I do not remember the first time I heard “Last Dance with Mary Jane” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the radio. I do vaguely recall watching Tom Petty lip syncing lyrics while waltzing a presumably dead Kim Basinger through a music video on Mtv in 1994, a time when watching and listening to your favorite song was a thing.
The video is supposed to be about drugs, overdose and death. Or maybe it was murder. I am not quite sure. I have carried my own associations and meanings with the song for the past 22 years. They touch on little deaths.
I always remember dancing drunk in a pole barn with a popular and pretty girl the night of our high school graduation to the song. A classmate’s parents had let everyone park in a backfield of their farm. They took our keys before turning a blind eye as teenagers in a small rural town do what they do the summer before moving on to real jobs or college. We drank wine coolers and beer and cheap whiskey bought by older friends and siblings. We swam in a retention pond in our underwear. And we danced to music coming from a crappy CD player.
Dancing drunk, cheek to cheek in wet, sticky clothing with that girl was the highlight of my teen years. I hated high school for the most part. It is bad enough to be socially awkward. It is worse when the social waters you swim in are so shallow that you cannot find any other of your tribe you wish to associate with. This is why one stanza of “Last Dance With Mary Jane” stood out for me my senior year.
Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told
You never slow down, you never grow old
I’m tired of screwin’ up, tired of going down
Tired of myself, tired of this town
I planned to run far away when I graduated from high school. I did for a while. I made life-long friends in college, fell in love, had my heart-broken and pieced myself back together a couple of times.
In my late 20s I moved back home to regroup. I thought the stay would be temporary. It’s been nearly 14 years. I turn 40 in a couple of weeks. The song’s lyrics took on new meaning as I grew older and realized the gravity of family and familiarity was inescapable.
I moved closer to the city. I got a job downtown. I no longer “tired of this town.” I learned to like parts of it. I still wrestled with myself. I never completely shook the belief somehow I was continually “screwin’ up.”
I started running marathons to combat the nagging feeling. I remembered the refrain that “you never slow down, you never get old.” I believed if I ran far enough and fast enough I could escape my age and my problems.
The approach has worked for five years, mostly. The flush of endorphins work to push away periods of overwhelming self-loathing and doubt. I can still count the swing of my arms, 1-2-3-4, and lull myself into the moment I am in.
On very good days, I feel like this:
Of course, it is delusional for a pudgy-bellied, average-paced guy to believe he “soars” while running. I grunt and sweat and curse profusely. Luckily, I do so with a group of good friends during the hours and months of training it takes to condition for a 26.2 mile run.
Also, “You never slow down, you never grow old” is a lie. I will never be a kid again, swaying cheek to cheek with a pretty girl in a barn, no matter how fast I run. I see within the five years of marathon running that I have already slowed down a bit as well.
At least I have unpacked most of that stanza in “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”
My hometown is OK. My life has been pretty stable for the past decade. No more “going down.” I am creeping toward being comfortable in my own skin.
I even found a replacement song refrain for my running this season. Johnny Cash’s cover of Soundgarden’s”Rusty Cage” is more of a trudging song. I know my run is good when the following refrain repeats over-and-over in my head:
Too cold to start a fire, I’m burning diesel, I’m burning dinosaur bones.
I’ll even replace “cold” with “old” when it is too warm out.
As I approach 40, life feels much more like a series of rusty cages than last dances. I realize that I often have to find ways to escape the small spaces, whether I put myself in them or am placed there by circumstance.
And if I want to get anywhere in life, I have learned I need to grind out the mileage. So, here is to my sixth Flying Pig Marathon and another decade older in a couple of weeks.