Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: once more, with feeling.

Inspired all over again by Jen's list, I realized that one Best Of list is never, ever enough. So here are some other things I learned this year, in no particular order, and with links.

1. It's hard to go wrong when you make the decision to travel the unpaved roads of Costa Rica in  a 6-man golf cart.

2. I'm not very good at being the Cool Girl. More on this in 2013.

3. I'm probably actually smarter and prettier than I'll ever allow myself to believe.

4. I miss Nora Ephron and Maurice Sendak. Quite a lot. Here are wonderful obituaries for each of them, by Lena Dunham and Tony Kushner, respectively.

5. I should spend more time re-reading. In 2013, I'm going to start with Kurt Vonnegut and Virginia Woolf, two authors who meant so very much to me at such particular points in my life.

6. There is no shame in going Full Margot Tennenbaum on a weekly basis (by this I mean tying a TV to your bathroom radiator and filling the bathtub and holing up with something embarrassing as you slowly boil yourself down to a human prune. I suggest Beverly Hills 90210).

7. Some movies are worth waiting months to see, if it means seeing them with the right person and in the right city. In this case, I am talking about Moonrise Kingdom, in Vancouver, with my Best West Coast Friend Tara.

8. My heart's so firmly and massively on my sleeve that I can barely fit a cardigan over it sometimes. Luckily (and somewhat inexplicably) it still keeps me pretty warm.

9. The path to my heart consists, at least in part, of you telling me the story of how and where and when and why you bought the last book in the Harry Potter series.

10. Yoga won't save you. Not the way you want it to. But as Tara said, it might give you what you need to save yourself (although rarely in the way you envisioned, and always with sorer hamstrings and less quiet minds than you'd hoped for).

11. There's a paragraph from Blake Nelson's amazing book, Girl (possibly my favourite book ever, by the by), that has long summed up my deepest anxiety, and I keep hoping that it will stop ringing so true, and this is it, slightly condensed, from the part where Andrea's making her way back from camp after losing her virginity:

"Then it was 2:00 AM. I was like in a trance, just so tired and cried out and used up. And we stopped at an overpass and I stepped off the bus and the night was so clear and cold and my brain was like a huge echo chamber, totally empty except for the last fading sounds of the summer. ...And as we pulled into Portland I had this horrible feeling of wanting to go back because what if that's all there was? What if that's as close as you got? And I called my dad from the station and he was freaking out because I hadn't called. SO then I just sat there waiting for him, staring at my dirty tennis shoes and thinking how incredibly stupid I was if I expected life to be anything else but failed love and mindless sex and crying all night in bus stations."

I don't know what I've learned about that per se, I just like to quote it whenever I can.

12. It's okay to want to be loved the way you were loved when you were young: quietly, adoringly, to a soundtrack of sensitive indie pop songs, under the stars, on a long late walk home. Gently, uncertainly, impossibly. Yeah, it's okay.

Happy New Year, my ducklings.

Friday, December 28, 2012

a year from the rearview mirror, 2012.

Well, I'll say this for 2012: It was not boring. I traveled a lot, and went out with a whole raft of weird boys, and lost friends, and learned a fair bit about what it is that I really need (that part's still a secret). Here's my usual random assortment of Bests for 2012; I would love to read yours, if you feel like it.

Joel Plaskett lyrics that best sum up my life, basically: "Got drunk at a party/Drinking red wine and Bacardi/My constitution ain't that hardy/And I'm not much good at mingling."

Most temporally jarring moment: Scanning through photos of dudes on OkCupid and suddenly realizing that this one is standing in the kitchen of the house you grew up in (I'd know that bright blue countertop anywhere). The guy had a bunch of photos of himself from inside my old house, so I figure he must've bought the place. I sent him a message, asking him if he lived there, but I never got a reply, which is too bad, because I feel like that could've been the start of a really interesting story. Also, given my penchant for both awkwardness and nostalgia, I really thought it would be hilarious to date a guy who now sleeps in the bedroom wherein I lost my virginity. 

Best way to tell, with absolute certainty, that it is time to break up with your boyfriend: When, on your birthday, the waitress at brunch does more to wish you well than he does. But seriously, huge props to the adorable girl at the West Town who so kindly stuck a candle in a single-serving peanut butter package--it was wonderful. Who knew that the straw that broke the camel's back could also be so whimsical and delicious? 

Best writing, self-deprecating judgement category: I guess I was pretty proud of how the Valentine Project entries came out. My greatest strength, in both writing and life, seems to be my ability to lay my heart bare; writing those posts made me realize there's nothing really wrong with that.

Best Joel Plaskett show: Oh, it's always a tie. I saw Joel three times this year: in April, in Ottawa, at the Charles Bronson Centre with Freya; in October, in Hamilton Place, on the stage I used to sing on with my children's choir; and in December, during a 5-night stint at the Horseshoe in Toronto. All three shows fucking ruled. Plaskett shows are like snowflakes, each one unique and lovely in its own way.

Best non-Joel Plaskett show: Man, this could go one of about a million different ways. I've gone to a lot of shows this year--32 really is the new 22 (wait, no one says that? Well they OUGHT to). I guess I'll settle on Sloan's Twice Removed tour in November. There are few things that feel better than hearing a band you've loved for a million years play through their best album in its entirety.  When they got to Bells On, I felt like I might throw up. When they got to I Can Feel It, I felt like my faith in humanity had been restored. Not bad for a Monday night.

Best outdoor concert: Harvest Picnic at Christie Lake on Labour Day weekend. A part of my heart lives at that conservation area, and for the second year in a row I was lucky enough to spend a long and sunny day there, listening to the Sadies and Gord Downie and Emmylou Harris, swimming at the beach, hanging out with my friends and my family, eating the best ice cream in the universe. It was a day that felt pregnant with possibility. The day after that show, my friend Kat and I got up early and drove up to her cottage for one last Indian Summer weekend on the lake, paddling our own canoe. It is a good way to live.

Best compliment from a dude:  "Honestly, if I made a list of all the cool things for a girl to be, I think you would be like Weird Science for me." (I am paraphrasing, but only very slightly.)

Best scene in Girls: Episode 5, when Hannah is at home in Michigan, and she's just gotten home from boning the pharmacist she knew from highschool. Adam calls her and tells her he wishes she were back in New York, more demonstrative and direct than he's been so far. She stands on her parents' front lawn looking really defeated and wistful as he tells her about the crackhead outside his window, and they fade out with the Fleet Foxes playing that song about how he's now older than his parents were when they started having children. I don't think Girls is a perfect show, but MAN it's got some really incredible moments that feel ripped from the pages of my own existential navel-gazing memoirs. The combined intimacy and distance of that phone call, that feeling of being so close and also so far, standing outside your parents' house in old pajamas, head hanging low. If you are nonplussed about Girls I hope you give it another shot, I really do.

Best musical re-discovery: Well really, I've been listening to these guys all along, but last winter, during a series of emotionally fraught bus trips back and forth to Toronto, I really felt like the Walkmen's album You and Me was just about the only thing keeping me sane. Sometimes it's just the right record at the right time, I guess.

Best literary reference in a young adult novel: A quote from Richard Hugo in The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green. Green always weaves incredible intellectual and emotional moments into his brilliant, tragic, hilarious writing, and Fault In Our Stars is no exception.  The Hugo quote is this:

"Say your life broke down. Your last good kiss
Was years ago." 

It comes in one of the many sweet and heartwrenching conversations between the star-crossed teenagers in the novel. Green wrote that it's his favourite line break. As a former English nerd, I love thinking about favourite line breaks. But mostly, I just love a perfectly placed, evocative allusion.

Best epigraph: This quote by Sandra Cisernos at the beginning of This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz (a book that will break your heart, incidentally, if you're in the mood for it):

"Okay, we didn't work, and all memories to tell you the truth aren't good. But sometimes there were good times. Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep beside me and never dreamed afraid. There should be stars for great wars like ours."

It's been a year of emotional learning, a year of heartache and joy and wistful nostalgia, a year I'll write about many years from now as a time when I became increasingly okay with the notion that my life looked exactly NOTHING like I had expected it to. I hope it's been as memorable for everyone else.

Monday, December 24, 2012

...because it's Christmas now.

I used to wake up on the morning of Christmas Eve with a feeling of utter and unbridled joy. In our family, Christmas Eve is the real Christmas, the day that encompasses all the emotions and traditions and mystery that my parents built into our celebrations for so many years. I'd wake up on the 24th and feel so incredibly happy, hope springing eternal. Even as I grew up and moved away, I'd always make a point of getting myself home, come hell or high water, by the 23rd at the latest so that I could still wake up in my parents' house on Christmas Eve morning, still wander down the stairs to the smell of my dad baking bread and the sound of Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas In Wales on the radio, still feel completely and beautifully full. The day would pass in a bright blur and before we knew it it was sunset and we were all being herded through the bathroom to get tidied up before everyone came over. As the sun went down on all those December 24ths I could feel that strange and secret magic of tradition and ritual that so explains my experience of Christmas, that feeling of knowing exactly what was coming next. We would eat, and drink, and sing carols, and laugh until our sides hurt, open one present each, and head off to bed. How comforting to know how the night would be, how each moment would pass, how full and how perfect.

