You know people are around the same age as me when they can recall with exceptional clarity the first time they heard Something Corporate’s Konstantine. A lot of people have grown out of that band and the music of its front man turned solo act Andrew McMahon, but I have spent the entirety of my adult life following his career.
Even though this obsession with a musician stands at around 15 years and counting, for one reason or another, I have never had the opportunity to see him perform live until this past weekend. All of my other college favs—Ben Folds, Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional—I’ve found one way or another to see them live, but he was the missing piece of the puzzle.
A guy who lived on my dorm floor freshman year introduced the whole floor to Something Corporate early in our first semester at USC. I started with Cavanaugh Park, but by the time I finished college, I had every song the band had ever put out. The band pops up a lot in our college stories, like the time my friend and I got lost on our way to Burbank. She was sad about a guy and I introduced her to one of the less popular SoCo tracks, Walking By. She made us listen to it on a loop for the 40 minutes I was driving around in my all-back car, burning under the California sun, unable to figure out where we were going.
You would think that would be enough to make me hate the song forever, but it is still one of my all-time favorites that gets auto played on repeat just like Jamie did whenever I have to deal with rejection. As the years went on, there tended to be a song for everything. Trudging to my first post-college job every day, I would blare I’m Ready as I rolled over Laurel Canyon, barely moving in the morning traffic. When I needed a solo dance party, it was (Hurricane) The Formal Weather Pattern. The blare it in the car and sing it with your friends was Drunk Girl.
And then there was my bad day song, Swim.
There are a lot of great moments I will never forget from my first Andrew McMahon concert. He leapt off pianos, he sang a melodic cover of his own song, Punk Rock Princess. He told us how Cecilia and the Stars is an ode to his young daughter. He busted out one of those elementary school rainbow parachutes. And he explained what inspired him to write Swim.
McMahon readily admits he is truly privileged to be able to perform music for people as his job. I appreciate that he is grateful, but what I appreciate more is that he is willing to admit there were times he struggled. Just because you have achieved a certain amount of fame and success doesn’t mean life doesn’t suck from time to time. After all, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after recording his first Jack’s Mannequin album, Everything in Transit. Thanks to a bone marrow transplant from his sister, he survived and I believe is in remission.
That didn’t mean having cancer wasn’t scary. It is also the inspiration behind Swim.
I really don’t know how I didn’t put two and two together, as the lyrics of Swim pretty accurately sums up what it is like dealing with cancer. Granted, I’ve never had cancer, so I could be wrong, but given how much I relate to this song as someone who has only watched friends and family deal with cancer, it seems pretty on the nose.
Here’s the thing about treating cancer—there simply aren’t that many things to get excited about because even the stuff that is supposed to help the patient hurts. To go through chemotherapy, you have to be in a mindset where you are mentally prepared and positive about basically pumping your body full of poison. And you do this with no guarantee that you will be cured. Best case scenario, you will feel pretty crappy for the entirety of your chemotherapy, then you get to stop some day and the cancer doesn’t come back. When that is the best case scenario, developing an attitude that you just need to get through it even if there is no sign things will change can be pretty useful. As the song says, you, “swim for better days despite the absence of sun.”
There are plenty of people who approach dealing with their disease optimistically. That is great and I am glad it works for them, but for those who can’t convince themselves they are going to beat cancer or have been told they have no chance of beating it, but you can maybe buy yourself some time, being pessimistic isn’t so bad. It isn’t even all that pessimistic of an attitude in a situation like cancer. It is simply the reality of the situation that you need to accept in order to adjust your expectations accordingly. You learn to understand that most of this is going to suck. You accept that, you put your head down, and even though there are no indicators things might get better, you keep going not because you believe they will but because you have no other choice but to keep going or else you’ll drown.
And watching him perform this song, which has gotten me through many days where I had no indication tomorrow would be better, is one of those things I will appreciate for the next few years, if not the rest of my life. Even though Andrew McMahon can’t fix the sick or the causes behind your bad day, he can create something positive with his music. And that helps quite a bit on those days where you’re trying to swim and the tide’s too high. It is, pardon the play on words, a little Holiday From Real.
On my frustrating days, I try to plug on with my head down. It is something my mother taught us when we were younger. “Just hope tomorrow’s better,” she’d tell me.
What I found helped me feel better on those not so great days is reaching out to friends who have been having bad days too and try to make their tomorrow better. You could argue I do it for the karma, but I mostly do it to try and shift my attention from my own pity party. I know how much those flashes of sun on the overcast days help me so much, that I feel compelled to pay it forward.
What is great about Andrew McMahon concerts is that I can do something to help someone in a way that is so much more meaningful than a card or a quick text seeing if people are okay or need anything, as he has a station where you can sign up to be a bone marrow donor. One form and two swabs of the inside of my mouth and I was registered to possibly throw someone the life preserver and help make that swim more manageable. You can do the same thing even if you don’t ever make it to one of McMahon’s concerts.
You may not know anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer (though in this day and age that seems impossible), but know that being a bone marrow donor may result in a few bad and uncomfortable days for you, but it could be that light of the end of the tunnel for someone struggling to just keep swimming.