Burning Down the House

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The 2014 PFG Playlist

Let’s ignore for the moment that you could count on both hands the number of posts between the 2013 and 2014 editions of this list. I wrote a book, people!

The last time I drafted my annual list of favourite songs, I was surprised to find that there were actually tracks that I had to leave off to keep it at ten, the first time in recent memory that had happened.

Yeeeeeaaaah. Didn’t really have that problem this year.

While I still ended up with more than ten songs (opting to scrap my self-imposed limit this year), my sense of disconnect and indifference with the current musical landscape returned more ferociously than before, for a few reasons, chief among them my two-footed jump into record collecting.

Devoting so much of my extracurricular efforts to educating myself on what vinyl’s worth my time turned my musical attentions backwards. I refocused on the things I always loved and started self-directed studies in the jazz and soul records that formed the foundations that built hip-hop; it’s an endeavour that’s proven rather labour-intensive. Turns out there’s a shit load of music that’s been produced in the last sixty years, who knew? But I still try to stay out here.

If there’s any thematic unity among 2014’s selections, it would be a sudden surge of female artists onto the list in the year’s latter half and the abrupt end of my brief flirtation with guitars, following Deafheaven’s surprising appearance last year.

I was saying to a friend last weekend, and I’m aware of how arrogant this sounds, but I really feel like after a certain point, you just start to get bored with the sounds that things like six strings through distortion pedals can produce. The kids at my job are getting their lives over Ty Segall and King Tuff, and I just caaaaan’tBecause all that music makes me want to do is listen to Dinosaur Jr or like, I don’t know, The Cave-In. Or Hot Water Music. Or Quicksand. Or any of the dozens of rock bands I was into at their age that they would undoubtedly find wack as hell.

Look at  it this way: back when I was playing in the band, our mandate always seemed to be that we were trying to play as loudly as possible to punch through to some sort of transcendent emotion, and personally, I don’t feel like we ever fully pulled it off because we were limited not only by our skill set but by the instruments we were using. I find that synthesizers and software are twanging that note in my soul more lately, and 2014 was the year I fully accepted them into my life.

Not that anyone cares nearly two weeks into the year, but I’ve already come this far, so let’s get this over with, in no particular order.

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Graining on That Wood

Five years ago I sat in a Starbucks in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, pulled out my then-girlfriend’s burdensome six-pound Dell laptop and started a WordPress blog. I named it after something I’d had scrawled on a white board in my apartment, something I thought might have ended up the title of my first story collection.

Poetry for Gravediggers was my fifth blog, and my first after being downsized as the ‘Online Editor’ of The University of Windsor’s Lance newspaper. Freed from the demands of mandated content creation, I had a surplus of time on my hands and no receptacle in which to dump my ramblings. So I started this.

This is some of what I wrote on May 28, 2009:

“Maybe you got away from your city, eager for the opportunities for reinvention such a move would afford you.  Maybe most other aspects of your life are happy.  But that need to tell stories never really goes away, does it?  Whether retelling truth or crafting your lies, stories have strong roots, you can never fully pull that need out of you. So you start writing your little stories again.

And if you’re like me, you fail. A lot.  You don’t finish. You despise every word that goes on the page, you question the sanity of anyone who ever had faith in your “talents.”  You get irritable with family, coworkers, friends and lovers.

And if you’re like me, you probably get sick of feeling like that.  So maybe you decide to take some of the skills you picked up when you weren’t writing, and use them to keep  you motivated as you try to make something of yourself, because your thirtieth birthday is already fading behind you and you finally understand that no one is going to make it happen for you.

So maybe, you start a blog.

This site is for me, as I call the bluff of adolescent mentors and supporters; we’ll see if you were right.”

Yesterday morning Okayplayer, a site I’ve read off and on long before I started this site, posted a lengthy and complimentary review of my first book.

You could say it’s been an eventful five years. My then-girlfriend became my ex-girlfriend, I moved to a significantly less-fancy Toronto neighbourhood than Rosedale (as ice cream truck jingles and sires waft through my window) and somehow instead of getting any short stories out into the world I messed around and became a non-fiction writer.