There's still a bit of this feeling in my heart, although the shape of it has changed. The past couple of years, I've woken up in my own house on December 24th. Instead of wandering downstairs, I stumble into my own kitchen, plug in my own Christmas lights, make my own coffee, pick up my own copy of Dylan Thomas and read it in the living room. I eat a chunk of fruitcake my mom left here a few days ago and listen to the quiet. There's something comforting about spending part of this day alone. There's something scary about it too, though. As I get older, I get closer and closer to the horrible and unavoidable fact that things are bound to change someday, that the ones I love will not always be able to get back home, that there will be years when the simple familiarity will not be enough to undo the heartache and the hardship that's come and gone in the previous 364 days.  It's gotten me thinking about an article I read awhile ago about the difference between ritual and intention. I'm sure I'll muddle the meaning of it, but what I remember is this: ritual is wonderful, that re-creation of a sacred act, the coming-back, over and over, to a place and a moment that makes you feel whole and happy. But a ritual represents something bigger than the act itself--it's the feeling, the sensation, the larger and more abstract way that these things manifest themselves, that matters more. You don't need to re-create that beautiful moment in its concrete entirety to find in yourself the joy and peace that the moment always brings you; you've already got that joy and peace. You just need to remember where you left it.

All of which is to say, the traditions change. Families change. Those magic nights won't always look the way they look right now. But I will have that deep and quiet joy, that feeling of being surrounded by love, wherever and whoever it may come from. Its shape may change, but the shape of it is the least important part of it.  There's a bit of dialogue at the end of the wonderful television adaptation of A Child's Christmas In Wales that wasn't in the book, but might as well have been. As his grandfather tells gorgeous stories of Christmas past, his grandson muses that those Christmases sound an awful lot like the ones he knows himself. His grandfather tries to explain to him that yes, they were the same, but also, so very different, so much more real. The grandson asks, "Why can't Christmas today be like Christmas was when you were a boy?" and his grandfather replies, "I mustn't tell you, because it's Christmas now." And it is, now. And that's enough. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 21, 2012

albums to adore, 2012 nostalgia edition.

Last year when I was writing up my Top Ten Albums list I realized, as I always realize, that I tend to listen to a lot more of my back catalogue than anything new. Which isn't to say that I don't love new music, because I do. But sometimes it takes longer than a year for a song to get under my skin, and sometimes the only thing you want to hear is the song that made you feel better when you were fifteen years old. So here's this year's secondary Top Ten, of the bands and songs I listened to most.

Bruce Springsteen. No explanation required.

Nicole Atkins. I've had her album Neptune City on my playlist since my brother recommended her to me many years ago, and I still go back to it a lot. Jangly, wistful, sing-songy rock and roll, oh hell yes.

The National. Always, forever.

Speaking of The National, this song is one of my alltime favourites. When I first heard it I was living in Ottawa and my brother sent me a link to it and I felt like it was about me. Which is of course all we ever hope for when we hear a song, isn't it.

M. Ward. A balm for the heart.

Fun. Okay, really only this song, and yeah it's overplayed as hell, but shit man, it's a gooder.

Hey Rosetta. This song pretty well makes me burst into tears every time.

Oh also let's talk about how GREAT THEIR CHRISTMAS EP WAS.

Aimee Mann. For long dark nights of the soul, and cranky drives home from work.

The Strokes. Just 'cause.

The Beatles. The second side of Sergeant Pepper, from Lovely Rita to A Day In The Life, was my cottage drive soundtrack this summer, and my lord it was a good one.

That's only nine, by my count, but nine is fine.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

albums to adore, 2012 edition.

As usual, I probably listened to more old music than new this year. Be that as it may, here are the records that actually came out in 2012 that pretty well made my life worth living. As always this list contains equal parts Sad Bastard Love Songs and Blow The Roof Off Rock, because those are my two speeds.

Scrappy Happinesss, Joel Plaskett Emergency. (Duh.)

Stay Young, Young Rival. (Because it's only nepotism if your brother's band is shitty and undeserving, and my brother's band is ANYTHING but shitty and undeserving.)

Shut Down the Streets, A.C. Newman.

Voyageur, Kathleen Edwards. (Because, FEELINGS.)

Celebration Rock, Japandroids.

Busting Visions, Zeus.

Babel, Mumford and Sons. (I Will Wait is not my favourite song on the album, not by a long shot, but it's the only non-iPhone video available on Youtube.)

The Carpenter, Avett Brothers.

Bloom, Beach House.

Port of Morrow, The Shins. (To be honest, I was hit and miss on this album, but love 40 Mark Strasse so friggin' much that it made the cut.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

it's coming on christmas.

My parents have a Christmas party every year. They've been hosting it for nearly as long as I've been alive. If I love you most, there's a good chance you've been to it, and so you are familiar with the particularly lovely sensation of eating too much, drinking too much, philosophizing just enough, and possibly setting your hair on fire in the kitchen, much to the chagrin of everyone else's mothers, all in the best-decorated house in the Hamilton area. If you're interested, keep this Saturday evening free.

I always come home for it. I've made it back from varying distances over the years, on planes, trains, and automobiles. There was only one year I didn't quite get there, and that's the year I'm thinking about tonight. It was mid-December, 2008, and I was living out my third weird winter in Ottawa.  It was also the beginning of the OC Transpo strike, which you will doubtless remember if you somehow survived it. A transit strike is a pretty trivial thing to remember in a visceral way, but I do recall exactly where I was that first night. I was at a librarians' pub night at Darcy McGee's, stuffed full of Guinness and Irish Nachos, and it was snowing. I walked home to the Glebe with a couple of my work friends, and the streets were so quiet, the usual noise dampened by the snowfall, the quiet enhanced by the sudden absence of buses lurching by. There was a comforting peace that night of the sort you rarely experienced in the downtown core of our nation's capital, a stillness lit by twinkling Christmas lights.

That comfort and joy evaporated quickly. For anyone trying to get around the city during the weeks and then months of the strike, things were pretty hellish. It got to a point where you couldn't even get yourself a taxi. Even if you somehow sourced one, you couldn't hope for it to drive you where you needed to go in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time. That's how I found myself, the Friday before my parents' party, sitting in my office with a plane ticket to Toronto for that night and no way to get myself to the airport. If we're truthtelling, maybe I'll admit that my defeatist attitude was part of the problem. I'd all but given up on getting home; it just wasn't going to happen. There was something missing from my life in those days, and instead of running after it, I retreated, always.

So I cancelled my ticket, and called my mom, crying. (This was not, sadly, an unusual occurrence in those days.) Then I dragged myself home, and called my then-still-quasi-boyfriend.  He lived in the country, a couple of hours away, and we were constantly in some state of dramatic flux, but I couldn't bear the thought of spending the weekend alone.

"Well, just come out here, then," he said. Sometimes, it was easy for him to tell me what he thought was the right thing. Sometimes.

So I hit the road. It took forever to get past the 417, but I made it. He was house-sitting for his wealthy, stock-character-esque neighbours. They owned a pointless herd of donkeys and two Steinway pianos, among many other things. Back in those earlyish days of our relationship we would go over there and drink wine and I'd noodle endlessly on the keys in my shy way and he would sit next to me, quietly impressed. That's what we did that Friday night. I spent hours playing my favourite Christmas songs, and even though he claimed he hated the holidays, he let me. He rested his head on my shoulder as I sang that  I wished I had a river so long I could teach my feet to fly. Sometime before dawn we stumbled back to his house and passed out in a tangled heap. I could feel his nervous heart beating so fast even as he slept; his arms so tight around me, the strength of his grasp betraying some intimacy he'd never dare to speak aloud.

The next afternoon I called my parents to apologize, again. They told me it was fine, that they understood. There were a few other usual suspects who couldn't make it that night. It was a weird year, they said, one where people weren't quite where they were supposed to be. Tell me something I don't know, I thought to myself.  That night we huddled by the woodstove, and I couldn't stop wondering what was going on at home. I had the not-unfamiliar feeling of being in precisely the right place and precisely the wrong place at precisely the same time. I couldn't believe I hadn't used everything I had in me to get myself home. I wasn't even sure where home was anymore.

I drove back to Ottawa on Sunday around lunchtime, just in time to listen to the Vinyl Cafe. I have complicated feelings about Stuart McLean (if we're truthtelling, I have complicated feelings about public broadcasting in general, although in general they skew pretty positive), but I set those aside at Christmastime. There's something so wonderful and familiar about his Christmas stories, a sense that they're not actually about Dave and Morley, but about your family instead. At the end of the show, Stuart wished everyone a happy Christmas and bade his audience a safe trip home to their families. Some final raw nerve snapped in me in that moment and I nearly had to pull the car off the road to calm myself down. I didn't, though. I kept on driving, heading Northeast, in the exact opposite direction of my family. It didn't feel right, but nothing did, in those days, not really.

