Monday, February 10, 2014 Tuesday, February 4, 2014 Monday, February 3, 2014 Sunday, February 2, 2014

Smog, “I’m New Here”

I love the way this song starts, with Callahan playing that core riff again and again while muttering to himself, “No… no… no… no.” And then a spark catches on the riff and it gallops higher, just for a second or so, and again, and Callahan knows he can’t hold it in any longer and that now’s as good a time to start as any other time. “I did not become someone different…” It’s the way words jump and burn inside me when I have something important to say and I’m trying to fit the right words to it, holding on until my opening statement is as perfect and clear as possible. I’ll surely slip up sooner rather than late, but I’ll always have that one true first sentence, or so I tell myself.

I like to think of the second verse (“Met a woman in a bar…”) as if it’s being spoken by the mysterious, roguish playboy figure that populates a few other Callahan songs, e.g. "I Was a Stranger": he swaggers up to these women and tells them he’s “hard to get to know / and near impossible to forget,” and then leaves town silently cursing himself after he’s scorched the earth and left them bruised, poisoned by emotional fuckery. But he can’t stop himself, so he goes somewhere else and does it again, and now he’s here looking back on it all, sitting on the porch with a cigarette. Maybe it’ll be different next time. “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / you can always turn around.”

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Steely Dan, “Kid Charlemagne”

I woke up Monday morning with a lump in my throat. I felt it every time I swallowed — and since then I’ve been acutely aware of just how weird and complicated that process is, swallowing things; it’s not something I take for granted anymore — and when I leaned down beneath my desk to scan some files, like someone had cut a ping-pong ball’s shell in half and taped it to the inside of my throat. It was tender to the touch, like a secret bruise. I went to sleep two nights straight hoping I’d wake up fine, and woke up two mornings straight touching my neck to find that my lump had, in fact, grown. I went to our campus clinic this morning. 

Thyroid problems run down the paternal side of my family like an artery, carrying issues from father to son to son. My grandfather’s thyroid tried to melt him away in a burst of hyperactivity before he got it under control; my dad’s invites assault from his own body, unprovoked, unless he takes medication. I fed these pieces of information to the clinic doctor as she applied pressure to my throat, remarking on the swelling. She signed me up for blood work, an ultrasound, and a follow-up visit next week. I made an appointment with the ultrasound clinic this afternoon; it’s deep in the Mennonite township north of where I live, and I had to take two buses and walk a mile into a biting wind to make it there. 

It was my first ultrasound. It was kind of beautiful, and surprisingly tender. The technician laid me down on a papered table, tucked a towel into the neck of my sweater, and darkened the room; I could see light leaking out of the edges between the ceiling panels, light that couldn’t be contained. I squinted hard and it started to look like starlight, a night sky I could enjoy while the technician smeared cool gel onto my throat and took grainy pictures of my insides. The room was surprisingly warm, and the ultrasound machine hummed and spat as she worked. I nearly fell asleep. 

I walked back into the wind sweeping off the snow-covered fields and thought about the song I wanted to post today: something by Stars of the Lid, maybe, or by a guy named Ben Warfield who put out an ambient record this year I really love. I wanted something I typically use to accompany quiet contemplation, though the topic at hand was a little more serious than my usual pre-sleep subjects: the weight of the day had me staring down mortality with a nearly unprecedented seriousness. What if the lump is more than a consequence of a recent viral infection, or even a hand-me down disease I can control with a pill every morning? What if I have to brace myself for a struggle every time I need to scan a document? (Shit, what if I need to move my printer out from under my desk?) 

