Making the Best of Bad Situations

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Greendale Saved

It’s just a silly TV show. Some gags and some chucklery once a week by a smart and talented cast and crew.

So why has news that Yahoo! has saved my beloved Community from the brink of extinction yet again filled me with such elation? Is it because Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna are returning to run things? Is it because Donald Glover seems to be finding his smile again after a year of touring and expressed a willingness to bring closure to the story of Troy Barnes? Is it because one half of the prophecy contained in a throwaway line from Season 2 will be fulfilled? Yes to all, but also more.

Community has always been, in many ways, a show about failure, about characters who couldn’t function, or gambled and lost as they stumble back to solid ground. The victories, when they come at all, are tiny and fleeting, a truth mirrored by the show’s history. Renewals tempered with shorter episode orders, no scheduled premiere dates  midseason hiatuses. When it did make the air it was put in a punishing time slot facing down the Chuck Lorre twin-ratings-behemoth of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two shows it could never really compete with because it was too busy gleefully jumping up its own ass. It almost seemed poetic that the show would die brushing its fingertips trying to reach the improbably prophesied sixth season.

But for those of us who love the show, who really love it, with the sort of all-encompassing passion usually reserved for Whovians or Browncoats, the show speaks to us because we recognize the struggle. Maybe we gambled and lost, too. Maybe we took the long way around to discovering why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do. As Jeff Winger says to the Dean after his bout of insanity while producing a TV commercial for the school, “We’ve all been there. Which is why we’re all here.”

And there will be many who bemoan that the show was never the same after the “Gas Leak Year” of Season 4, and the losses of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover. That it never regained its spirit even after Harmon returned, that it felt tired and out of ideas and should be left to die. And they can feel free to lean back with their arms folded and a smirk on their mugs. Yesterday I might have agreed with them, but it would only be to soften the loss I was feeling. From now until next spring, I just don’t have it for them. This isn’t refusing to let go of a notion the show may have outgrown, I don’t think Harmon’s the sort to do something he didn’t want to do, even if it was to honour the fans. If he didn’t think he had any stories to tell, he would walk. It’s a silly little TV show, but despite everything going against it, it’s still kicking. And so are we.

Darkest timeline averted, Human Beings.

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On Alistair MacLeod

Considering the book launching this week will likely lead to an influx of traffic around here, I should probably keep the proceedings hip-hop-centric, but I’ll have to go outside my primary demo for a moment here.

Sad literary news today as we learned the award-winning Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod passed away at age 77, likely due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered last January. I find myself surprised at how taken aback I am by the loss.

I had the good fortune of taking one of MacLeod’s classes on the Early Romantics during my undergraduate studies at the University of Windsor. I am not unique in this regard, he must have taught hundreds if not thousands of students during the four decades he was on the Faculty. I found him a charming and engaging teacher, prone to interrupting his lectures to chat with a pigeon who’d flown onto the windowsill of our classroom in Dillon Hall. He also had a disconcerting habit of breaking into coughing fits that would turn his entire head the a shade of red so deep we would glance at each other with brows furrowed, kids who barely knew each other looking for someone to take the lead and call for medical help. But he always shook it off and went right back into his lecture on The Castle of Otranto without missing a beat, leaving us to roll our eyes in relief like, ‘Can you believe this guy?

But more than any of that, what I always appreciated him for was knowing me.

I maintain I was an unexceptional teenager but I’d managed to stake a small reputation as ‘The Writing Kid’, the one who always put on a show of scribbling bad poetry into a journal during study period to make it seem as though I was deliberately keeping other people away from me.  It was a good gimmick, it served me well.

When I got to university, majoring in English because I didn’t really know what else I could do with any degree of success, I became one of hundreds of ‘Writing Kids’ many of whom were far more adept at self promotion than I was, so I set about the business of staying unnoticed. I met few people and made fewer friends during my time there, I walked through campus like a ghost.

One afternoon I had to drop something off at the Department Office (I had a habit of skipping class to finish papers and leaving them for the professor before the end of the business day). I admit I was creeping a bit, wandering the hallways of Chrysler Hall North, reading the bulletin boards and single-panel comics on the office doors (English Major Gangs: “What’s the word on the street, Johnny?” “Hermeneutics.”), fascinated by this world running parallel to mine that I was ostensibly a part of but felt no membership in, when he rounded the corner.