I haven't missed a party since. My journeys have gotten progressively shorter these past few years. This year the road's only twelve minutes long, as my mom always likes to point out. It's close enough that I can dash over earlier in the day to drop off a shirt she wants to borrow, close enough that I can sleep over and drive back to my own sweet house in time for breakfast, close enough that I can schlep back later that day to eat leftovers and watch White Christmas with my family. It is so easy to be always coming home when home is at both ends of a short road. Which isn't to say I don't still have a hole in my heart the size of a Steinway or a warm woodstove or a frozen Frontenac County lake. But you have to start somewhere.

Friday, November 23, 2012

november beach reads.

One of the problems with being a librarian is that you're surrounded by books all the damn time. People always assume this is a perk, but in fact it is a pain in the neck. I can't even tell you how often I find myself completely paralyzed in the paradox of choice, unable to so much as crack a spine on something new. (Just kidding. I never crack the spines, and if I see you doing so I will give YOU a pain in the neck.) There're too many of them. They're all so beautiful. Please, don't make me choose. I always tell people not to buy me books as gifts--I don't need them, is what I say, but what I really mean is, I'll never get to them. My backlist is out of control.

It's even worse when you're traveling. My suitcases are usually 50 percent clothing and 50 percent paper. The thing is that you never really know what kind of a book you might be in the mood for when you're away. You might want a collection of essays, you might want a slightly smutty AGA Saga, you might want the one book in the Ramona series you haven't re-read as many hundred times as the others. (Bibliophilia should be listed in the DSM.) You have to be prepared for any scenario. Also, I feel like vacation reading should be as non-obligatory as possible. It's a time to read the books you've been meaning to get to for years. Screw the new releases! You'll still be on the request list at the library when you get back. They're not going anywhere. Grab the random paperbacks someone loaned you at yoga school, the publisher's proofs you schlepped home from a meeting downtown, the dusty novels newly reshelved in the back corner. Now's their time. They've waited so long.

With this in mind, here is my grossly inflated reading list for my trip to Costa Rica this week.

The Woefield Poultry Collective, by Susan Juby. This is one of the ones I've been meaning to get to for years. I devoured the Alice books ten years ago during my mid-twenties teen fiction obsession. They were fucking hilarious. If you are a fan of stories told by teen girls who are too smart for their small towns but also too loving to be too mean about them, this series is a must-read. I also loved her memoir of addiction, Nice Recovery. A copy of Woefield crossed the desk at my library the other day. Ah, I thought, serendipity.

In tangential news, one of my best librarian friends, Jen, is real-life AND facebook friends with Susan Juby. I just like knowing that this is so.

He's Gone, by Deb Caletti. This one's an advanced proof with a publication date of next May. There's something pretty wicked about reading a book before it's been published. Deb Caletti's one of those teen writers in the grand tradition of Sarah Dessen, so much drama, so much heart. She makes you remember how IMPORTANT everything felt when you were fifteen and articulates it beautifully. He's Gone is her first adult book, and it's about a woman whose husband disappears into thin air, forcing her to confront the dark truths about their relationship. YES PLEASE.

Awake In the World, by Michael Stone. No vacation is complete without a little yoga reading--not for me, anyway. When I'm on holiday I feel like I can relax into a complicated, philosophical text in a way I just can't when I'm really busy. Michael Stone is a yogi and Buddhist teacher whose teachings are firmly entrenched in the realm of social justice and left wing political action. He is such a great writer, so clear and thoughtful. This is a book of his transcribed talks and lessons, and I look forward to forcing all my friends to listen to me read eloquent lines out loud by the pool.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. People keep telling me I'd love Wild by Cheryl Strayed but god DAMN if the library request list isn't a mile long. Instead, I've got this collection of columns from her former advice column. I'm an advice column junkie. I love thinking about what I'd do in the same ridiculous scenario. I love being thoughtful and mindful about how to act. I also love peering into the dark, anonymous heart of humanity. There, I said it.

I'm also bringing along a really rad iPod filled with a lot of ridiculous things that I hope will make for excellent poolside dance parties. Among the requisite catalogues of Billy Joel, Elton John, Plaskett and the Strokes are a few new favourites, including the Lumineers. I like some jingle bells in my little love songs.

See y'all in December.

Friday, November 16, 2012

i'll make you a tape.

In a sudden spurt of fall housekeeping, I stumbled on an old notebook, among many (God help the poor bastard who is one day tasked with sorting out my papers). It contains a number of delightful and cringe-worthy things, including the early notes from the Latin class I ended up dropping after a few months, a letter I wrote to my boyfriend in case I died on an upcoming plane ride to Moscow, and the playlists for several incredible mixtapes recorded in the spring and summer of the year 2000. While there's a novel's worth of story in ANY of those selections, it's the mixtapes I want to talk about.

I know it's trite to wax nostalgic about the demise of the mixtape, but I don't care. Mixtapes were IMPORTANT, man. They took time and effort and a careful combing-over of your own music collection. They said things about the person that you were at a moment in time. They were sonic diaries, painstakingly crafted. They were time capsules you could listen to over and over. They were gifts to yourself and to the people you cared about. Most importantly, they amped up road trips in borrowed cars and prolonged subway commutes in a way that made your life feel worthwhile even while you were trapped in traffic or stuck in the underground purgatory somewhere between Spadina and St George stations.

Some of the mixes listed in that spiral-bound notebook were for others. There are three particularly emotionally-fraught playlists for my then-boyfriend, with whom I was tumbling into love at the time. These include songs like Yuko and Hiro by Blur (note: if I ever put this on a tape for you, it means I am strongly considering spending the rest of my life with you), Choke by The Cardigans (one of the most underrated songs of the late 90s, I swear), 100% by Sonic Youth (always include Sonic Youth for street cred), Passin' Me By by the Pharcyde (arguably the most listenable rap song of all time), and I Will, by the Beatles (never a poor choice). Man, I seriously still remember what it felt like, holed up in my bedroom on Huxley Avenue, making each one of those tapes for him. We spent our first summer visiting each other in our respective hometowns of Hamilton and Oshawa, and we'd make each other these incredible mixes for the train rides back and forth. We were both serious music dorks and our tapes were equal parts coded messaging (when I heard Happiness by Elliott Smith on the one he made for me I knew he really liked me too) and good taste one-upmanship (oh, you've never heard of the New Grand? It's cool, I'll loan you my albums). It was a complex and convoluted courtship powered by nervous sincerity and a second-hand Walkman.

Weirdly, there's no written playlist for the one tape that actually survived from this era. I rediscovered it for the millionth time a couple of weekends ago, still lodged in my sweet-ass double tapedeck. (I still use the Panasonic stereo I bought with babysitting money in grade ten, and it is still awesome.) It includes the Backstreet Boys, mid-catalogue Barenaked Ladies, and Natalie Imbruglia. I had an uncharacteristic pop-music Renaissance in first year university. Living on a floor populated entirely by girls under the age of 20, all away from home for the first time, has a way of turning life into a dramatic slumber party. In my defense this tape also contained Dirty Dream #2 by Belle and Sebastian, which is about as hipster-redemptive as it gets.

It's an interesting exercise to listen to an old mixtape. I always find myself thinking of all the songs that I know now that I didn't know then. There's something that's existentially jarring to think of time before you were aware of some pivotal song's existence. Before the song even existed for you to be aware of it. Who was I before I heard I Am Trying to Break Your Heart? Who was I before I knew the lyrics to every song on Blood on the Tracks? I guess, fundamentally, I wasn't all that different. I was, and am, just a girl who loves a sentimental, heart-felt song, a girl who reads obsessively between the lines, a girl who hopes you do too.

Friday, November 9, 2012

at the going down of the sun.

The things I remember about Remembrance Day aren't probably the things that I should remember. More than anything I remember feeling supremely sad each November. There was always an assembly at school, the recitation of Ode of Remembrance and In Flanders Fields, the minute of silence that seemed to stretch into awkward, uncomfortable hours. One year someone projected a close-up drawing of a young World War II soldier on the screen behind the podium, and I stared at it till I almost felt haunted by it. (I was an intense child, I'm not denying that.)  Shuffling back to our classrooms we didn't speak to each other. There was a sober, sombre, entirely uncharacteristic quiet about the rest of the day at school, a guilt about being alive and cared for.  

As I got older, I grew jaded by the idea of Remembrance of any kind. By highschool I had declared myself a pacifist and was unmoved by sentimentality. Instead of an assembly, the minute of silence now took place in the classroom. An embarrassingly off-key group of drama students sang One Tin Soldier a capella and I sneered my superior contempt. (I was also, I think, an intense and somewhat unlikable teenager.) Secretly, though, I still re-read the war novels I'd loved as a child: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, the War Guest trilogy by Kit Pearson, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. I was fascinated and horrified by the idea of living through war. I pretended not to pay attention to the veterans who would visit our history class, secretly hanging on every word of their incredible stories. My paternal grandparents were married only days before my grampa was called up for training; my maternal grandfather's boat sank in the English Channel and he survived on a life raft for days before being rescued. It was these human details that seemed the hardest to bear. It began, of course, with the realization that if either of them had not survived, I would not even exist. But it didn't take long to extrapolate from the ego to the bigger picture, of so many lives lived and lost and altered forever, with very little to celebrate in the larger world.