And suddenly this blog  shifts from chronicling ‘How I Got Over’ to ‘How I Stay On.’ One of the best things I ever heard was from the songwriter Mike Doughty when someone asked him why he finally decided to write a book about his time in the 90’s alt-hop band Soul Coughing. He said the reason he did was because someone called his bluff: he’d been saying he should write a book for so long someone finally handed him a little money and said, ‘So go do it.’ And that’s terrifying, because, as Doughty said, if you actually try, if you put yourself out there, you lose the comfort of being an undiscovered genius. It’s a comfort I enjoyed a lot over the last five years. And now I don’t have it anymore, which is good, if unsettling.  I’ve heard it enough that the fear of failure is really just the fear of success, and I finally know what that means. Because now that I’ve achieved some infinitesimal measure of success (I’ve almost stopped shuddering when I refer to myself as a “writer,” which is huge if you know me), I have to do it again. Which I really have no idea how to do, judging from the wall of silence that greets me after I get introduced to editors by mutual friends.

Which is kind of….great?  I recently pointed out to a new acquaintance that I have zero connection to the literary community of this city, not out of any aversion to meeting them, I’m just socially awkward and keep weird hours to pay the bills, so don’t have much of an opportunity. But part of me likes being an unknown quantity who came out of nowhere. Part of me likes that whatever small ripple my book’s announcement made in the community was essentially, “Wait, who?!” Or, to quote that unsung poet, Miguel: “I’ll do it all without a co-sign.”

So what does that mean? Part of it means refocus on the next book (pitch being refined daily) double down on posting around here, make connections when I can but don’t relentlessly network to the detriment of the real work.

In 2009 I wrote a post reviewing two volumes of the 33 1/3 series. Five years later,I have my name on one. This blog may have fulfilled the promise it was created for, but its purpose never ends.

And we won’t stop.

Cause we can’t stop.

 

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The 2013 PFG Playlist

Every year since I started running down some of the songs I enjoyed most in the previous 12 months, I’ve lamented in the intro about what a chore selecting the songs had become, as I grew more and more distant from the popular tastes of our age.

To my surprise and delight, 2013 broke the streak. I have no idea if that’s due to an improved ability at finding things I would like or an overall increase in quality this year; I have no overarching ideas or unified theories on music in 2013, but the fact that I actually to cut my list down to ten selections was a welcome surprise. Even more surprising is how this year’s selection ran across more genres than in previous years. There are actual guitars, y’all! Enough preamble! Let’s dig into this, in no order.

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Christmastime is Here: Redux

I must be the only person who looks forward to a vacation so he can…work. Just, you know, work on the things he wants to do and enjoys instead of the things he’s mandated to do by financial and fiduciary responsibilities.

I’m writing this from my parents’ kitchen table near Windsor, Ontario. The last time I was here, in June, I was working through the first draft of the book. That was rarely a cheery process, so I cherish the opportunity to visit and just…be. I’ve made no plans with friends, nor do I intend to. I kind of just want to hang out with the fam jam, pet some dogs, eat snickerdoodles, pilfer their record collection (see results on Instagram) and recharge the batteries before heading back to Toronto and researching more ways to make rice and black-eyed peas (meal of champions).

This time last year I took a moment to walk y’all through the holiday music I actually enjoyed, those songs that add comfort and meaning to my holiday season. Since I’m in such a good mood today, it’s a perfect time to look at the songs I cannot stand, the ones that make me burp peppermint-tinged vomit into the back of my throat. I’m only working with those songs admitted to the canon; there are countless atrocities buried in the holiday albums of pop acts from today and yesteryear (looking at you, “Funky, Funky Christmas“) but I want to discuss the mediocrity that’s somehow slipped through the cracks of common sense and become standards.

Jingle Bells

In last year’s post I mentioned that “Jingle Bells” is no one’s favourite holiday song, and the practice of adding a few tinkles of the melody on the outro of your version of “The Christmas Song” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is pandering and repellent.