“Ah, hello!” he said. I think I may have actually jerked my head around to make sure he was talking to me.
“Uhm…Good afternoon, Dr. MacLeod.”
“I’m just coming back to grade your fun papers!” He was always calling our assignments “fun papers,” in that east coast baritone of his.
“Heh, ah, I hope you think mine was fun after you read it,” I stammered awkwardly.
“Oh yes, yes, you do well, don’t you? Where’s your friend, the young lady with the..” he pointed at the corner of his eye. He meant my then-girlfriend, who had a habit of taking Crayola stamps and applying them along her lower eyelid. Be nice, it was the 90’s.
“Oh, she’s gone home. I’m just waiting for my ride to finish his class, and had to drop something for Dr. Atkinson.”
“Ah, I see. Well have a fine evening, I should have your fun papers back for you on Monday.”
“Thanks, Dr. MacLeod. I’ll see you next week.”

Such a boring and pedestrian exchange. Nothing he would ever have remembered. One could make the case that I’m trying to take some inconsequential encounter with a recently deceased person of note and inflate it with meaning but trust, that’s not what this is.  I’ve never forgotten that five-minute chat we had in the hallway of the English Department. That’s why I’ve always been so proud to tell people he taught me once, not because he was this titan of Canadian fiction, winner of the most lucrative literary prize in the world (The IMPAC Dubin Award, won in 2001 for No Great Mischief), but because he took the time to see a confused, angry, directionless kid and speak to him as an equal, when I thought it was my mandated role in life to remain invisible. I will always remain grateful to him for that.

Rest in peace.

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Step Right Up

If you were to guess that the flurry of activity around here lately had to do with me getting the itch again now that the draft has finally left my grubby hands and flown overseas to people like designers and copy editors, you would be correct.

You don’t need me to tell you that writing is like running, or weight lifting or whatever other questionable endurance sport you might partake in. Use it or lose it, and I took my damn sweet time recovering from the process of writing the book (Level 56 on Grand Theft Auto Online, email me for my Gamertag. Get at me, dog). But then ideas for things to write about start to percolate and the longer they stay in there the longer they fester until the process of expelling them from my brain is lacklustre and disappointing. Not unlike passing a bowel movement.

As for how I’m feeling now that it’s out of my hands, the wonderful Julieanne Smolinski summed up that feeling with more precision than I ever could.

Yup.

None of this is to say I’ve been completely slovenly the last couple of months. I continue musing about whatever nerdery comes to mind over at 22 Pages for the University of Toronto (latest are here and here) and I also branched out a tad by tossing some pieces to the folks over at The Same Page on, oddly enough, the 40th Birthday of Hip-Hop and the release of Grand Theft Auto V (do you think I’m developing a niche here?)

As well, my friends and colleagues at 22 Pages Khaiam Dar and Alex Correa have collected the first volume of the webcomic they started in 2011, Smells Like Maturity. If you’re in the Toronto area, swing by Red Nails II at Jane and Bloor for their release party on November 15. I wrote the introduction, so if you’re a Ferguson completist, you’ll want to pick that up. Writing it turned out to be a bigger deal than I was expecting it to be, but I’m really happy with the piece, and for the opportunity to toast those two jerks on the occasion of making their longtime dream come true. Of course they’d release their book six months before mine comes out.

So that’s what I’m staying up to, friends. It’s a moment of respite from book madness as it moves to the production phase, but I’m sure you’ll be inundated with Dilla-related content as the book nears release. For the moment, I’m just enjoying the relative peace and trying to figure out how to stumble my way into being a quote-unquote “writer” instead of someone who wrote a book once.

Kind of weird to think now about how that struggle is what this blog was meant to document in the first place. .

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Coming Down

This will be a story about two things, poorly organized.

It’s been about two weeks since I gave my manuscript the final read through and sent it off to my editors. My eyes stung, my body reeked, my brain frayed on sugar and caffeine overdose. Almost bankrupt from the work shifts I’d given away to write it. Two weeks on my finances are still kind of dicey. It could be another six to eight months before I see a dime from the thing, if not more. It’s almost enough to make a man wonder why he bothers.

Almost.

People have constantly asked me throughout this process, But aren’t you excited?! I am but I’m not. The 18 months I proposed, researched and wrote this book were a time of intense personal loss, on a few different levels, not the least of which was the breakdown of my six-year relationship, compounded by the loss of the woman who saw me through that breakup and made sure I stayed above water. There are lessons of self-sufficiency to be found there, I’m sure, but I don’t care to excavate them today. Suffice to say, I learned the hard way what most writers already know: any project may turn into a collaborative process, but in the thick of it, it’s just you, the screen and the words. And in my case, a dead man.

