Underachiever’s Pity Party

What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results. — Barbara Stanwyck, Clash By Night (1952)

It’s been ages since I woke up with an earworm, but I had a lulu the other day that took nearly 48 hours to shake: “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” Melissa Manchester, 1978 — a song I hate and only the refrain. It’s the kind of tune I might hum to snap myself out of stiff-upper-lipping a situation unnecessarily, something my subconscious, apparently, was trying to tell me to do.

I’ve been in a mood lately about what I think about doing compared with what I actually get done. Eighty-five percent of the time, I’m content to dip in and out of writing, research, and art projects; happy to pick things up, turn them around, then misplace them forever. At 53, I am unlikely to develop a greater attention span or a more capacious mind or a sudden drive to achieve. I was just hoping this would quit bothering me — when it does bother me — at some point.

Plus, the things I like to do are silly. About a decade ago, for instance, I kept a record of my (then) daily earworms for 18 months, categorized them, and ran some numbers. Looking at the spreadsheet now, I see that some of the numbers don’t add up, so I have spent my lunch hour messing around with data that 1) no one needs analyzed and 2) is old and poorly organized.

Some Pointless Charts

One thing I notice right off the bat is how much Excel charts and pivot tables have improved in 10 years. Astonishing! After that, it appears that the mean year of origin for my earworms was 1973: when I was nine-ish and picking my own AM radio stations (probably). There are two mode years: 1965 (I was born in late 1964); and 1979, around the time I started buying my own music on the regular.


I divvied up the earworms by genre (rock, jazz, soundtracks) and type, such as Kid Stuff (“L-Y”, 11/22/09) Comedy Bits (“Day-Oh,” 7/3/08), and Words (“Salamander,” 2/23/09).

Earworm Categories

Of the music, 61% were songs I like, 18% songs I don’t like, and 21% songs I wouldn’t turn off the radio if they came on. There’s more, but I’m already bored.


I don’t know.

Anyway, Carole Bayer Sager (still alive) wrote “Don’t Cry Out Loud” with Peter Allen (not alive), an Australian singer-songwriter whose father committed suicide when Allen was 14. Turns out this was the advice given by his mother in order to encourage Allen to keep his “best face on” for his baby sister and the world. Terrible advice that turned into Billboard’s 26th biggest hit of 1979.

It also snapped me out of my little midlife crisis.

Almost had it all.