The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

I Wish You Love

This week I received what appeared to be a bit of spam in my e-mail. The message began “Hi barbara,” and went on to explain that the sender was “Dr. Mel,” a board-certified psychiatrist in Winnetka, Illinois specializing in the treatment of obesity.

I use Phentermine for patients who have had success with that medication in the past. I also use Liquid Diets and can also use the HCG program. I have been practicing thirty years in Winnetka. The first ten new patients get a free 90 Fiber Capsules with their first office visit. Check me out at or at

Love Mel

This email was coming from < >, but I noted that Mel had included his personal email at the bottom, so I decided to respond. I wrote:

Hello Mel, and thank you for your message offering me your information and the possibility of receiving free Fiber Capsules for obesity treatment. I am a congenitally skinny person and I live on the East Coast. Still, I appreciate your concern. I was actually more interested in the fact that you signed your message with the word “Love.” That was so nice. I was just wondering why you love me. Feel free to answer if you have the time.

Love, Barbara

A few minutes later, Mel wrote me back:

wow i guess because I believe in the love cure. A great lady in California writes about the love cure, and love is a good thing to spread around. I sort of feel that way when I send an e-mail whether or not it is well received. Lately McDonalds and other food sellers are into luv and “lovin’ it” and that is OK too. It is OK to be Lovin’ it when it comes to McDonald’s. Most of my e-mails go to patients and self love is the intention of their weight loss efforts. Pride, Self Love, Gratitude are the feelings that come from being well formed. The purpose of the program is self love, not weight loss. So I guess I hope you love yourself today. I wish you love. Mel

That was interesting. Naturally, I paused to think about how effective Mel’s weight loss plan was if he was telling his patients that it was “OK to be Lovin’ it when it comes to McDonald’s.” But then I considered that perhaps Mel’s therapeutic stance was “moderation in all things, including moderation.”

I myself am an extremely moderate person. But as you can see, even that phrase, “extremely moderate,” is a contradiction in terms. And in truth, sometimes I am excessive, though I try to express my excess in ways that are easy to ignore—for example, recording ukulele cover tunes for people. I started doing this about a year ago. First I made a few for a friend who was in the hospital. I thought they might cheer her up. Then I noticed that a Facebook friend was having a birthday. I seemed to remember that he liked Iggy Pop when we were in college, so I recorded “The Passenger” for him. Suddenly it seemed like Facebook friends were having birthdays every day. Since I’d recorded a song for that guy, I felt I should do the same for the others. Then I started taking requests. It got a little out of control. I decided it had become a conceptual art piece.

Actually, I just decided that a couple of weeks ago, while rereading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which is a meditation on the relationship between gift economies and the notion of artistic “giftedness.” Not to imply that I’m gifted on the uke. On the contrary, my musical gifts, both as a singer and an instrumentalist, are, in keeping with my temperament, extremely moderate. But I thought maybe if I began (or, to be honest, continued) super-producing unasked-for recordings of my uke covers as gifts, I could possibly help jump-start a creative gift economy that might spill over into the larger world of exchange. The super-production of my very modest gifts seemed to me, precisely, to realize that paradoxical “moderation in all things, including moderation.” Whether or not this was the therapeutic stance of Dr. Mel, I guess you could say it’s mine.

The next step in our correspondence was clear. The affectionate closing of Mel’s most recent message provided an obvious choice of song, and it happened to be a tune I love very much. I have some powerful associations with the melody. François Truffaut used it in Stolen Kisses, a film that takes its title from the original French lyric by Charles Trenet. The most famous renditions in English are probably Nat King Cole’s and Sinatra’s. Blossom Dearie put a perky spin on it. But my favorite version by far is João Gilberto’s gorgeous bossa nova interpretation in his tender, Brazilian-inflected French.

I found the chords for the song on the Internet. It wasn’t in my ideal range, but I didn’t bother to transpose it (I already mentioned my musical limitations). I tried recording it in my lower, smoky, Julie London register, but it sounded pretty forced, so I went up an octave instead, producing a high, tremulous warble with, if I do say so myself, an affecting air of mild desperation. I sang the song in English, and then again in French for good measure. I popped it off to Mel.