But then my day got better, bit by bit. I bought a heater for our bedroom at Wal-Mart, and it wasn’t even that expensive; I have a job interview tomorrow with a really cool company that’s based a few stone’s throws away from where I’m sitting right now; I’m getting to write a piece I’ve been thinking about for a while; I’m leaving my place in a few minutes to buy a naked burrito and play poker with my friends. I’m soaring on this series of little things. So I’m posting “Kid Charlemagne,” by Steely Dan, because I listen to this song when I’m feeling like royalty. It only takes one listen to understand why Kanye was attracted to this song, and it’s deeper than that one line — “did you realize / that you were a champion in their eyes?” — it moves with supreme confidence and style, an outlaw spirit. I will be fine, at least for today.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beck, “Canceled Check”

I’m not a huge Beck fan, but I heard this song today and liked it. I tend to prefer loose, relaxed Beck to serious, somber Beck, and he’s operating in the former vein on “Canceled Check,” at least sonically: it’s a loopy walk through the honky chateau, with guitar lines stumbling around like a drunk who’s gotten up too quickly and lost their balance. But in the same way judgments we normally keep to ourselves tend to slip past our internal defences when we’re on the sauce, that first verse is a cutting rendering of the friend we all have who mooches their way through each night out; they’re a pain in the neck, sure, but most of the time that remains unsaid.

Semi-related: listening to this a few times in a row helped me to realize I prefer Pavement’s take on this sound, e.g. "Father to a Sister of Thought": it’s a little warmer, a little more impressionistic in a lyrical sense, and I like Malkmus’ vocal presence more than Beck’s. There’s a playfulness and a personality to Malkmus’ delivery of “Calling the bluffs / talking so tough” that I can’t see coming from Beck. But I suppose this isn’t a surprising conclusion, given my listening history: Pavement (and Malkmus’ work with the Jicks) is a huge part of my personal canon, and Beck is a tangential figure at best. 

One of my favourite writers, the newly minted Time editor Sam Lansky, wrote something last week that’s stuck with me:

But then, that’s the big dumb myth of writing — that inspiration has anything to do with the rough mechanics of the process, which is all about pushing through the mundane distractions of everyday life and writing when you don’t feel like it, writing when you are certain that you have nothing to say, writing when the words just won’t come. 

This isn’t a new sentiment, of course, but Sam expresses it simply and clearly, and in doing so compelled me to think about my own run-ins with inspiration (or a lack thereof) over the last few weeks. For the time being, I write for self-expression and for beer money. I don’t have to fight for every word to cover the essentials — food on my plate, a roof over my head, decent WiFi — and this occasionally leads me to believe, falsely, that I have the luxury of inspiration: I can wait until something special comes to me because it’s just a hobby, a passion kept on the side.

But I know it’s not that simple, and it only takes a while before I’m staring at my screen, trying to make the words fit together. It’s like a mental valve has been struck with a hammer, and no matter how many times I turn it towards its initial position I can’t stop the incessant drip-drip-drip, can’t cut off a stream that’s demanding attention, or at least a bucket. Writing is an integral part of my process of reflection and self-improvement, and when I give up for a few days or weeks I can feel the liquid start to back up and trip high-level alarms.

I find joy in other activities and it’s not enough. I spent a few hours tonight figuring out a dispersion model in Excel for my air pollution class, a quick program that would take in a bunch of parameters — wind speed, cloudiness, stack height, the rate at which a chemical is being emitted, etc. — and spit out the distance at which the air would be most concentrated with that chemical. I wrote out long lines of equations and shifted terms around and added exponents and looked up figures in a textbook and typed it into a computer, and I couldn’t get it to work. I redid the question with an entirely new set of assumptions, ran back the writing and the shifting and the adding and the researching and the typing, and it still didn’t work. It turned out, of course, that I had made a simple error at the beginning of the question — an errant button push on a calculator, basically — that rendered the whole thing impossible. I went back and fixed it and everything clicked into place in an instant: the numbers were right, they were expected, everything in the world made sense for a few perfect seconds. Solving a puzzle like that, even a simple one, is a window into nirvana. The pleasure I find in that little burst of light and the corresponding afterglow keeps me going when I think math and science are stupid and I regret every decision that led me to become an engineering student. They are fleeting, beautiful moments, but there aren’t enough of them. I can still feel it in the back: drip-drip-drip.  