Years later I lived in Ottawa, where the whole city closes down on November 11th. Every year I'd vow to take advantage of the holiday, to go down to the Cenotaph and pay my respects. Every year I'd do something regrettable the night before and completely miss the boat. Instead I'd sit in my apartment and listen to the service on the radio, the real thing only blocks from my front door, the weird sensation of hearing the flyover jets pass by overhead moments before I heard them on the radio. The closest I ever got to a public act of remembrance was getting up to no good at the Peacekeeping Memorial before wandering around the National Art Gallery all afternoon. But still. There's something about living in the capital, something about all that commemoration and pomp and circumstance, that makes you feel close to your collective national history. It makes you feel like you're a part of some larger story. You're aware that you owe something to all those who came before you. It makes you want to take care of people.

These days I still listen to the national service on the radio, when I can. My dad drives up to Barrie every year to take my grandfather to the local memorial. A few years ago they interviewed Grampa for a piece in the local paper on living through World War II. When the article was published he clipped it and kept it in his apartment.  Today I stopped by to visit my dad while I was out running errands, and we talked about the poppies we wear (I having recently bought my fourth of the year from a perfectly kindly gentleman at Canadian Tire), about whether it's a commemoration of war, a glorification of violence, or a tribute to the many men and women who have served this country. I don't necessarily condone any kind of military action, and I'm still a pacifist above all else, but I sure do understand the idea of service, of listening to what you think is your highest calling, of doing what you believe is the right thing. And I understand the need to donate money to support veterans, military families, communities for whom tremendous risk and loss are daily realities. Remembrance Day still does evoke some profound sadness in me, but it's become a hopeful thing, too. A hope for peace and grace, a promise to continue to tell these stories, however hard it may be.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

gone til november.

So I've been away for awhile. This has been a fast fall, in more ways than one.

September flew by in a blur. I lost a friend and in the process also lost any shred of perspective I may have once possessed. I unwittingly put my heart on the line, forgetting that nine times out of ten, this is a really really bad idea. Then I ran away to Haliburton County for a few days. If you find yourself in a position to run away, I'd recommend it as your destination. It's a place of plenty and I always leave there several pounds heavier and with a heart three times its usual size. My mother and I rented a cottage for the weekend to celebrate my best friend's mother's wedding. My mom basically told me to pull my head out of my ass, in the kind, compassionate, generally perfect way she always does. I sang songs for the kids at the ceremony, songs I'd never sung on my own before. As the notes came out of me I could hear my dad's voice in my head, letting me harmonize along. My mother did all the driving and I got back home ready to shift gears, although that didn't really work out the way I'd thought it might. As bpNichol once wrote, "We drove West but the poems I'd planned to write barely occurred."

I fell silent, I guess. I couldn't quite articulate how I was feeling, and it just seemed easier to give it a rest. I remember writing a paper on literary silence, a long, long time ago. It was about Dennis Lee and how for awhile he just couldn't write, couldn't find the words to describe what begged for description. I felt like I knew what he'd been going through. So I kept to myself for a bit. I ran away again (two runaways in one month, oh what a lucky gal am I), this time to a yoga retreat on Wolfe Island, which afforded me a few days back in Kingston, the town I love, the town that's still so far under my skin it's almost too much to even go back. I saw most of my people, checked in on all the pieces I still have buried there. I spent three days fasting and practicing yoga in a yurt. This is the right place to be, I thought to myself, even as I felt scared and empty and uncertain. One night I sat by a bonfire built by a karma yogi with a very cute beard, island farmers' fields behind me and the lights of the city across the water before me. It's a good feeling, to be both close to and far from civilization at the same time.

At the end of that weekend I resisted the almost primal urge to veer north on Division and head out toward Westport. It's like resisting the pull of gravity sometimes, ignoring the deepest needs of your poor old sentimental heart. But I did it, knowing (or maybe just feigning the knowledge) that some past treasures are better left buried. I drove back home to the Hammer, listening to Hey Rosetta and the National and marveling at the fact that the leaves seemed to have turned just in those few days I'd been away. I resolved to just sit back and be ready. For what, I'm not quite sure yet, but I'm open to it.

It brings me back to bp again:

"You have plans but so many of them don't work out. You have dreams, tho you do not mean the dreams you wake from, troubled or happy, but visions rather, glimpses of some future possibility everything in you wishes to make real."

(I wrote a paper on him once, too. In pulling my copy of 15 Canadian Poets X3 off the shelf to double-check that quote, a 12-year-old scribbled note about word play and the human condition fell from its spine, a reminder of my onetime debilitating sincerity about CanLit. Oh, were we ever so young?)

The last time I read those words was a long time ago. I had a pretty firm vision of what I wanted, and I thought I was on the path toward it. I wanted something so particular, and I wanted it with every fiber of my being. Many years on, those words still ring so true, even though the things I dreamed of haven't quite materialized the way I thought they might. Along the way, though, things have softened. My dreams have become less precise. The things I need to feel happy aren't as specific. I think that's a pretty great gift of age and wisdom, the way our desires become protracted and abstracted to the point where nearly everything that comes to us can satisfy us on some level.

October was a quick one too, but those are ramblings for another day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

best not to start.

Earlier this week I got the news that a really wonderful friend of mine had died suddenly. Sarah was a great mama, a devoted yogini, a witty feminist, and a delight to know. We met during our yoga teacher training program a few years ago, where we learned and grew by leaps and bounds alongside a handful of other smart, sassy women. Those weekends were among some of the best days of my life. One of the things I loved best about her was that she struck me as someone who sought enlightenment and social justice, who pursued clarity and focus, while also retaining a healthy dose of badassery. Between weekends of healthy vegetarian lunches and intense self study and discussions about moderation (and oh, who are we kidding, frequent lunchtime runs to Starbucks for chai lattes), I'd often run into her at the liquor store where we'd both be stocking up on bottles of red wine. The first time it happened, we both laughed hysterically. "Balance!" Sarah said. "It's crucial." Sarah wore leopard print the way most of us sport basic black. She told stories of her wild past and her sweet present. She posted hilarious shit on facebook. She loved her son with a fierce fire that I admired. She took care of the rest of us with a sort of subconscious motherly instinct that amazed me. She was compassionate and pragmatic and gave the kind of advice you actually wanted to heed.

On the very first day of our training, our teacher Mona warned us that once you made a commitment to a spiritual path, things would change, and they would never go back to the way they were. Sure, sure, we all said earnestly, not really grasping the depth of it all, not yet fully aware of the exhilarating, exhausting, emotional rabbit hole down which we were all about to tumble. But suddenly over the next few days and weeks and months, we all noticed it unfolding. Life was changing for all of us, and fast. Relationships ended. New ones began. We got jobs in other cities. We decided to go back to school. We got engaged, married, pregnant, and divorced. We got sick. We got well. We made plans, and then laughed and cried when those plans went completely pear-shaped. It was happening. Things were speeding up. I think we thought we'd gotten used to it, to the constant and beautiful chaos of which we were now so aware. Which is why it hurt so badly to learn that we'd lost one of our own. How could a bad thing happen to us when we spent all our energies seeking out the good?

Mona also had a line by Chogyam Trungpa that she liked to mention a lot (when she wasn't quoting something like Spaceballs or Ghostbusters to make a point about mindfulness, that is; and that is why she is my favourite teacher), about how the spiritual path is arduous and often horrible, and how it is "best not to start." We laughed at the frank simplicity of it, but I've gone back to it often. Sometimes when things are particularly hard I wonder if it would be any easier if I didn't have yoga in my life. Ever since I found out about Sarah I've been thinking about this even more. Would it be easier if I weren't so aware of the pain in my own heart and in the hearts of all those who knew her? Would a fog be easier than this stark clarity, this firm knowledge that she's gone, this confirmation that this practice really can't save any of us? I'm still not really sure. But what I realized around four in the morning (that universally acknowledged time of night when things are both grimmest and clearest) is that while this path might make hard things harder, it also teaches us to soften into the struggle, to open up to the lessons of hardship, to sit in the shit until we can let it all go on the next exhale. And if not that exhale, then maybe the one after that.

Inhale, exhale; right foot, left foot. Yoga taught us to use our breath and our bodies to work things out. The notion that Sarah's body is no longer breathing breaks my heart. The absolute truth that someday my lungs will stop cold too scares the hell out of me. We learned how to breathe together; what do we do now that one of us is no longer here?

This practice will not save us. Nothing will save us, not in the way that we might fundamentally want it to. Nothing saves us from death. We talked a lot about that in teacher training too, especially when we were sorting out the Bhagavad Gita with the help of the incredible lectures of Devarshi Steven Hartman. Devarshi talks about how all of our fears really boil down to the fear of death. The big secret, of course, is that death is nothing at all if you know the real truth--that we are all connected, that we are all eternal, that we are all one. When we stop resisting our fears, we get closer to that. Yesterday as I reached out to my teachers and my friends, trying to make sense of what had happened, I felt just a shred of that one-ness, that connection and interdependence. With suffering comes unity.