Look, “Jingle Bells” is fine when you’re a kid and you’re commenting on the odour of certain superheroes and their egg-laying abilities, but there’s no way to save this song for anyone past the age of 11, not that it’s stopped crooners of the past sixty years from trying, and no one fails more spectacularly than Barbra. My mother plays this record every year and I will cast no shade to “I Wonder as I Wander,” but this scat-tacular rendition of “Jingle Bells” is a sewing needle in my ear.

Baby It’s Cold Outside

“Say, what’s in this drink?”
“The answer is no.”
“What’s the sense in hurting my pride?”

Nuff said.

All I Want for Christmas is You

Okay, just—*ducks tomato* will you just *dodges cup full of piss* just wait a minute, damn it!

It’s not a bad song. I might even go as far to say that I actively like it, I’m bouncing in my seat as I listen to it. The issue is, I don’t know that I consider it a Christmas song, or just a pop song wearing a Santa hat, and maybe that’s what makes it exceptional in the first place, but I don’t think it deserves its honour as the last song to enter the all-time canon of holiday classics. But I swear, the fervor that this song inspires in you people, the nuclear rage that can erupt at the slightest criticism of it, is unreal.  It’s good, I will give you that. It’s just not as good as y’all think it is, and not as good as any of the songs I mentioned last year.

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas

I mean, do I really have to? Sure, it’s for the kids, fine, whatever, if the day ever comes when I’m blessed to loose some spawn on the world I’ll grit my teeth and put this song on repeat, too. But I know grown adults who still hold it down for Gayla Peevey, think it’s adorable. Get your lives together, people. And this is me saying that.

This Christmas (by Chris Brown)

This is not an indictment of the Donny Hathaway song, this is an indictment on the need for anyone [especially the above…individual] to cover it. Stop. Erase the tapes. You have nothing, absolutely nothing to add to the original. As a friend once said, “I know God is good because He brought us Donny.” Anyone thinking they need to trot their flat-ass voice all over the perfection of the original needs to sit down, pour a glass of egg nog and think about their choices.

So those are the songs I’ll be avoiding this year like a kiss from your auntie with the beef smell. Let me know how wrong I am or what I missed in the comments when you’re hiding from family in the bathroom this week.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all y’all who take ten minutes out of your day to read the junk I throw up here. I appreciate it more than I’ll ever let on.

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“So, how’s the book going?”

It’s a reasonable question. It’s about the halfway mark of this adventure I’ve been on. I’ve read a pile of books, a stack of articles, reached out to and spoken with amazing, brilliant people, I’ve listened to Donuts and the records used to create it at least 75 times front to back [and that’s likely a conservative estimate].  So I can certainly understand why people ask.

Doesn’t mean I have any fucking clue how to formulate an answer.

But I try. People are being polite, taking an interest, and I’d like them to pay for the thing when it comes out, even if they have no intention to read it and buy it out of courtesy. I’ll take it. The popular answer, as in the one I go back to again and again is the ‘oil tanker’ response.

See, oil tankers actually consist of eight to twelve smaller tanks within the ship. Keeps the cargo from slooshing around too much, which could compromise the ship’s balance; less movement = more stability. My brain currently feels like an oil tanker with a single tank: production techniques, Soren Kierkegaard, the Kubler-Ross scale, Albert Camus, different approaches and opinions on late style, Roland Barthes, the epidemiology of lupus; all these things are just rolling around clumsily from one end of my brain to the other. I’ve given numerous lengthy and sensible ideas to the showerhead as I prepare to face each day, but this hasn’t translated into as many words on paper as I would like.

Put it another way: late last year the webcomic Toothpaste for Dinner put up a single panel gag called ‘The Creative Process.’

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That seems accurate. We’re well into the ‘Fuck off’ segment of the program, far enough from deadline that panic isn’t on my back yet, but it’s waving at me from just over the horizon, a box of tissues in its twitchy hands.