That’s been the strangest part of all this, now that I’m “over the mountain,” as it were.  I spent large portions of every day with this guy in my head, listening to his music, researching his life, reading what people who knew him had to say. I don’t need to do that anymore. I need to let him go. And I’ve started to, but I kind of already miss him.

After I mailed the draft in, I got nine hours of sleep, went to work for a quick shift and tended to the business of cleaning my sty of an apartment after weeks of neglect. I had Songza on for accompaniment, I think it was an 80’s party playlist. Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” came on. I was hungry, so I took a moment to eat some yogurt and take stock of what I’d done and what still needed cleaning. And I don’t know, something about the breeze coming in my window, realizing I’d gotten enough of my life back to actually clean the house, Joe Jackson reminding me we’re all young but getting old before our time… I felt something resembling pride in my accomplishment. It didn’t matter who was supposed to be there when I finished,the point was finishing.

Details have trickled in over the last couple of weeks. A cover design, a release date, a listing on the publisher site [you can find all these details on the recently redesigned page for the book, just click ’33 1/3 Donuts’ above]. Currently my editor’s looking at the manuscript, she’ll send it back to me hacked to shit with ideas on how to make it better, I will spend a month rewriting based on her suggestions and then my tiny little hype machine will kick into high gear, and I’ll really be in trouble, because eventually someone’s going to ask the [reasonable] question, “Who the fuck is this guy, and why does he get to write about Dilla?!” And I don’t have an answer. I’m told most creative types, especially writers, live with the anxiety that we’re all just frauds and one day someone will realize it and tell the world.

Neil Gaiman has lived with this anxiety. Despite winning multiple awards for his writing, building a career that’s endured over 30 years and proving he can write everything from films to children’s books to comics and radio plays, he still worries that one day someone will knock on his door, confiscate his notepads and force him to get a real job.  He discussed this fear in a speech he made to the 2012 graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. He put everything he knew about trying to build a career in the arts into those 20 minutes, and of course it went viral online, eventually being collected in a slim volume designed by Chip Kidd called Fantastic Mistakes. Knowing Gaiman was stopping in Toronto as part of his “Last Signing Tour” a mere five days after my draft day, the speech, with its dedication to everyone wondering “Now what?” [which I most certainly was] it seemed like a suitable item for him to sign [since I’d forgotten to bring my copy of Sandman #1 back from my parents’ house].

The first time I met Gaiman, I told him about being 10 or 11 years old and stumbling across an interview of his on the old TVOntatio show Prisoners of Gravity, and how I thought he was the coolest guy I’d ever seen, and started reading Sandman shortly afterward. His stories changed my life; where books like Dark Knight Returns or Arkham Asylum left a marked impression on me, Sandman didn’t have any of the nihilism those books did, there was always a humanity and optimism in them, something that spoke to me then like it spoke to me in his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (no lie, my favourite thing of his in years. No shots, just personal taste). Four years ago, he’d seemed genuinely touched by the story, looked up and smiled, then shook my hand, something I hadn’t seen him do much with the other people in line.

When I saw him a couple weeks ago, he was personable, if a little weary, and I launched into an off the cuff monologue about why I was having him sign the speech, and my book coming out, and how I took the advice to ‘make good art” very seriously, considering the circumstances surrounding my book’s inception (great fun watching his publicist try to piece that one together, as the woman I used to date was standing next to me in line). And for the second consecutive time, he paused, looked up at me and offered his hand, pen still threaded in his fingers. I think this means we’re best friends now.

Last Holiday I was speaking with a friend who’d recently separated from her husband and told her that for the first time in my life, I really didn’t know what the next 12 months were going to hold, for any of us. Most of the time, we go through our lives with at least a small degree of certainty: X and Y will remain married, you will live in this certain city, work at this certain job, etc. At the end of 2012, I couldn’t speak to any of that. Relationships were ending, careers were changing, people were moving. I had no idea what the gameboard was going to look like a year from then. Almost 3/4 through this year, I have even less of an idea. The book’s in, it could be the start of the career I’ve always wanted, or it could be some footnote on my life, a cool thing I did once.I probably don’t need to know that right now, which is rare for me, and extremely liberating. All I need to know right now is that trying to make good art and trusting my instincts is what got me here, and continuing to do the same is what will see me through.

