums, but like some sort of sonic Mrs. Seidenfeld-ian peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Shin Joong Hyun’s music serves to reflect “American music” back to me more clearly than the actual music itself.
I recommend the entire album Beautiful Rivers and Mountains for exactly this reason. It’s like listening to someone outside of my culture (which is itself the product of so many outside cultural influences it’s staggering) articulating anew things so familiar to me that I now assume them. It’s like listening to a memoir I didn’t know I lived. And in this way, it helps me to reflect more deeply upon the things that have inspired and informed me as a human being and as a writer.
So get your hands on the best PB&J you possibly can and take a listen. And Mrs. Seidenfeld, if you read this, please get in touch. I will come to wherever you are just to sit at your kitchen table one more time….
(Song recommendation by Tom Stern)