This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of "Born in the USA." At the time I was working as a copywriter for what was then the biggest employer in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I wrote speeches for executives, a magazine about office furniture, tag lines for ad campaigns, and formulaic press releases. I was a latter-day Peggy Olsen sporting shoulder pads and, two nights a week, at aerobics class, ankle warmers. I had just bought a duplex. And my life had recently been a mess.
My brother had come out of the closet, and my family was in a nasty place that felt like the end of the world. We were stumbling around, trying to find our way together and as individuals. We continued to love each other, but we weren't very good at it.
Also recently, I had turned 30. I spent my birthday weekend with my boyfriend and his family at their summer vacation spot. A week later he broke up with me by going to Chicago for a couple of nights with someone blonder. I found out about it from his secretary, whose job included opening his mail, thus saving him valuable envelope-slitting time. She didn't know we'd been dating for a year, and showed me, while convulsed with laughter, the misspelled romantic thank-you note the blonde had sent to him at the office. (This did not come from the mind of Matt Weiner, but he's welcome to use it.)
Anyway, I got dumped. Why? Because (according to him) all unmarried women over the age of 30 were insane, due to the fact that they were 30, and unmarried, which made them insane. Because my odds of getting married or getting killed in a terrorist attack were pretty much even. (This was in the news, so it had to be true.) He talked about putting "queer repellent" on his lawn, an attempt at levity that I'm sure he regrets.
Musically, my ex-boyfriend and I had very little in common. (He thought 'Imagine' was by Air Supply.) The upside of our breakup was that once I got past the humiliation, I was able to go back to being me. I'd come home from work and put Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads or Springsteen on my turntable and crank it up.
A few months later I was peeling the cellophane off of "Born in the USA." I got goose bumps (still do) just looking at the cover: it's patriotic, rebellious and sexy all at once. The title track inspired me and other people my age to re-evaluate our identity: we were grown-ups, Vietnam was over, like it or not Reagan was about to be re-elected, our fists were in the air and Bruce was, not for the last time, telling us to figure out what it means to be American.
Okay, maybe some people just liked the music, and didn't think about any of that.
I saw Bruce on tour that summer with my dear friend Gigi at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I bought two Born in the USA sleeveless T-shirts, one for me, one for the cute, smart guy I'd been dating. He just happened to live in the other half of my duplex, always paid his rent on time, and liked the music that he heard coming from my apartment.
My father, who had retreated into massive anger when he learned his only son was gay, began to gradually return to us. That summer, when I made a passing reference to my ex-boyfriend, my dad locked his blue eyes on me and said, "I knew the second you brought him out to meet us that you were worth ten of him."
Fathers everywhere: This is a great line. If someone breaks your child's heart, you can start mending it by saying something similar. Ten is a pretty big number; choose what works for your offspring and your credibility.
In the spring of 1985, my new boyfriend, who knew that to love me was to love or at least respect The Boss, took a photo of me wearing my Springsteen T-shirt, and hung it in his office. Then as now the humidity is doing weird stuff to my hair, I've got glasses tucked into my neckline, and I'm sporting a camera. We got married a little over a year later.
My husband died in 2003, so Father's Day is hard. No gifts to buy or cards to sign, no waiting to fire up the grill when he gets back from golf, no worrying that he'll come home in a bad mood because of his putting.
This year, instead of ignoring Father's Day, I'm celebrating a bunch of guys. While these men know they can never replace my daughters' father, they are a significant presence in our lives. They include my surviving uncles, who continue to make me feel that I'm a wittier, nicer person than I actually am. They are in their seventies and early eighties, and they have health issues, but if I had a problem they'd be here in an instant, possibly with weapons. Ditto for the cousins I grew up with.
My brothers are uncles who show my girls how to live honorable, happy, productive lives. To a man they have overcome loss and learned to move beyond grief. They are great storytellers and funny as hell. All but two of them are good cooks. And like my own uncles, they'd do anything for us.
I miss my husband and the never-ending challenge and romance of our relationship. I miss my dad, who died in 1996, and the flickers of connection that I had with him. I am closer than ever to my brother, who is in a decades-long relationship with a wonderful man who helps me to calm down several times a year.
"Magic" is in the CD player in my car, and this week, now that warmer weather is finally here, I find myself playing 'Radio Nowhere' really loud sometimes, with the windows down. I'm not insane (as far as I can tell), and while I have nightmares about terrorist attacks, I've beaten the odds, conventional wisdom of the early 1980s be damned.
"Born in the USA" is still a big deal for me. I am glad that Bruce's life, like mine, went on to encompass a successful relationship and that biggest of big deals, parenthood. Happy Father's Day, Mr. Springsteen.
It's summer. What are you listening to, and how will it make you feel when you hear it ten, twenty, thirty years from now? Take some notes.