And that’s fine, because I know it’ll get done. The structure of the thing, what I wanted it to accomplish, has been loosely in place since I began, a requirement of the proposal. Scenes, fragments, caveats and addenda are floating to the surface with more regularity than they once were; you can’t have all that material swishing around in your brain without something coagulating into something usable eventually. It will get done. It might have more academic meandering than the heads will want, and not enough for the theory kids, and maybe it gets savaged on Goodreads and the Stones Throw Message Board, but it’ll get done. If you’ve been with me a while, friends, you know that’ll probably end up the most surprising victory of all.

So keep asking the question. It’s good, it keeps me focused. Just don’t expect me to have an easy answer for you.

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What Would Be and What Is

Last Monday I spent most of my morning waiting around for my local TelComm technician to show up and finally get my Internet up and running at the new place, thus ensuring I could continue to Netflix and Hearthfire as much as my little soul desires [note: it desires a lot].

As is typically the case with waiting on TelComm technicians, he finally showed up in the last ten minutes of the four-hour appointment window, but I didn’t terribly care, I had the day off and being up that early gave an opportunity to take a significant bite out of the book I’d been reading. Out of the company van stepped a young black man, denim shirt a couple of sizes too big, Leafs hat cocked to the side. After he checked the lines at the side of the building I brought him up to the apartment.

“Hey Jordan, what novel are you reading?”
“Oh, it’s not a novel, it’s a biography. About a novelist, so that’s pretty much the same thing, though.”
“Yeah? You a writer?”
“Heh. Trying to be.”

I walk him into the apartment, he susses out the connections, stepped out to work some magic around the block, came back and told me to grab my laptop. I open my Macbook and start scanning for the network.

“Are those things good for video editing?” he asks me.
“Supposedly. I’ve done a bit here and there, nothing too extravagant, though. But they say these are the machines that make it really easy, you know?”
“They’re expensive though, huh?”
“Ha, yeah. This was the result of a lot of saving and a lot of birthday and holiday charity.”
“Yeah, man, cause you know my woman, she does a lot of videos on YouTube, right? She’s got like half a million views or something? I don’t know anything about that shit, I’m not on YouTube, Facebook, none of that. But she’s doing her thing, you know? She got a birthday coming up, says she needs a new laptop to really step all that up, you know? But man, like, twelve hundred dollars, though?”
“Yeah. Though you can always get a PC with the same specs for a lot less, it’s just a style thing.”
“Well, that’s her thing, though, right, man? She does these like, make-up videos? Like, showing girls how do apply it and stuff. Here, I’ll show you.”

I shit you not, friends. He spent at least 20 minutes showing me photos and videos of his fiancée doing her makeup tutorials. It was actually kind of cool, she does both high fashion and zombie/horror designs, which I’d never seen before. And the dude wasn’t lying, she’s got like 10,000 subscribers, hundreds of followers on Instagram…she’s doing her thing.

The installation’s wrapping up, he asks me for a pen so he can jot down his contact info in case of any problems. I can’t find one lying around so I grab one of the pair I keep clipped to my satchel, for pretentious Moleskine writing and the like.

“Thanks, money,” he says as he starts to write his name. He stops, suddenly. “Yo, this pen is SICK, dude!”
I start coughing on my laughter, “You have no idea how much it makes my day to hear you say that.” I take my pens seriously, what do you want?
“Dude, like, I’m about to write my full name on here, and I never do that, I just want to keep writing with this thing.”

He hands me the sheet with his info, asks me where he can find some lunch in the neighbourhood on the cheap and shakes my hand. Honestly, my whole heart is warmed by the encounter, to meet the cool guy who hooked up my Internet and shared my love of a good pen. And then this happened.

I’d left the apartment door open because he’d been running up and downstairs for equipment. Now, the hallways in my building are ceramic tile creating a sort of echo chamber effect throughout, and the doors all seem to have very loose hinges, meaning my neighbours are always inadvertently slamming their doors, the sound of which gets broadcast all around the building. And that’s what happened as I was shaking the technician’s hand. Someone on the second floor was stepping out, didn’t catch the door as it was closing and a loud POP! could be heard from my apartment one storey up. And when it happened, his whole demeaner changed for a moment. His grip tightened, his eyes grew wide and darted to the door.