You can read or watch the “Make Good Art’ speech here.

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Settling Accounts [for Amy]

photo-2Since I have two and a half hours left on this train and need to keep tuning up the band [Blogging: For when writing is too damn hard!].

Up top is Amy Clarke. I used to work with Amy Clarke, then I stopped and she went off and got a grown up life with things like ‘desk jobs’ and ‘health benefits’ and ‘a wife.’ Lives diverge, doesn’t mean you love people any less.

ANYWAY. Back in March [MARCH!] the lovely Amy Clarke left a comment here that she’d nominated me for some sort of award. Which, upon further inspection, turned out to be a sort of glorified chain letter, but when I swung over to her blog and read her original post, she said some very nice things about me, which has guilted me into answering the questions she laid out. Oh boo-hoo, you have to talk about yourself? Everyone knows how much you hate that!

Yeah, yeah….

So, since I don’t read enough blogs by actual people, I’m only doing the requested portions I can do by myself, which is a total cop-out, I admit, but I’m doing it anyway. Because reasons.

1. List 11 Facts About Yourself.

  1. I abhor lateness, in myself and others. For casual meetups I will always try to be early; for important appointments I will show up early and then wait, timing my arrival to the second. It’s a problem.
  2. I am terribly afraid of dying from an embolism. Because you can’t plan or prepare for that shit, just BAM, and that’s it. Which is probably one of the better ways to go as opposed to cancer or AIDS, but I still worry about it more than a normal person would.
  3. I consistently worry about being exposed as a fraud, for not being as smart of as good a writer as other people like to describe me as. This is a problem most writers have.
  4. I hate labeling myself as a ‘writer.’ Despite having done in most of my life, and in professional capacities for almost a decade, paycheques and all, I don’t feel I’ve earned it. People who bandy it about nonchalantly irritate me.
  5. I drank two liters of chocolate milk over the course of yesterday afternoon and evening. I’m not sorry.
  6. I love hard. Probably too hard, because it leads to attachments that typically backfire on me. Comfortably in my 30s, I can acknowledge this has made me somewhat distant to most people.
  7. I sometimes worry I’m a sociopath. I know this is a trendy self-diagnosis to make, but it still worries me. It’s not that I lack empathy, I just feel like I have a very limited supply, reserved for my parents, a dozen friends, and baby animals. I rarely find children interesting [but will likely think my own, should I have them, will be fascinating, and superior to yours. I’d like to think most parents do the same. Gonna be rough times at the swingset if not].
  8. I hate falling asleep. Not insomnia, I can fall asleep. I just don’t like it. Control issues, most likely. Being “the cousin of death” doesn’t help.
  9. My tragic flaw is knowing what I want to do, but inability to act. I’ve never really known where this came from.
  10. A combination of accepting my own introversion and having some small measure of success and affirmation of my writing has only made me less willing to compromise and do shit I don’t like. I am trying to figure out how to feel bad about this. It’s not working.
  11. Since moving into my place, while not increasing my income much, I’ve been amazed at how well I’ve acclimated a  to minimalist way of living. Well, as minimalist as you can be when you have an Xbox, giant TV, Macbook, iPad, iPhone and DJ controller, among other toys. The only thing I ever spend money on anymore are the bills and food, which I’m still terrible about. Probably because I justify it as an expenditure on a ‘need’. Food is a need. Doritos and Pepsi are not.

AMY HAS QUESTIONS!

  1. What website do you subconsiously always type first in your internet browser even though you mean to go to a completely different website? 

    I wish I could say something smart like The New Yorker, but it’s usually Facebook or Twitter, since most of my web consumption comes through things other people post. Social! Synergy! Buzzwords! Kill Yourself!

  2. What are you MOST looking forward to in spring? (Patios? Birds? Women wearing less clothing? (that’s obviously mine)) 

    I have never understood this city’s insanity for eating food and drinking beer while sitting on uncomfortable plastic chairs crammed shoulder to shoulder on an unshaded slab of concrete. Honestly, Toronto, what is your damage with the damn patios?Daylight Savings Time is the thing I always look forward to. I was out of the house at 6:00 a.m. to catch the train I’m currently on and the sun was up and it was lovely and I was all, ‘Why don’t I do this every day!‘ then realizing with no train to catch I would have slept until 11:00 which totally defeats the purpose. I hate heat, but I love me some sunlight.