So where else do we turn for consolation? I often head right to my yoga mat but after bawling my face off during a Sivananda practice the other morning I think I might need a few days' quiet respite. Oftentimes I bury myself in a book but right now my attention span just won't let that happen. Instead I've been listening to this song over and over again (proof that there really is a Bob Dylan song for all of life's milestones). It makes me cry, and it makes me hurt, and it makes me feel alive and hopeful, and that's what I need right now.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Sarah.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


So the shift back to writing about my reading brought to mind a few other things that I've been meaning to tell the three of you about all summer. Mostly they are magazine articles. One of the perks of working in a public library is magazine access, a fact of which you are no doubt aware due to my thorough analysis of back issues of People Magazine. You will be pleased to know, however, that People is not the only periodical I schlep home. Here's a sampling of print journalism for your personal edification.

1. Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America by Jonathan Mahler, from the New York Times Magazine. I wrote briefly about this one earlier but seriously, it is crazy what is still happening in Oakland.

2. Who Made Mini Golf? from NYT Mag, again. This is part of an ongoing column about the interesting origins of commonplace objects. I love that shit. I also love the back story of how things like the ubiquitous windmill became a mini putt staple in the graphic attached to the piece.

2a. One of the most stressful dates I ever went on was back in my Trinity days, while visiting Stef one weekend in the 'shwa. It was also the weekend I was meeting his best friend for the first time and I was so, so nervous. The three of us went to the local mini-golf course where I proceeded to hold my own fairly respectably, I must say, for a girl with such poor hand-eye coordination she spent her depressing T-Ball career picking chamomile flowers in the outfield. Then we went to the record store and nearly bought Thin Lizzy's greatest hits (ironically). These were my salad days.

3.  Okay we're still on NYT Mag here (what can I say, checking it out makes me feel like an intellectual kinda broad) but words can't describe how pleased I am that Chuck Klosterman is their new Ethicist. I've had an unabashed love for that man for a long, long time. His writing on Saved By The Bell was inspirational to my 90210 oeuvre, and I trust him implicitly with my moral dilemmas.

4. Lena Dunham's eulogy for Nora Ephron in the New Yorker. I don't watch Girls yet, but from what I've read Dunham's a pretty smart cookie with the kind of cracker-dry wit I adore. Her personal memoir of a horrible relationship was also excellent but sadly you need an online subscription to access it (OR JUST A LIBRARY CARD!).

5. Shuffling on back over to NYT (sorry dudes, this is a bit of a biased post), Curtis Sittenfeld's Summer Fiction Series is fucking brilliant. I've had a literary crush on Sittenfeld ever since I read Prep my first summer in Ottawa. She is an absolute genius of the feminist/feminine heart, and this series of teeny tiny short stories is a pure delight for any fans of her work.

6. A Rough Guide to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I read this before I really knew who Sullivan was, before I'd read Pulphead, an essay collection that includes the definitive piece on Axl Rose, no foolin'. This little gem of an article is, in turns, a history of Florida real estate and the Disney empire, a bizarre elegy for the family vacation, and a definitive guide to safe places to smoke weed inside the park. 

In conclusion, I love that I'm telling you all about paper media in an online format. What an age, am I right? What an age.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

how i spent my summer vacation.

Remember when I used to write about the books I was reading? After a summer of vomiting my feelings all over this blog, as well as a summer of great reading, listening, and watching, I thought we'd divorce ourselves from emotion for a few paragraphs while I tell you about my cultural consumption.

Television shows:

Daria. Holy moly, I really wish I'd known about this show when I was a teenager because it would have saved my life. It is like a cartoon combination of the best elements of My So-Called Life, Veronica Mars, and Mission Hill. Watching it makes me wish I still lived near my friend Tara, because I know we would totally rock our Daria/Jane costumes on Halloween. 

Tell Me You Love Me. This is a super sexy, psychology-driven character piece about a group of couples who all attend therapy with the same therapist. It is so intense! And Adam Scott is in it and he plays an architect who is ambivalent about child-rearing! I'm so happy right now. Also, it was filmed in Winnipeg, which I found kind of funny, because I spent half the series trying to figure out where the hell they were. Chicago, maybe? It was cold, wherever it was.


Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. This book has so many of the elements I love: screwball comedy, mother-daughter relationships, detailed allusions to popular culture icons (in this case it's a running reference to Abbey Road which just hurts my feelings so hard), grim tenderness, a complicated voyage to Antarctica. The author used to write for Arrested Development and it shows, in the very best possible way.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This is one of those books that I used to scoff at, one of those books Oprah would've chosen if Oprah still chose books. Five years ago I probably would've boycotted it on ridiculous principle. But age has softened my harsh opinions, and now I will willingly admit that I love this book. It tells the story of a dystopian not-so-distant future through the eyes of an eleven year old girl in a California suburb. It is scary, and lovely, and beautifully written. One of my colleagues remarked that there's not a wasted word in the whole book. It's been getting great reviews and I do not mind that. There's nothing wrong with liking something that a lot of other people like. And that, my friends, is called mature thinking.

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer. Truth be told, I only read the first and last stories in the book. The opener is a novella about a teenage boy and girl in 1970s Palo Alto who discover the scary realities of sex and family and bad decisions, and the final chapter picks up the same characters 30 years later. Ann Packer creates these incredibly believable characters and puts them in positions that make you so nervous your hands get clammy. You want to know what will happen next. 

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. Oh, this is a classic summer novel in the tradition of Gatsby, for real. It's about a glittering, dysfunctional family gathered at the family beach house for a wedding fraught with emotional turmoil and domestic disaster. It's dark and witty and sharp. It takes down the upper classes in the most delightful way. I get a bit of a WASPY Melissa Bank vibe from Shipstead although I can't quite articulate why.


Oh, you mean besides Bob Dylan? Not sure if you are aware of this but I am a pretty big fan.

I've been getting into Townes van Zandt lately. I downloaded Steve Earle's Townes cover album awhile ago and it just kept coming up on my shuffle, which inspired me to listen to the originals. The song Loretta just kills me dead.

Also, Sunparlour Players. Thanks to my secret CBC husband Tom Power for this tip. If you're not tuning into Deep Roots every weekend you're missing out, you really are.


I am still working on a month-old New York Times Magazine article about the Occupy movement in Oakland California. Shit is getting REAL there and I think more people should know about it.

And also, an article about food photo staging in the Hamilton Spectator.

It's been a hell of a summer.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

summer songs, volume 4: the beach boys.

Our family grew up driving a remarkable number of sketchy cars. This is remarkable because in every other respect, my parents were so fastidious and so safety-conscious. Don't get me wrong--I know most parents are pretty committed to not killing or maiming their kids, but with mine it was always a really pronounced effort. Obviously this commitment ended just shy of where the rubber hit the road, and as a result my brother and I spent a lot of years rattling around the back seats of ancient Volkswagens, not-so-gently-used Civics, and one truly incredible powder-blue Buick Regal, inherited from a dearly departed relative. Many years and countless Honda leases later, this fleet of doom seems like a distant and impossible dream.

We didn't have a proper car stereo for a long, long time. Until we got the old Civic hatchback, we didn't have so much as a tape player. After the hatchback came the most ballin' whip the Fralicks would ever know: the Ford Aerostar minivan, which featured headphone jacks in every row (maddeningly frivolous, when you think about it, given that each set of headphones would just be plugged into the same stereo you'd be able to hear without them anyway). The jewel in the Aerostar's crown, though, was that my brother and I each got our own motherfuckin' ROW in that van. It was Family Road Trip Xanadu.

But that's not the story I'm telling right now. The story I'm telling is about the days before the minivan, the days when Noah and I would be jammed into the back seat with the cooler sandwiched between us, the days when we made up for the absent stereo by playing our tapes on Dad's portable tape recorder. Mostly I remember us listening to the Beach Boys. Occasionally I forced of my New Kids on the Block tapes in there. But not often. When we were growing up, my brother loved the Beach Boys. We taped their reunion concert off of PBS and watched it a dozen times on a scratchy VHS cassette. We listened to that Surf's Up! tape till it nearly wore out, windows down (our cars never had air conditioning), hot breeze in our faces. The song I remember most, for whatever reason, is All Summer Long. I loved it when I was younger. The xylophone in the opener, the tight harmonies, the perfect picture it paints of a gal and a guy driving around town and playing mini putt in their t-shirts and cutoffs. There's also something a little bit ominous about the line, "Won't be long till summertime is through." Enjoy yourself; it's later than you think. Even as a child I had a healthy taste for the grim detail.

Years later, the song was featured over the closing credits of one of my favourite ever Simpsons episode, the season finale where they all go to Flanders' cottage and Lisa decides to give up her yearbook committee-running, grammar rodeo buckaroo, nerdish leanings and reinvent herself as a hip dudette with a tie-dye shirt. She joins a group of a bunch of cool kids, drama ensues, and eventually she learns that the most important thing in life is to be yourself. (If you want, you could come over to my place and I could recite the entire script of the episode for you and also tell you everything about it that is great, but maybe we'll save that for another day.) Anyway, the episode ends with Homer tossing a beer can out the window of his car, at which point a hermit crab makes its home in it. As the beer crab skulks away, that xylophone kicks in, and the rest writes itself. As a teenager (and who are we kidding, as an adult too), I was a complete geek for both music and television. Watching that episode for the first time, I can't even put into words for you how excited it made me to hear one of my favourite songs on my favourite show. It felt like a sign. It was going to be a great summer. It had better be a great summer, because soon enough it would be over.