“Yo, what was that?”
‘Huh? Oh, nothing man. Someone just slammed their door downstairs.”
“Oh!” he starts laughing, nervous and embarrassed. “Man, for a second there I was like…like, I don’t know.”

It takes a minute for my muddled brain to connect the dots: Oh my God! He thought it was a gunshot.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since he left, and what that says about the differing experiences between races. The writer/scholar/intellectual Michael Eric Dyson, in one of my favourite essays on the subject, once took aim at what he called the “Liberal Theory of Race,” the one that attempts to convince us that deep down, we’re all the same. It’s Dyson’s belief, and I’m inclined to agree with him, that such a viewpoint chooses to ignore, “…the irrefutable reality of race. Because it conceives of race as merely a part of one’s broader ethnic identity, liberal race theory is unable to make sense of the particular forms of oppression generated primarily by racial identity.”

An idea fully on display as I shook hands with my technician. To me, even if I didn’t know it was a door slamming, it would never occur to me that a loud popping noise could be a gunshot. But for him, it’s in the realm of possibility. Whether that’s a result of his own social conditioning or personal experience I don’t know. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He comes from a place where that kind of violence occurs to him, I come from a place where it never even boards my train of thought. And we can get along, have our chats about the fiancées, the appreciation of a quality pen, all that. But there will always be a gulf that we won’t ever be able to fully cross. All we can do is acknowledge it exists, because that might be the only way white and black folks can ever really fully understand each other.

[Jonah Lehrer confession: I made points similar to the ones found in here in a post for the University of Windsor newspaper in 2007. Since no one’s paying me for this, I reserve the right to recycle to a new audience.

Uhh…. Now What?

I haven’t shaved since Thursday. I don’t think I’ve eaten a proper vegetable in longer than that. My four-month-old Macbook blew a pixel somewhere during the process. My fluid consumption hasn’t been caffeine-free since last Saturday. But I pulled it off.

Yes, friends, I finished it. I submitted it. It’s fate rests in the good hands of the folks at the publisher.

If you squint at that photo you can suss out what it was for. I won’t openly acknowledge it since I’m superstitious like that. I should know either way within the next couple of months. Me and all the other cranks who took advantage of the open call, ha.

Whether or not it gets accepted or not is kind of irrelevant, though. It was a good idea, and it’ll still be a good idea if they decide it’s not a good fit for them right now. I’ll find somewhere else for it.

What’s more important is the education this whole whirlwind provided me. Chief among the lessons: This is what I love to do. Waking up at 6.00 a.m. some days was still a pain in the ass, but once I got the coffee maker working, sitting down to work on it was a joy. I’m sure this was partially due to the pressure of the oncoming deadline thanks to my brain’s inability to summon an idea until just over a week before the due date, but it was more to do with loving what I was doing. The hardest part now is waking up tomorrow and not have to immediately rush to the cafe or the kitchen table to get some work in before I went to my job.

I hope it will be habit forming. This last week was the only time in recent memory I wrote every day. On something I valued, not cranking out a blog entry to distract myself from short stories or anything else I had on the go. Working on the proposal only served to affirm how much I love to make things, whether that’s podcasts or stories or blogs. These are the things that bring meaning to my life. Some of you probably knew that all along. I’ve always been a bit of a dullard when it comes to these things.

Thankfully, I have two other writing projects to try and finish this week, along with the aforementioned Macbook display issue to try and remedy, so I’ll be able to keep busy. Turns out, I kinda like busy.

Before I collapse in slumber, I would be remiss if I did not thank some people for their love and support this past week. I can be….,, unpleasant to deal with when immersed in a project like this. It lives in my head and consumes my thoughts, which can lead me to expect people around me to read my mind by osmosis, or to understand what I mean with little explanation. This can…strain some relationships occasionally. My thanks to those who gritted their teeth and let me go crazy, or kicked my ass when I was needing it.

To Richelle Gratton, Tera Brasel, Jeff Meloche, Khaiam Dar, Caitlin MacKinnon, Sarah Jacobs and Nicole Bryant: you all get shouts in the acknowledgements. And I hate acknowledgement sections in books.

Now, I think I’ll go pass out.