The valve in my brain is broken, and writing is the only way I can drain the bucket. I certainly can’t talk about it: just now, my boyfriend came up behind me and asked me what I was writing about, and I couldn’t find the right words to tell him. I gave up, saying, “This is just for me.” I’m dependent on this sacred, silent scrap, and that’s why I always come back and realize the truth in what Sam wrote above. I don’t have to write when the words won’t come to pay my rent; I have to write when the words won’t come so I can keep from drowning.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Morning Jacket, “Anytime”

I’m struggling to find inspiration in music right now. I spent much of last year walking around with my brain buzzing, glowing, shooting off little sparks of ideas that’d occasionally catch and burst into glorious flame. At times, it felt like my head was wrapped in barbed, electrified fence: I could hold my hand a few inches away and feel the sizzle, the leaking heat, though I’d never dare touch it. 

I’m not firing on all cylinders like that this year, at least not yet. Maybe it’s major change on the horizon (graduation, finding my first real job, leaving friends who’ve come to resemble something more like family, trying to plan a future around money and geography and relationships & & &) and maybe it’s just a temporary funk, a bit of fatigue held over from my best year yet as a writer that’s demanding attention. Whatever it is, it’s frustrating: I hear new songs and can’t find hooks, I get emails from artists and their reps and can’t be bothered to read them, I read pieces people have worked really hard on and can’t bring myself to care. I want to spend all of my time reading old Nora Ephron essays, cuddling with my boyfriend, and trying to appreciate wine, activities that are undeniably fun but not exactly leading to any personal or professional progress. Call it a quarter-life crisis. 

This is one of the only songs that can fire me up right now; today I walked to class and back with this on repeat and stomped around like a young dragon, stared right back into the bright sunlight, told the windchill I wasn’t going to take any of its shit. “Anytime” charges out of the gates like a pissed off bull and never looks back, never stops roaring. It’s a song that’s never heard the words “can’t” or “don’t” or “tired”. My favourite thing about it is the way Jim James keeps butting up against the limits of communication: at first he can’t help but trip over his own words, and then once he’s got it right he can’t figure out a way to share it with anyone else. But then he gets there, he breaks through, and we’re treated to this joyous explosion: howling and moaning, drums getting thrashed, a piano that’s being pounded to within an inch of its life. And the guitar! it’s soaring, swooping in on the back of a giant eagle — like, think Lord of the Rings-style giant eagle — and scorching everything in its path. By the time he reaches the end of the song, he’s harnessed this power and he’s storming ahead with it in lockstep. James sings, “I know we didn’t, I know we didn’t wait too long / ‘cause anytime’s a good time to move on.” When it comes to this rut I’m stuck in right now, I guess I’m hoping he’s right. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