And as I write this, the summer is, in fact, nearly through. One more golden weekend and we'll creep on into September, seasons spinning around again. This summer went by in the blink of an eye. They always do. At times it felt like I was moving backwards instead of forwards as I found myself in places and with faces that meant so much to me so long ago. At times I felt like a much younger version of myself, doing and saying the kind of things I've spent years convincing myself I was too old for. It was a good feeling for a girl like me who lives in a perpetual state of nostalgic overload.

I don't mind the summer's end. Not really. Indian summer's always been my jam--the chilly evenings, the pleasant surprise of an unusually warm day, the early harvest, the sleepiness of autumn setting in. Yeah, I'm ready for that. Just give me a couple more nights of t-shirts and cutoffs and hearing my song on the radio, and I'll be good to go.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

urge for going.

I'm not much of a traveler. Don't get me wrong: I love going places. I love exploring uncharted waters (both literal and physical). I love scaring myself, getting out of my comfort zone. My problem, however, is that I never know that I love these things till I'm done doing them. It's the return that I jones for, the coming home, the relief of getting back, of telling the story of the journey. That's the part I love.

But I'm not much of a traveler. When I'm away, I'd rather stay with friends than in a hostel. I'd rather land in one place for a couple of weeks and just be there, settle in, put down whatever spindly roots I can in the short time I have there. This is why I am also an excellent companion on road trips: I plant myself in the car. Ten years ago or so, my then-boyfriend and I drove out to the East Coast together, and we made my parents' little red Civic our home on the open highway. We spread out like goldfish who grow to the size of their bowl; at the end of two weeks the car was littered with lighters, CDs, lists of our desert island albums (and oh my lord how we fought over which CDs to bring for the road in those crowded days before portable music libraries), half-eaten Cadbury bars. We settled in as we headed out. It's a nice combination.

All of which is to say, I'm about to embark on my favourite kind of journey--a trip to a home away from home. On Sunday I'll fly to Vancouver, the city that saw me through some of the weirdest, hardest years of my life, the city I fell in love with everytime I looked out the window of my apartment on Arbutus and saw those giant mountains, the city I debated losing myself in when my little life Back East fell apart. My Best West Coast Friend Tara's picking me up at the airport. I think it'll be the first time anyone's ever met me at that airport. When I lived there, and would fly back in there, it was always just me, alone at the taxi stand. It's a good feeling, the safety that someone's going to be there when you arrive.

But first, I am, as the old song says, Alberta Bound. Tonight I fly to Calgary, where my parents will collect me. It's a comfort to know your family's already waiting for you somewhere.

Last night I packed my carry-on bag. There's something really reassuring about packing a proper carry-on. A tiny friend of mine who's flying on a plane for the first time pretty soon was recently telling my mother about what she's putting in her carry-on; her list includes a Band-Aid and Chapstick. My list included oregano oil, a book by Kate Atkinson, mixed nuts, Chapstick (the kid's got a good point), an iPod newly stocked with the kind of soulful folk rock I love, and The New Yorker. Following my mother's advice I always put a pair of underpants in my carry-on too, just in case. I like knowing I have everything I need right under the seat in front of me. It makes me realize how little it actually takes to find true contentment. A little music, a few words, an open sky. A mini bottle of Gallo Brothers Merlot on the seat-back tray table doesn't hurt either. It's a lucky life.

See y'all in a week or two.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

90210 redux.

Don't worry, guys--I've been watching 90210 again so you don't have to. Watching it on DVD is an even more absurd experience than watching it the first/second/third time on actual network television, partly because DVD-watching is intentional. I keep having these epiphanous moments where I realize that I actually chose to put myself through this.  Also, clearly very few of the songs featured in the original series were actually approved for syndication rights, so a lot of the "action" scenes (the frosh week pool party, the night club visits, even the Peach Pit breakfasts) are soundtracked by the worst kind of stock songs.  This bummed me out in the second season, when during the scene in which Steve gets on a Greyhound bound to find his birth mother on Christmas Eve, they replace The Pretenders' "He's Gone" with a horrifying songwriter's nightmare about hittin' the road on Christmas Eve. Now that I'm on to season 4 I'm trying to appreciate the absurdity of it. I look forward to the season when Jamie Walters comes on the scene as struggling musician Ray Pruitt--I seriously hope they just dub over all his vocals for "How Do You Talk To An Angel" with a really bad song about beating up your girlfriend, just for the sake of total plot transparency.

Anyway, the last time I wrote about 90210, I was pretty analytical. In my defense, I was also pretty stoned on cold medication, and it was so hot outside. I think I spent an entire weekend in a cold bathtub last July, pounding back episodes like my life depended on it. This year, though, I don't have quite as much energy for analysis. Instead I'm just gonna catalogue a few of the best lines, okay? Okay.

"I can't have you as my teacher in the English class and my lover in the dorms." God, how many times did I utter that same phrase during my first degree.

"It just figures that the night I break up with Dylan is the same night he gets carjacked." Such universal truths. Such gravitas.

"Do you have any plans for the rest of the week? How about for the rest of your life?" I love that Brenda accepts this question as adorable and goes on to date Stuart for at least a few episodes, rather than run screaming from him. 

"You have two of the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. And I would like to see them again." This comes from the eloquent mouth of Jesse, the bartender-turned-Andrea-babydaddy. If she'd had three of the most beautiful eyes I don't know if he'd've been as forthcoming.

"You're so much more intuitive and sensitive than the girls I meet in college." Kelly's super-psycho bro boyfriend, John Sears, is such a gross manipulator. 

And speaking of super psychos...

Another great thing about Season 4 is the well-crafted villain character arc. John Sears' true psychological asshattery takes about five episodes to reveal itself; they really let things develop from a nice little romance story to CAMPUS HORROR.  This season is where 90210 comes into its own as far as plot and character development (I really mean this. How am I actually saying this). They've perfected the sinister stranger narrative since honing it on the Emily Valentine plot in Season 2. In fact, there's even an incredible Very Special Thanksgiving Episode where the two CalU sororities/frats, Keg House and Alpha House, are cooking dinner at a home for troubled girls, and John Sears goes all sexual predator on a headcase teen (played by the chick who played Rayanne Graf on My So-Called Life. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!); at the same time, Brandon hits the open road to find Emily Valentine. In a great example of parallel plotting, Emily gets more and more virtuous (instead of setting fire to homecoming floats, she's now going to study marine biology at the Cousteau Institute), John Sears gets more and more badass. It doesn't get any better than this, friends.

In conclusion, I am so glad I paid attention to my drama professors' lectures on dramatic development and symmetrical storylines and stage timelines and timing, because now I can identify it in a TV series from the mid-90s. And they say there's no value in a liberal arts education.

Monday, July 23, 2012

summer songs, volume 3: the rolling stones.

I'm a fan of the early days in a relationship. Those nerve-racking, gut-wrenching times when you wonder when he's going to call you back, think about him casually putting his hand on your back as you wait in line at the movies, lose ten pounds by sheer virtue of your heart beating ten times faster, always. There's an incredibly exhilerating quality to that uncertainty, especially when your gut tells you that things are heading somewhere wonderful, wanted, and strange. In hindsight, I've come to realize that the best relationships I've been in had protracted, far-reaching early days, courting periods of sincere shyness and endearing reluctance that lasted months.

It was like that with Stefan. We both knew and didn't know where we were heading in those first funny months: walks of shame back and forth between the boys' and girls' residences at Trinity, long nights out getting into trouble on the ledges of the music faculty building with our friends followed by turtle-slow walks back home, holding hands. School finished just a couple of months after we became a couple (because you didn't date back then, not really; you just flirted and became best friends and went out with each other's friends occasionally and then finally stayed up all night this one time and admitted that you really, really liked each other and then suddenly, there you were, boyfriend and girlfriend. Magical thinking is an important cornerstone). This meant the prospect of a summer apart, Stef in Oshawa and me in Hamilton (following my brief sojourn in Moscow, the details of which shall be the lynchpin of my memoirs one day). We left Toronto with an emotional question mark hanging between us. I cried all the way home in my dad's car that last night at St Hilda's, overwhelmed by the year behind me, the summer ahead, the deep-heart knowledge that I was falling in love with this goofy, literary, mix-tape-making guy. It was still too scary and too secret to reveal.

What followed was a summer of counting down Friday afternoon, the kind of summer where you do not give a fuck about anything else but your precious Saturdays. I spent my weeks working at the library and my weekends either hopping on the Go Train to visit Stefan in the 'shwa or borrowing my parents' car to drive to Burlington and pick him up for a couple of days with me in the Hammer. It was the start of what Stef would later term our Go Train Romance. We'd spend our time together getting stoned in movie theatre parking lots and watching summer blockbusters, walking around the Royal Botanical Gardens and feeling soulful, cooking each other dinner, and makin' out, a lot. We'd make each other mix tapes for the rides back and forth. And the whole time, I could just feel it getting serious. I could feel us falling for each other more and more with every visit. He told me later that he'd felt it too, but like me, he just couldn't get the words out. We'd both been burned before, both said things we shouldn't have, both felt the weight of admitting how we really felt and the possibility of complete disaster. But we soldiered on, our weekends getting more intense, our late nights later, our goodbye hugs harder.