  3. What’s one of the weirdest gifts your parents have given you since you became an “adult”? 

    Is it weird if I asked for it? Last Christmas I got a pair of insulated Contigo travel mugs, and they have been life changing. One of them was eaten by the lunchroom gnomes a month ago and I’m still salty about it. When you realize you can brew your own for a month for what it costs to get two cups of Tim Horton’s, you’ll never go back. I had to stop at Tim’s today and I’m so angry, Amy. SO ANGRY. $1.65? Come on, now.

  4. Did you ever read a book all the way through even though you knew you weren’t enjoying it/going to enjoy it? School books don’t count. 

    It’s an interesting question, since I have a much more vivid memory of the books I let defeat me [looking at you, Roberto Bolaño]. The last Jonathan Lethem boks were a bit of a slog, but I loved his other work so much I powered through. If his next novel [sitting at home on the post-draft pile] has another pretentious know-it-all stoner in it, I may have to tap out and stick to his non-fiction.

  5. Ditto the above for movies (though replace “read” with “watch”/”pay for”) 

    Back before we had Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, if your taste in movies ran towards the weird or underground, you normally bought DVDs on the box art and then hoped for the best. I’ve sat through a number of Asian horror and action moves because I spent money on the DVD. They now, with few exceptions, live at the Annex BMV. I’m sure you can still find my copy of ‘Versus‘ in the basement.

  6. If you had to write a haiku (and you do have to) about your favourite Superhero, how would it go? 

    Superstitious lot,
    Criminals need a symbol.
    I will be a bat.

  7. What is your least favourite board game and why? 

    Previously, I would have said Risk, but having watched people play it at a recent outing to Snakes and Lattés, I take that back. Probably Trouble. I can’t abide anything that gets over on a gimmick.

  8. You’re trapped on an island. You can only bring with you one celebrity of your choice. Who do you choose? (For sexy times? For eating? Who would be the best at figuring out an escape plan?) 

    I’d love to say I’d pick Tom Hanks for all the amazing raft building skills he picked up on Castaway, but really, I just want to watch Alison Brie spearfish topless. I’m a base, base man, Amy Clarke.

  9. What is your go-to easiest meal to make yourself? 

    Besides Doritos? Vegetable noodle bowl.

  10. Sprite or crab juice? 

    EEEEEUUUUUAAAUUUGH!! I’ll take the crab juice! Amy didn’t actually have 11 questions, which I feel absolves me of any guilt I might feel about leaving this for four months, but I’ll steal one of the ones she was asked.

  11. Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? 

    Change or die.

Cool, I just gave you more content today than I have in months. Between the two entries, I wrote almost 2,000 words. If I do that 15 times, I’ll be done the book!  Piece of cake!  If you know, the cake is made of anxiety and frosted with tears.

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Gone to Ground

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But how could I go any deeper, you ask?

I’m writing this on a train southbound to Windsor, where I will then drive another half an hour south into the asphyxiating humidity of Amherstburg, Ontario, where I will hole up in my parents’ house for the next week and a half to take the scraps, scenes, scribbles and scrivenings I have floating around my hard drive, in Moleskines, on ripped papers currently stuffed in my pockets and attempt to stitch them into something resembling a cohesive narrative for 30,000 – 35,000 words, which I will then take the month of July to edit and polish, and then send off to the powers that be and hope they still want to publish it. I will likely need to write a giant decompression post when that happens. But that will be later.

Today, I want to talk about that photo up top. See, this past Friday the good folks at Hip-Hop Karaoke Toronto had their inaugural ‘Posse Cut’ Edition. After three annual solo competitions, the crew listened to feedback from folks who wanted to compete as groups, and set up this event for duos, trios and quartets, keeping everything nice and equal.

Hip-Hop Karaoke has always been a thing I do a lot with one particular person. I used to date that person. I no longer do. No further details necessary.We still see each other, we still hang out. Sometimes it’s weird, most times it’s not. People find this confusing. I don’t really care.

Anyway, the two of us had gone up individually on separate occasions to some acclaim as performers, but cemented our legacy with a performance of MOP’s “World Famous” that years later was still cited as one of the best performances of all time. OF ALL TIME. Hell yes, I will big myself up.

