Sunday, December 27, 2015

My 2015 Soundtrack

Since 2002, each December I have compiled a mix CD or playlist to document the past year--a soundtrack that charts memorable moments, trends, and events in my life over the preceding twelve months.

The rules are as follows:

-The collection must be short enough to fit on a standard 80-minute CD.
-The song choices are not bound by “favorites” so much as songs that are, in my mind, distinctively connected to the preceding year.

Without further ado, this year’s track list:

1. “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars Whether it was hearing this song at the gym, jamming out to it with Heather along a road trip to the Bay Area, or watching the RA staff’s choreographed routine to it at this summer’s CTY talent show, this song was as ubiquitous as it was catchy to me in 2015.

2. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” by The Mountain Goats My friend Joshu back in Baltimore drew my attention to this track, and, moreover, The Mountain Goats’ larger album, Beat The Champ, an extended meditation on professional wrestling in the southwest, circa the 1970s to 1980s. I found the album uneven, but loved this track, earmarked for early release, and grew all the more enamored with it as I drafted a short story, “Finishers,” my unofficial coming out party as a wrestling fanatic to my writing workshop.

3. “Rise” by David Guetta ft. Skylar Grey I assure you this is it for wreste-talk on this countdown. Heather and I spent spring break this year driving down to San Francisco via Napa Valley, swinging over to Las Vegas for a spell, then coming back into Santa Clara for WrestleMania weekend, featuring a shockingly over-achieving WrestleMania show itself. Before each match, WWE played this theme song over a highlight reel, thus creating an inextricable connection in my mind.

4. “Elastic Heart” by Sia I liked this song the more I heard it over the winter and spring, culminating in using it for a key lesson plan with my English Comp class in April. It’s a funky pop tune with a simultaneously maddening and irresistible music video; a story of strength, deterioration, and perhaps most importantly recovery.

5. “She Used To Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles Before the full album of songs from Bareilles’s new Waitress musical dropped, bootleg copies of her singing this song live made the rounds on YouTube and I latched on to yet another heart-wrenching, lovely encapsulation of broken heartedness from my favorite contemporary female solo artist.

6. “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” by Silento Re-read that disclaimer about this soundtrack not being about favorites. I find next to nothing to like about this song, and yet it was such a favorite among students and staff alike at my summer gig this year that I could not avoid it, and it became permanently linked in my mind to hot, humid summer back in Baltimore--hundred-hour-work weeks, stealing ten minute naps at my desk, trying to cling to how much I used to love summer camp to survive this run through.

7. “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon and 8. “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten I first meaningfully encountered each of these songs on my weekend off during the summer, when I rented a car and drove off to celebrate (and officiate) the Peek wedding. That trip wound up being one of the best of the year (heck, one of the best of my life). At the wedding itself, I heard “Shut Up and Dance”--a song I had encountered in passing on top forty radio, but that hadn’t really registered with me until this point. It’s a song that felt like a celebration, though, and all the more fitting for Peek and Missy first meeting on a dancefloor.

I heard “Fight Song” on the drive back to Baltimore to finish the summer. Saccharine, cliché, over-produced, laced with vague platitudes--the song represented all of these elements I fundamentally de-value about pop music. Just the same, After catching glimpse of life with friends again, and remembering the life I was headed back to at the end of the summer--of writing and teaching writing and hanging out with other writers--the song began to take up space in my head as something of an anthem for reclaiming my life.

I wrapped up the summer exhausted and then suffering from food poisoning. In the week to follow, when I worked part-time hours, I would recover--sleeping in, getting breakfast, writing for an hour, before heading to the office. I listened to this song, looking ahead and moving forward with my life.

9. “Three Is The Magic Number” by Blind Melon A month after the Peek wedding, I found myself standing up as the best man at the Scalise wedding. After the ceremony, Peek discovered this strange little song that we had all heard in the movie Slackers and made reference to for years in between. He downloaded it and, at the ceremony, he, Will, and I—the groom’s three closest friends—choreographed a simple routine to the song to perform in tribute to the man of the hour.

It was silly. Objectively stupid. Too specific and odd for more than a handful of the wedding attendants to have any idea what we were doing.

And it was glorious.