One weekend, toward the end of August of 2000, I headed up to Oshawa for that most auspicious of early adult partnering rites: the meeting of the hometown buddies. I suppose I passed with flying colours, partly because I really dig playing mini-putt and shopping for used CDs and making fun of Thin Lizzy. That night at a backyard party Stef loaned me his hoodie and kept his arm around me all night. We went home and fell asleep in each other's arms, and woke up the next morning still perfectly entwined. Granted, there is not much room to move around in a single bed. Not much room at all.

That afternoon he drove me to the train station and we didn't say much. All morning I'd felt the words on the tip of my tongue. I love you, I love you, I love you. I was so scared to say them. I didn't say them, not then. Neither did he. But you could just feel it, some sudden knowledge that our worlds were intertwined, that this back and forth forever along the Go Train Line was leading us somewhere scary and crazy and wonderful.

But that afternoon we didn't say much. We listened to a tape he'd just made me, and as we barreled along the highway, You Can't Always Get What You Want came on. That familiar choral opening, that steady seven-minute build, that anthem of catharsis. As the choir and band crescendoed toward that final drop, Stefan reached over and put is hand on my leg, squeezed my thigh as hard as he could. I placed my hand on top of his so our fingers interlaced. I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder. He leaned back into me. He kept driving, and neither of us said a word. We just let it hang there.

Sometimes you do get what you need.

On that train ride back home I rewound and relistened to that song over and over, eating a plum his mum had given me from her trip to the Farmer's Market that morning. Summer was nearly over. Soon we'd be back in Toronto. Soon there would be a party during frosh week where he would finally spit those words out, and soon I would finally reciprocate, and we would stumble back to his room and fall asleep tangled up in his single bed, where we'd sleep together every night for the next year. Soon, but not yet.

Friday, July 20, 2012

summer songs, volume two: sam roberts.

If you run in circles like mine--that is, circles who skew more toward hippie than hipster, who prefer outdoor picnics to thumping bass lines and value a jump in a lake over pretty much all else--Sam Roberts is one of those guys that you just end up seeing live a lot. I can't remember the first time I saw him, but it doesn't matter. Anyway, this isn't a story about first or last times. It's a story about times in between.

I went to a Sam Roberts concert in August of 2005. It was the end of my first summer in Vancouver, the end of my first year on the other side of the country. I was a little world-weary and unbelievably ambivalent about my return visit to Ontario, which had been planned months earlier, before a phone call from Toronto broke my heart. The man I'd planned on spending the rest of my life with had suddenly decided that he couldn't bear the burden of our temporary bi-coastal arrangement, and called to tell me so on a Monday evening just a few days before I was coming home to see him. Suddenly we sat on opposite sides of the fault line that runs through the Lower Mainland, suddenly there was a seismic shift. For the first time in five years, I was on my own. Instead of running home into the strong arms I'd counted on for the better part of my grown-up life, I skulked eastward wearing my bruised heart on my sleeve. My parents picked me up from the Toronto airport when I arrived on the ass-end of a red-eye flight. As we drove back to Hamilton I felt his absence heavy in the car. Sitting in the back seat of their car I felt like I was a kid again. I kept looking over at the seat next to mine, wondering why the fuck it was empty, why the fuck he'd forsaken the chance to sit next to me, why the fuck he couldn't even say it to my face. It was, by all accounts, a low point.

If you run in circles like mine, you will be fortunate enough to have people around you to keep you steady, lift you up when you cannot lift yourself. If you run in circles like mine, you will rest easy in the knowledge that someone is going to help you pull your heart out of the gutter and give you a ride to the cottage and spend three days telling you everything is going to be okay. That's what happened that summer. I fell, hard, and let everyone around me just carry the weight. They carried me from Hamilton to Ottawa and then on to Muskoka, where I cried and kicked and pounded back booze-soaked berries and let everyone console me.

And then we got ready to go out.

Here is a really excellent way to mend a broken heart (or, at the very least, spend one glorious night deluding yourself into believing you're on the mend): go see Sam Roberts play a show at the Kee to Bala. If you've never been to the Kee, you really ought to go at least once, although I'm afraid to say that the older you get, the sketchier it will probably feel. It's like seeing a show in a grotty old cedar-planked road house in the middle of the woods. Actually, it IS, that, exactly that.

Here is the only way you should ever get yourself to the Kee: rattling around on the seats of a rented school bus (better known by its airbrushed logo as the Magic Bus), speakers blaring Livin' on a Prayer followed by Pour Some Sugar on Me, ignoring the bleary, weary glances of the bridal party occupying the seats ahead of you as you sing along like your life depended on it. "I can't believe this is legal," one of my friends marveled as we shouted out requests and guzzled smuggled cans of Keith's. "I'm pretty sure it isn't," someone else replied.

Sam played his heart out that night, just like he always did. I drank pint upon pint of draft beer and resolved to make this the first night of the rest of my life. "There's no road that ain't a hard road to travel on," he sang. I'd already travelled my hard road back and forth across this blessed country too many times that year, and I knew that many more trips lay in my future. But for that night, at least, all I had to do was dance.

The next time I saw Sam Roberts was a year later, at my first Bluesfest. I had just moved to Ottawa and into my first solo apartment and was dating a new boy (the colossal train-wreck details of which we shall never, ever speak. Seriously, never.) and was pretty much feeling like everything was going to work out. Freya and I had bought full passes for the festival and were giddy with the idea of so many of our favourite bands playing every goddamned night for the next week. Ottawa during Bluesfest really is Ottawa at its finest: vaguely rebellious, beer-sodden, sunny, efficiently celebratory. For ten glorious days, everyone stumbles around town, counting down to the evening's show; you can tell who else you'll be rocking out with that night by their unfocused stares in the coffee lines each morning, the tell-tale festival wristbands. Sam played on a sweltering Tuesday night. Just as he started his set, a misty rain began to fall, just enough to cool everything off. When he got to that line about your friends saving you in the end, Freya nudged me and grinned. We kept on dancing.

I haven't yet found the love that will lead me through my darkest days, but I've found the people that will stand next to me, dance with me, help me find the road again. That's all you need, really.

Friday, July 6, 2012

summer songs, volume 1: ray lamontagne.

On this, the hottest day of the year, let's start a little trip down memory lane to hazy days past, through the glorious lens of the songs that have defined my summers over the years.

1. For the Summer, by Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs.

Ray LaMontagne has a voice that's both smooth and gravelled, soft and bellowing. He croons. His songs make me pine for things both real and imaginary. I first heard For the Summer on the radio in December, 2010, when CBC was playing songs from their top record picks for that year. I'd been so wrapped up in my own drama over the past few months that I hadn't even bothered to seek his new album out. Yet another thing that suffers at the hand of personal turmoil--a decrease in quality of one's music library. One cold evening in my Kingston house, those opening chords played, and I thought to myself, "Is this a James Taylor cover?" It reminded me of Country Roads, and for a moment I was angry at anyone who would rip off a master. (It should probably be noted that anger as first reaction was my resting state at the end of 2010.) Anyway, that lowgrade rage disappeared when Ray's voice crooned on in, sweet and longing. "I'm tired," he sang. "Can I come home for the summer?" he asked. At a time when I had no idea where home was anymore, this song was a balm. I listened to it a million times over the next few months as I made my own way home, uncertain and unsettled, hoping that, like Ray promised, I could slow down for a little while. I moved, but I wasn't entirely convinced that home was actually home. I missed my people, my life, my old world. I soldiered on, but I didn't really slow down.

Last August, I saw Ray LaMontagne play at the Harvest Picnic in Dundas, an incredible day-long festival at Christie Conservation Area. My best friend Freya and her family came down for the occasion, mostly to see Gord Downie (Freya's husband Greg would probably go to an antique car rally in a parking lot in Denbigh if Gord Downie was playing). The actual process of getting to Harvest Picnic was a horrifying, hilarious-in-hindsight sort of affair. It included a visit from the emergency plumbers ("the 600-dollar flush," as Greg put it), a trip to the emergency room (the elbows of toddlers are shockingly easy to dislocate), a dinged up truck (to protect the victims I shall not elaborate), and a baby who cried all the way to the picnic. When we finally got ourselves through the gates and opened up the first tailgate tall cans that afternoon, the whole lot of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. The day improved significantly after that.

Ray didn't go on till after dark. I'd never heard him live before, and he didn't disappoint. He had a quiet presence on stage, and his voice was as beautiful live as it is on his records. He opened with a solo song (I forget which), and then the Pariah Dogs joined him for the next number. As he played the beginning of For The Summer, I felt my whole body get warm, my heart nearly beating out of my chest, butterflies in my belly. I looked around as he sang, and I saw the park I used to visit as a child, the lake I swam in every summer. I saw my best friends in the world at my side, and their babies sleeping tight on the blanket nearby. I saw the moon rising over the countryside on the edge of my city. I realized then that I was home, for the summer and forever. "Have I been away so long?" Ray asked. What a difference a few months can make.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Oh, Canada.

