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.