  • There were probably some people in that theatre who had only thought about AIDS once or twice in their life, or who have never had a meaningful interaction with a gay person, or who had to suppress a benign chuckle when Rayon first tries to chat up Ron Woodroof in the hospital, and they sat there for two hours and were encouraged to reflect on the weight of gay people’s lives and their struggles and a plague that killed many of them. I don’t want to ignore that good, so let’s put it out there.
  • But: we all know this movie could not have been made without the attachment of Matthew McConaughey or someone with equal pull, and it definitely couldn’t have been made without a straight lead character, and it probably couldn’t have been made with an ending that included a room full of mostly gay people applauding Ron Woodroof as he walks in. It’s a tough set of facts to escape. It’s tough, being reminded that your story will only get told if you can fit it into the right box, and even then you might just end up an accessory. (I make this note while trying to remain conscious of the fact that my own story is several orders of magnitude more prominent than others.) 
  • There’s a scene near the end of the movie where Woodroof is talking to Dr. Saks in the house that’s hosting the operations of the buyers’ club. He’s thinking about the life he could’ve had compared to the one he actually has: the wife that won’t be there, the kids that’ll never happen, the years of health. This is all fine and good; everyone deserves those thoughts. The issue is that Woodroof is the only one who is given a platform to express them. Rayon suffers the same loss; for that matter, so do every single person who’s shown lining up outside the house or the motel for their own piece of the action, their own cocktail supply. But we don’t get to hear those stories, and we should. They’re the ones I really want to hear. 
  • And about Rayon: Jared Leto is very good, minus a few affectations that cross the line from fleshing out into caricature. But I find myself having trouble forgetting his Golden Globes acceptance speech, where he ended his remarks by saying something along the lines of, “And to all the Rayons out there: thanks for the inspiration.” It’s like, don’t you get it even a little bit? People like Rayon, real people, don’t exist simply to serve as bits to be researched, as fodder for your acting career. I’m sure his camp has heard criticism in this vein loud and clear, and I’m curious to hear what he’ll say if he wins the Oscar (and I expect he will). But his first set of remarks are representative of an obvious larger problem.
  • I was tested for STIs for the first time about a year and a half ago. I had been going out with my boyfriend for roughly a month. We went to the public health office together. There is a quick test for HIV positivity that can be completed with your blood right in front of your eyes, at about 98% accuracy. The nurse took my blood and prepared to conduct the test. I felt myself get very flushed and light-headed; my heart was racing, just sitting there. She asked me, “Are you feeling alright? Are you worried that it might be positive?” And I told her I wasn’t, because I didn’t really have a reason to be nervous: I had never had unprotected sex, I had never used intravenous drugs, I was completely clear of every cause I knew off the top of my head. And yet there it was, the flush and the light-headedness and the waves of fear. It was like the fear of millions of men before me who might not have been so sure, men who were suffering, who would have to face the consequences or had already faced them. I was fine, but the fear lingers. It hung there in the movie theatre every time they said AIDS, every time I looked at Woodroof’s emaciated face. So I can look at this movie with as much objectivity as I can muster and point out some of its problems, and I can acknowledge the fact that my risk is thousands of times lower than it would’ve been 20 years ago or than it would be if I lived in a different part of the world, but I can’t deny that it affected me at least a little bit. 
  • Despite all of the above, as a movie it was really very good: good performance, nicely shot, good script even if it was a little loose.
  • Shout out to Bradford Cox, who didn’t have to do very much but certainly did this Deerhunter fan proud. 

I hope you’re all having a nice weekend. I’d like to check in re: my life and music I’ve been enjoying soon, just had to get this out now while it’s pretty fresh. See you soon.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