It took a little longer this time for him to write me back. I imagine he was trying to decide if I was a lunatic. But when he answered, he answered warmly: “thank you. Beautiful.” He went on to say that “years and years ago” he’d been a professional musician, playing in clubs on the south side of Chicago, but he’d had to give up the boozy piano-playing life to make it through med school and open his weight loss clinic in the suburbs. He said that now on rare occasions he noodled around on a Korg. His message ended indicating that I had intuited something perhaps profound: “I wish you love is a favorite so you got it.” But this time he didn’t close with “Love”—just: “Mel.”

It didn’t surprise me that Mel had been a musician. All my life, nearly all of my amorous relationships have been with musicians. Which is not to say that I was having amorous feelings toward Mel, but I’m sure you’ve begun to wonder about that possibility. I tend to play dumb about these kinds of things, but I was aware he might find it a little flirtatious of me to send him a warbling home recording of such a romantic song. I didn’t intend my gift to be flirtatious, but I did intend for it to be inappropriately intimate. I could claim that I was provoked by Mel’s own oddity, indiscriminately larding his business spam with “Love.” But let’s face it, I was raising the stakes, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Mel or somebody else to suspect some kind of erotic investment in this exchange.

In fact, that seemed to be the interpretation of my current lover. In my excitement over the unexpected intimacies taking place between Mel and me, I bcc’d her on the message in which I sent him my cover of “I Wish You Love.” She is, unlike me, a musician of considerable talent—but I thought she might find some charm if not in my plunking and warbling, then at least in Mel’s and my utopian efforts to be “Lovin’ it.” Unfortunately, she failed to note that the original addressee of the message was Dr. Mel, and when she read my minimal text, “i made this for u,” she assumed I’d recorded the cover for her. Then when she realized it was intended for Mel, she had a...reaction.

Really, I didn’t have any erotic aspirations in regard to Mel, but the question does bring me back to Lewis Hyde and The Gift. “In the world of the gift,” Hyde writes, “you not only can have your cake and eat it too, you can’t have your cake unless you eat it. Gift exchange and erotic life are connected in this regard.” The implications that Hyde derives from this are deep, and have great resonance in the current political moment. “Scarcity and abundance,” he tells us, “have as much to do with the form of exchange as with how much material wealth is at hand.” Wealth needs to circulate. For Hyde, that’s an inherently erotic proposition.

The beauty of the gift is that, like sex, it confounds our sense of what it means to give pleasure and to receive it. Take, for example, the uke covers. If I solicit a request from someone, they may think I’m asking them what I can give them. But of course, every request sends me down a path of pleasure. “Genius of Love”by the Tom Tom Club. “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”by Fats Waller. “Baby I Love Your Way”by Peter Frampton. “This Guy’s in Love with You”by Burt Bacharach. “We Almost Lost Detroit”by Gil Scott-Heron. You know them all, but you really don’t think about how weird or delightful or righteous the lyrics are, or how quirky or gorgeous the original arrangements were, until you do your own dumbed-down version.

And then you find yourself checking out other people’s covers on YouTube. How many weirdos are out there for you to fall in love with as they croon into their laptops? I make a cover of my own, which a person may or may not enjoy musically. But in the best of all possible worlds, the recipient feels compelled to do something with the gift—mine, or the true musical gift at the origin of the song. As I’ve already said, my musical gifts (in both senses of the term) are pretty negligible—but hello, Burt Bacharach is a fucking genius.

The biggest gift I could give Mel, of course, would be if I’d prodded him to sit down and noodle around on his Korg. Or better yet, record his own cover tune, and embed it in the next batch of weight loss spam he sends out into the ether. With Love.


Barbara Browning

BARBARA BROWNING teaches performance studies at N.Y.U. and writes novels. Information about her books and ukulele covers can be found at:


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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