But for some reason, it always felt to me that we never really got over. We had a couple rough performances, we [okay me] can be socially awkward around people so friendships with the other regulars were limited to a quick dap and ‘S’up?’ walking through the club. But when the group competition was announced, we knew we had to do something.

There was some minor bickering over song selection: I’d thought ‘The Next Episode’ by Dr. Dre was something unique I hadn’t really seen done before, and the Nate Dogg portions could inspire some fun crowd interactions. She thought it was a little slow, might bring the energy down. She suggested “Peter Piper” by Run-DMC. I was a little hesitant, considering the song’s age, and how much the kids in the crowd might know it, but it had some good back-and-forth work [the thing everyone remembers about that MOP performance], some classic lines, and even if the kids didn’t know the song specifically, everyone knows that Bob James break by now. So I agreed, and we spent the next week working it out.

I didn’t turn to look at the judges behind me while we performed, but I heard from friends later that they were going pretty nuts. All I knew at the time was when I decided spontaneously to throw out some classic, ‘Lemme hear you say ho-oooh!‘ to the crowd, the response was far louder than I’d anticipated.

Oh shit,” I thought, “We could actually place.”

Well, we didn’t place. We won the whole damn thing. Full disclosure, we ended up tying with a pair of ladies who have become regular in the last six months and have always impressed. I didn’t have a problem with it, it was good company to be in.

I’ve thought about that night a lot this weekend. About how, despite no longer being together, I’ll always trust that girl implicitly when I step on stage with her, just like I used to trust my band mates back in the Ictus days. The band always used to say we’d never do it with anyone else, just because that sixth sense of understanding you develop with performers you’ve known for years, that’s too hard to find. We used to call it ‘bedroom eyes’, that look we’d give each other when a change-up was coming. That’s how I felt about her at HHK. I’ve performed with other partners, and while it’s gone well enough, there was a spark missing.

I’ve also thought a lot about how the classics never go out of style, about how the song that probably got me into hip-hop in the first place, just two guys from Queens saying nursery rhymes and big-upping their DJ could still tear the place down, 30 years after it was first released.The whole point of hip-hop was to rock a party. Despite how much time has passed, the tools for party rocking haven’t varied much, and that makes me very happy.

There’s currently no video footage of our performance, and I almost prefer it that way [if some turns up later, I’ll post it here or more likely on PFGExpress]. I like the idea of it only existing in the memories of the people who saw it, and in ours. Just one more thing she’s now staked for herself in my brain, one more item shoved into the folder of things that will always remind me of her, along with Coco by Chanel, Volkswagen Beetles and a million other things.

I once said ‘the couple that HHK’s together, stays together.’ Time might have proven me wrong, but it doesn’t mean we won’t eat a pair of microphones when called to do so. We have the medals to prove it.

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Christmastime is Here.

This may surprise you to learn about me, friends, but I can be a bit of a handful. Surly, seasonally depressed, emotionally volatile, all of that mess. Luckily, I’ve always been blessed with friends and associates [usually women] who are adept at negotiating the rolling waters of my emotional seas. The role is currently being filled by my friend Caitlin, who is acting as my Editorial Assistant throughout this book writing adventure, mostly because she wants me to write her a reference when it’s over. Previously the post was held by my friend Sarah, who can no longer meet the demands of the position as she is (a) a law professor and (b) has a life to live.

I met Sarah for coffee here in Toronto recently and asked her if she had any tips she wanted to pass along to Caitlin regarding what to expect in being my emotional handler for the next ten months to a year.

“It’s all very temporal,” she said. “From about mid-September up until your birthday, you’re miserable, because you’re thinking about your impending death. Late January until April is just as bad or worse, because it’s directionless, there’s nothing for you to focus it on. You just hate that it’s dark all the time. When the thaw comes, you shake out of it. Oh, and you have a minor uptick during the holidays.”

It’s true. I actually do really love the holidays. I love the way my Dad still won’t put some presents under the tree until the morning of the 25th, or the fact that he still signs them ‘From Santa’. I love my Mom’s baking and laughing about stupid shit with her. I love Christmas so much that by December 23, I’m already saddened that all the lights and decorations will come down, which probably says as much about my personality as you ever need to know [shouts to all those cities and neighbourhoods that treat Christmas lights as ‘Winter Lights’ and leave them up until March].