The first Canada Day I spent in Ottawa was a few years before I actually moved there. It was 2004, and I was a couple of months away from moving to Vancouver. I quit my job at the end of June with the intention of spending as much of my summer with my friends and family as possible, and when July first rolled around, I was already deep into living the dream. On the last day of June I drove to Ottawa from the cottage on Twelve Mile Lake, near Minden. These were the days before cellphones (or at least, they were for me, and even if I had one I don't think it would have worked on the roads I was wheeling along). I was driving my parents' borrowed Civic, and my mother was quietly beside herself, as she often was when I was tasked with driving anywhere on my own. My father was the picture of calm, drawing out the route for me on an Ontario map, tracing my trail in pink crayon. My father taught me to paddle a canoe and drive a car, and read a map. Or at least, he did his level best.

It was my first drive down those beautiful back roads near Algonquin Park and the edges of the Canadian Shield, my first solo trip along that path that would become so much more familiar in the years to come. After dinner I arrived at Freya's house on Smirle Street. A few hours later, my boyfriend came in from Oshawa, the first of many friends who would trickle in over the course of that evening and the next day. My memories of that Canada Day proper are generally out of focus. We hung around my friend Sarah's incredible Glebe backyard, that neighbourhood another foreshadow of my later life. Around sundown we stumbled down the Rideau Canal past people and families much less intoxicated than we. We stared up at the fireworks over Parliament Hill as overzealous Sens fans shouted in our ears. We stumbled back home and kept the party going, a great, sweaty, enthusiastic hoarde. The next morning, or maybe afternoon, we all woke up from pass-out points in stairwells and sofas and drove back out to the lake for a few more days of lake swimming and long sunsets. At the time I remember thinking, this is the happiest I will ever be. And in a certain way, I was right.

Years later, about two-thirds of the way through my Ottawa years, I celebrated what would be my last Canada Day in the capital. My parents came up for Canada Day as they often did. I hated living in Ottawa, I really did. The best times I spent there were when I had visitors, though, especially visitors who cleaned out my refrigerator and helped me rearrange the furniture. I'd taken a few days off at the end of June and was about to start a new job right after the holiday, and I was a delightful ball of nerves. As usual, part of the reason for my parents' visit was to calm me the fuck down; if you have ever spent Canada Day in our nation's capital you will realize what a tall order that was during the most hyper and frenetic few days in that frozen cursed city. Nevertheless, I put on a brave face and attempted to enjoy the fruits of the capital celebrations, or at least do a decent job of pretending.

On June 30th, we walked down to Parliament Hill and wandered around a little, visited the tourist centre my mom always liked to check out (my parents are the reason tourist centres exist). The sun was setting, and across the street they were doing the sound checks for the big Canada Day concert the next day. We were planning on coming down for that too, mainly because I knew that Joel Plaskett was on the bill and in spite of my severe agoraphobia and ambivalent nationalism, I'd be damned if I was going to miss a chance to see my secret husband live. As my parents thumbed through pamphlets I heard a sudden, familiar strain, the sound of a twelve-string guitar strumming a pattern I'd know anywhere, the opening chords of Face of the Earth. I squinted across the street and saw Joel's tiny frame on stage. "It's him," I said to my dad. He nodded, and I dashed across the street like the spasmatic fangirl I was. There were some people milling around, but mostly the area around the stage was deserted. I pressed myself up against the barricade and got as close as I could. No one else stood between me and Joel as he sang that heartbreaking song, the song that had so perfectly summed up the beautiful sadness that I felt in my Ottawa years. When he finished playing, I felt so quiet. I turned around to see my parents standing right behind me, and I don't think I said anything at all as we walked back to my little Glebe apartment. Within a year I'd leave Ottawa for Kingston. There are very few moments of my time in the capital that I feel truly thankful for, but that up close and personal moment with Plaskett on the Hill is definitely one of them.

There are other Canada Days I'd like to write about, and maybe I will, but not right now. Right now I'm slicing strawberries in my kitchen on Canada Street and waiting for Freya and her family to get here. Right now I'm making gin punch and watering my flowers and feeling the profound feeling of gratitude that comes with being home, strong, and free. Oh, Canada.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

the birthday project: sweet sixteen.

I started the birthday project last June in a fit of memoir-related fury, the desperate, annual self-examination in which I find myself around the turning of my years. In a way, putting all those stories down marked a shift for this blog, away from incredibly biased, useless book reviews and posts about back issues of People Magazine (but don't worry, I'll still keep editorializing about their editorial page as often as I can) and toward a forum for personal stock-taking, a collection of random, lesson-less moments of my little life. It's a shift I've been happy to make and one that I hope people have enjoyed. I hope to compile some of the better-received pieces into something a little more fully-formed.

But for now, a few more sunshine sketches of birthdays past, beginning with a birthday exactly half a lifetime ago.

In June, 1996, I greeted the end of the school year with more relief than ever before. I was a peaople-pleasing brain and as such, I'd always loved school itself, but I hated the incredible social anxiety and constant backstabbery that seemed to plague even such lowly orchestra nerds as me and my friends. Grade ten had been a particularly dramatic year for my little circle, and I was glad to see the ass end of it. The idea of turning sixteen made me excited, however false and pop-culture-driven that excitement may have been.  After a year of personal tumult, I felt like I knew where I was going. I knew who my best friends were and I knew who I wished my boyfriend was and I was altogether comfortable with this unrequited love (I was an emotional teenager, the type who preferred some baseline level of delicious misery to boring contentment).  I'd planned a party for the evening of my birthday, which would fall on a Tuesday just after final exams finished. 

The Saturday before my birthday, my best friend Heather and I did what we did every Saturday: took the bus downtown, hung around on the roof of Jackson Square listening to whatever Sonic Unyon band was playing for free that afternoon (there would come a time when our behaviour on the roof of the mall would devolve into horrifying debauchery but that is a tale for another day). We went to Dr. Disc and bought records I sold later to pay for rave tickets, records like The Hardship Post and the Superfriendz, Tristan Psionic and Treble Charger (back when they were good--gather round, children, let me tell you about the mid-90s). I spent most of my teen years battling depression and various eating disorders, and the past few months had been hard, in a wavy, nebulous way. With the school year over and the summer ahead I was finally feeling more human, more like myself. Heather and I had the kind of wickedly intense friendship that you can only really forge when you're an uncertain teenager who stumbles upon a kindred spirit who shares your crushing love of Douglas Coupland and your absolute certainty that you are so much smarter than everyone else you know and goddammit won't it be good when we get out of this town. It was going to be a good summer, filled with sweaty shows in dangerous all-ages clubs, sunny afternoons at the record store, G1 Driver's licenses.

Heather drove me back to my house on Huxley, where we were going to watch movies and bemoan our existence for a few hours. When we pulled up in front of the house, my parents were both standing on the porch, grinning expectantly. I remember having a flash thought, like, oh god, are they staging an intervention? But the moment passed, and I didn't really think anything of their suggestion that we go to the backyard to check out my brother's new stunt bike (the bike which, incidentally, he'd begged and saved for all year, and also the bike from which he would soon fall during his first tour around the block and sprain his wrist, thereby confirming my parents' worst daymares). As we rounded the corner into the garden, I saw the horde of people, and didn't even have a moment to let it sink in before they all shouted "Surprise!"  Someone had a dinosaur of a video camera, and somewhere on an old VHS tape there is mortifying documentary evidence of me freaking out, running out of the yard, then immediately running back in, shaking like a leaf. I'd never been surprised like that before, and I still count it as one of the most delightful moments of my life.  It is so comforting to see all the people you care about in one place, especially when that one place is your own backyard.

Heather had orchestrated the whole thing with my parents' help, and it was truly wonderful. She told me later how nervous she'd been as we drove home that evening, how convinced she was that something would go wrong, as something always seemed to. Miraculously, though, everything went right. The sun went down and in the dusky light I opened presents and ate cake and probably drank four cans of Coke--these were the days before boozecan madness, the days when everyone still had to be home by eleven, the days when the after-party was a caffeine-fueled sleepover. As the night got darker we spilled out onto the street out front and I convinced the boy I'd had a crush on for at least a year to help me ride his skateboard. I put my hands on his shoulders and it was one of those moments where you just felt like you were being given a taste of what was coming next in your life, where you were happy to hover for a second, somehow aware that once you crossed over, you'd never get to go back.

Not long ago I dug out the photos from that night and they are as blurry, silly, and poorly composed as you would expect. At the end of the evening my mom took a picture of the whole sorry bunch of us, sugar-high and goofy and smiling like maniacs. Of the sweet faces I can make out, I see boys and girls whom I still count among my best friends, boys and girls who are now married, boys and girls who have survived illness and hardship and uncertainty, boys and girls who didn't. I see the start of a grown-up life, an incredible potential.

The night before my actual birthday that year, I watched Sixteen Candles, like I always did. Knowing I was about to be as old as Molly Ringwald's character filled that viewing with a certain adorable gravitas. From now on, I thought to myself, I will be older than this. I will never go back to this place. I cannot take this with me.