loose goals for 2014

because this is as good a place as any to write them down
eat more vegetables: in the vision of my best life I keep inside my head I have an almost entirely plant-based diet with a lot of greens, juices, and green juices. this one can be more easily achieved by moving much, much closer to a grocery store (like, optimally within ~800 m) and making a visit part of my daily/tri-weekly routine, but no matter how it works out I’d like to eat less junk and more fruit and vegetables
run another half-marathon: my last one was in 2011, and while I probably won’t ever beat that time because I pounded out 80 km weeks all winter on my parents’ treadmill and the filthy Timmins spring roads because I had no friends here and nothing better to do, if I can get below 1:37:00 this year I think that’s a decent springboard for running a marathon next year, which is really the ultimate prize
I’m not running right now for a whole host of reasons I’ve invented (proximity, hibernation, curiosity, etc.) but really it’s just because I’m lazy and I want to live in a building with a treadmill to deal with the winter months, but I’m so much happier and healthier when I’m pulling at least 30-40 km a week, and the sooner I get back to that base level the better
it’s been a long time since I’ve come at it like “I want abs someday” because a) lol, I don’t think that’s my body type and b) running lots is just going to blow up your quads into rock hard tanks and turn your calves into lasers, but I just want to be as healthy as possible
keep learning French: I started doing this two weeks ago using this app/website called Duolingo, which is really fun though probably not as efficient as a single first year introductory French course (I didn’t have much room for electives, I had like two all through university so French dreams got the axe almost right away) and I figure if I use Duolingo for like half an hour a day and work really hard to make that time for myself, and put real thought into practicing and making little notes and doubling back on my weaknesses, maybe I won’t be a hopeless case when we visit Montreal during reading week; at the very least I will be able to read all the restaurant menus
work on procrastination: this is my single worst habit as a writer and worker, I have too much faith in myself because I’ve always been able to get the job done well at the last minute and one day it’s just not going to happen in the worst way and it’s going to blow up in my face. I would like to steer the ship away from this black hole. I woke up at 8:45 a.m. to write this flimsy Tumblr post so I consider that like half a start
but really I’m probably going to need browser plug-ins and alarms and a veritable shit-ton of post-it notes to make this one happen
review an album that earns Best New Music: this one is pretty silly compared to the ones around it! and of course it’s not totally independent, I’ll have to work with my editors and hear the album in advance and love it to make this happen. I had a good feeling about 2013 in terms of my writing even before the year started but it exceeded pretty much all of my expectations: lots of freelancing, lots of development, some really healthy reflection and some valuable lessons, and I think it resulted in some great work, stuff I can stand to look at more than a week after its publication. I know I haven’t shut up about that Blood Orange essay in a week or so but damn, I’m really proud of that, and I think it kinda represents a turning point for me in some vague ways I’m still thinking about
so I would like to build on the personal satisfaction and success of that piece with a suite of great reviews and essays in 2014, and while a BNM is a pretty big deal and I was nervous to even think about it when I had just started writing for Pitchfork, I think I have enough confidence and feel like a part of the community (cue Smog, “Ex-Con”) and I can do this at least once in the new year
(he whispers, from the back of the room: “would even be content with getting into the #1 slot once”)
continue to cultivate healthy relationships with social networks: this one is really tough, and maybe even impossible! but I’m hoping this year I will be OK with not reading every single post that comes up in my feeds, I will have the strength to unfollow popular/powerful people who I think are stupid and annoying, I will not let myself get infected with secondhand anger or bitterness, I will let unhappy people be unhappy without absorbing it myself, I will not check my phone in bed, etc. etc. etc.
if I invoke fucking “professional reasons” as justification for doing/not doing anything in 2014 you have permission to fly to my house and throw me off the nearest cliff
keep exploring old and new sounds: I could give you a story like this for every week of the year but here’s one: in the airport before flying home I heard the most beautiful song over the speaker but couldn’t place it, I was pretty sure it was Elton John but didn’t know the name (it ended up being “Daniel”) and when I got to my parents’ place I rummaged through his greatest hits looking for the song
and I was just blown away at the depth and the strength of that collection, I guess I had fallen into something like an “Elton John is a silly clown who just wants to prance around with twinks” sort of mind (though I’m pretty sure that is totally true) but his music was so dramatic and rich and pure, my heart was burning for him
I love this process, the discovery and the rediscovery, it makes me a better listener and a smarter writer and one who’s more open to possibility, and I hope it keeps coming not just in 2014 but for the rest of my life, it’s why I love music and some of what I try to share in writing about it: the joy of discovery, the way you can find love in something you’ve never heard before or you’ve heard a billion times
become a better son, a better brother, a better friend, a better lover: more patient, more perceptive, more thoughtful, more accepting of faults, more libidinous at appropriate times
trying not to take anything for granted
get a job and start building a life: I just finished the last work term of my undergraduate career; barring a total collapse I’m going to have a degree in chemical engineering and management sciences in four months. I had two exit interviews, and in both of them I kept saying that I was ready to become serious, to take the next step forward towards, like, ideal “adulthood,” to leave the student world behind. in my head this means I’m ready to give up the myth of infinite potential: I would like to get a job that pays decent money over fair weekly hours in a place I like and I want to get really, really good at that job, and that will be the platform on which I put my life together
so let’s hope that happens
get cable: because I’m tired of watching basketball on crappy, nebulous European streaming sites, and because NBA League Pass costs my weight in gold and I can’t even watch Raptors games or big match-ups on national TV
I don’t have much more to say about 2013 but here is one parting shot: I’m proud of what I did with this year in pretty much every sense, whether it’s my personal life or my writing career or my professional life or just, like, being a person, I think I saw improvement in most realms. and I’d like to thank you for taking time out of your day to read what I write on this platform and/or on other websites, because it still blows my mind daily (hourly?) that people like reading my opinions and loose thoughts and hearing what I have to say, that brings me a ton of joy and personal fulfillment
so yes, thank you! and here’s to a happy, healthy new year for all of us. see you in 2014