But what I really love about Christmas is the music. To me, the best Christmas songs are the ones that capture the joy you felt as a child, but add a sprinkle of melancholy to acknowledge the passage of time and change and loss of innocence. The popular knowledge likes to state that when you get older the season becomes something you do for your kids. As a childless, single for the first time in six years adult male, that’s not something I can do. So I find the meaning and peace and joy where I can. These are five songs that help.

1. The Pogues – ‘Fairytale of New York’

Just my opinion, the greatest Christmas song [with vocals] ever produced. Does everything I mentioned above, is beautifully melodic, Shane MacGowan’s whisky-scorched, near-tuneless voice suits the mood perfectly, and who hasn’t been longing for a Christmas song with lyrics like, ‘you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap, lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse, I pray God it’s our last.” The coda to this one always leaves me misty, but bear in mind folks: “I built my dreams around you,” is a staggeringly gorgeous sentiment, but not an acceptable philosophy. Trust me.

2. The Vince Guaraldi Trio – ‘O Tannenbaum’

The soundtrack to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ was a revelation to me, having only heard it for the first time maybe six or seven years ago. I remember I was at the local youth centre, where I volunteered. It was the last meeting we had with the kids before holiday break, so it was a blow-off, fun and games kind of night. Somebody brought a pile of holiday music and put this one on. And I was fucking floored. I don’t know why I never hear Guaraldi’s name mentioned more often in conversations about jazz pianists, possibly I don’t follow them closely enough, but the swing he gets going on this song just puts me at such peace. You know the spirit’s hit me when this album enters my rotation.

But the true moment of genius comes at the end of the song. Listen, I don’t know where this thing of adding the opening bars of ‘Jingle Bells’ at the end of a Christmas song came from [Nat King Cole may have been the first to do it] but it is so overdone anymore. It’s a lazy and manipulative way to accomplish what I stated above, because no grown person really likes ‘Jingle Bells’. Can you find me one? No. ‘Jingle Bells’ is a song for kids, which is fine, but all these shit-ass Christmas songs that put a few tinkles on the outro to make you go ‘D’awww…‘ are disgusting. You know what Guaraldi does? Jump to the 4:53 mark. He plays ‘Jingle Bells’, but he plays a totally deconstructed version of it, in 3/4 time signature. You can hear ‘Jingle Bells’ in it, but it’s not really ‘Jingle Bells.’ THAT‘S why this is the best Christmas song ever, just nudging out the Pogues. Gets me every time.

3. Vanessa Williams – ‘What Child is This?’

Never let it be said I wanted to take the “Christ’ out of ‘Christmas.’ The simple fact is, I was raised Catholic. Whatever my feelings toward the faith as an adult, that shit will stay with you.

This rendition comes from one of those ‘Very Special Christmas’ compilations from like…1992, I think. It’s a fairly straightahead jazz arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ but might have extra resonance for me now, since I remember watching this video as a kid in the subterranean hidey-hole I’d carved out in my parents’ basement, looking at the black and white shots of New York and thinking, to borrow a phrase, ‘I want to go to there.’ Twenty years later, I made it to Toronto. It’ll do.

4. James Taylor – ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’

That rare Christmas song that acknowledges, without self-pity, that the holidays sometimes heighten the fact that the twelve months leading up to them might have been horrible.

In a year we all will be together, if the fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow…

I’ve heard versions of this song that back away from that last line, changing it to ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough…’ NO. That undercuts the entire meaning of the song, which is to provide comfort for those who might not be exceedingly happy during a time when the world demands that of them. It’s the depressive’s holiday carol, and who better than James Taylor to deliver it? Bonus points go to this version for pulling a Guaraldi and dropping half a lyric of ‘The Christmas Song’ on the outro.

5. Ella Fitzgerald – ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’

I first heard this song on a Gap commercial, of all things. Rufus Wainwright sang the chorus at about five times the speed he should have, but hey, thirty-second ad spot, what can you do? I thought there might actually be a better version of this somewhere, as Fitzgerald’s voice bugs me sometimes [BLASPHEMY!] but there really isn’t, except maybe for Lena Horne’s which does a weird pronoun flip I’m not a fan of, suggesting the woman should wait for the man to ask her. You stand up for equality, Ella.

Again, this is one of those songs that stares down the potential for loneliness in the season and finds the truth and beauty in it. The singer is well aware he or she is overreaching by asking the other person to spend New Year’s, but the potential embarrassment trumps the guaranteed solitude of not asking. Also interesting to note: the original lyric has the singer mustering a bit of confidence with, ‘Ah, but in case I stand one little chance…’ in Wainwright’s version from the commercial, he sings, ‘And though I know I’ll never stand a chance…’ So nineties.

So, that’s what I’ll be relaxing to in a couple of weeks as I catch up on reading and eat too many brownies at my parents’ place. Let me know if I glaringly missed one. And no, I didn’t forget this. Too obvious.

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One Step Inside

A couple of weeks ago I got the following text from the lovely and talented Joyce Vogler, who I used to work with at the store and is now studying art and being generally wonderful at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.

If that ain’t a dream assignment, I don’t know what is.  Here’s a young woman, seeking to actively engage in the art of rap and culture of hip-hop [“good stuff from the 90’s,” specifically] .  I grabbed my weathered copy of Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists off of the shelf, just to make sure I wouldn’t gloss over anything in my enthusiasm.  It was an intro-level playlist, I admit, but illustrated some of the best the music’s had to offer over the last thirty-plus years.  The whole exercise was a pleasurable one, reminding me what I loved about the music I’ve dedicated so much thought and energy to.

And then, this.

Sometime this morning a video of Lil Reese, an 18-year-old rapper from Chicago signed to Def Jam and a crewmate of Chief Keef [he who does not like] started exploding the rap webs.  In the video, Reese appears to be arguing with a young woman [the mother of his child, according to some reports] who asks him to leave her home [though it’s unclear whose home it is]. He pokes her, she smacks his hand away. He shoves her, she rushes up in his face, where he proceeds to unload on her with punches.  Once she’s knocked down, he continues to kick and stomp at her head while her friends scream in the background.  As onlookers do nothing and the cell phone cameraman keeps it all in the shot.

I’m not running a news site here, so I’m not going to post the video because frankly I don’t want it here in my ‘house,’ but it’s on Miss Info’s site [with the appropriate tone] for anyone who wants to see it.

Forgetting for a moment that the kid beat the shit out of a woman, adding a layer of awesome sauce to this whole disgusting mess is Reese’s complete and utter lack of remorse, or even awareness about his actions, tweeting: The haters tryna see a mf Dwn lol Dey gotta b broke and bored wanna upload sum shit from years ago damnn we winnin it’s 2 late… #3hunna  [Notethe tweet seems to have been deleted in the hour I’ve been working on this post].

What are we to make of this, then?  If Joyce chooses to continue her studies in the culture, how do I explain/defend this?  Does it have to be?

Look, I’m a rap fan since nine-years-old, I’ve had plenty of practice navigating the thorny dialogue about violence and misogyny in the music, but I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t for a moment believe the reprehensible actions of a foolish kid speak for or should reflect on the culture as a whole. As some have pointed out, back in August Pitchfork reported cops charged John Paul Pitts, the frontman of something called Surfer Blood with domestic battery and no one started pointing the finger at indie rock as the culprit.

But. But. I also don’t think there were a crew of plaid-shirted, knitcaps on Twitter  defending Pitts’s actions. But check out the search results on Twitter for him, or even in Info’s comment thread on the original story.  You’ll see a surprising amount of people looking to defend or justify kicking a woman in the faceRepeatedly. One person doesn’t reflect the culture as a whole, no, but when a surprisingly large segment of the culture seems to empathize…the tried and true argument starts to show its cracks.

How odd that this hits the same week Kendrick Lamar’s much hyped major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city hits the shelves, to near universal acclaim, due in no small part to his portrayal of a kid trying to avoid the street life who can’t avoid the drugs, guns and botched home invasions that run throughout it, whether he’s personally involved with it or not.  It should be a good week for hip-hop, but I can’t help but wonder if for every Kendrick, Childish Gambino, or Big Sean, there are a dozen regional acts owning the streets [and thus, the culture’s conversation] that saw that video on World Star and went, ‘yeah, I get that.’

Almost twenty years ago Tupac Shakur, no stranger to explosive outbursts of violence himself, released a song with the following lyrics:

And since we all came from a woman
got our name from a woman and our game from a woman,
I wonder why we take from our women,
why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
time to heal our women, be real to our women.
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies.

That complexity, that contradictory nature, that the same dude who was spitting on reporters and flipping the bird from an ambulance gurney following a shooting could still write lyrics pleading for better treatment of women is what made him such a compelling artist.  And without that flipside to the rapper posturing, what are we left with?  And how much longer will it stay something I want to be a part of?