10. “All I Can Do Is Write About It” by Lynyrd Skynyrd After our summer jobs had ended, and the bustle of weddings was behind us, Heather and I traveled to North Carolina. To scout potential wedding venues. To see her family. To eat southern food. To be together again as a pair, for a brief reprieve free from outside obligations.

We made our last stop in Asheville, staying in a perfect, quiet Air BnB cottage. Eating some of the best barbecue I’d ever encountered. And, finally, going on a hike through the mountains. Along the way, this old song came to mind--a snapshot of nature, and giving oneself over to it.

11. “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift Despite the busy nature of the summer and only getting squeeze out about ten-to-fifteen minutes a day to write, the period also functioned as an incubator of sorts for story ideas. I walked away with four concrete ones, the first three of which I tackled with a fury as the summer wore down.

At the end of the summer, I also underwent a conversion. After a year of my fellow writers at OSU extolling the virtues of Taylor Swift, and a summer of so many staff members doing the same, I finally gave her work more than a cursory listen. I got hooked. I bought 1989 on iTunes.

This song became permanently linked to one of my stories. It’s Swift at her most sultry and vulnerable, a suggestion of danger and the loss of innocence. Objectively, it doesn’t bear that much resemblance to my violent little coming-of-age story, but I expect that I’ll always associate the two with one another in my mind.

12. “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News I can’t claim to be a Back to the Future obsess-ee, but between my friends and my social media, and many fond memories of watching the original film as a kid, I had to take notice of October 21, 2015—the day when the real world caught up to the future portrayed in Back to the Future 2. I listened to this song on my iPhone in recognition. When I got home, Heather and I watched the movie one more time.

13. “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC On a largely random, otherwise insignificant Friday morning in October, I woke with this song in my head. I dug it up on YouTube and played it as I got ready and along the early-morning walk to school to teach my 8 a.m. class.

When I got to class, I played it again.

The explanation, to my bleary-eyed undergrads, who were just surviving another week: “How can you listen to this song and not feel psyched?”

14. “Everything Changes” by Sara Bareilles When Bareilles’s full Waitress album dropped in November, I listened to it pretty obsessively. The trance-like “sugar-butter-flour” refrain that starts in “What’s Inside,” the up-beat melody of “Opening Up,” the comedic oafishness of “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” the adorable little triumph of “Lulu’s Pie Song.” And then there was “Everything Changes.” It’s at once, the kind of big, show-stopping finale-ish kind of number that I love dearly in a musical, and one that bespeaks personal evolution in a heartfelt way that feels much more intimate.

15. “Demons” by Sleigh Bells This minor musical rebellion set the stage for the Jessica Jones finale--one of my favorite sequences of what was probably my favorite original television show of 2015--certainly my favorite TV from the final two months of the year. On re-listening after the show and studying the lyrics I became increasingly convinced it was the perfect song to cap this particular story.

16. "Dirt Sledding" by The Killers Each year, The Killers release a new holiday song, and more often than not I love it. This is the entry for 2015, and one of the band's very best.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas Double Shot

"I'll take a double shot of Jack on the rocks," Billy said.

I lifted two fingers. "Make that two."

Another bar, another time of year, this scene wouldn't have been so unconventional. After growing up down the street from one another, near constant companions, we found ourselves five years out of college and living 300 miles apart. We only got to hang out a few times a year, and more often than not those were celebratory occasions. New Year's. Birthdays. Concerts and festivals.

Christmas.

We were back home that Christmas Eve, a year when we were each single, before we had any nieces, and after each of our family holiday celebrations had deteriorated from large gatherings to quiet dinners--just me and my dad, just his nuclear family around the dining room table.

Ten, eleven o'clock rolls around on a Christmas Eve like that and folks leave dinner. Our parents went to bed. And there we were, in our mid-twenties and tired, but not for want of sleep.

We wound up at a dive bar a half mile from our street. The kind of place I'd driven past hundreds of times over the year, but never given a thought to stepping inside, back when I was too young to drink or when, if I were to drink, I would have gone to more exciting locales on bustling Varick Street or the bar and grill where we used to binge on fifty-cent wings and half-price drafts on Tuesday nights.

These more reputable businesses were closed. My hometown is an upright sort of community where you'll have no problem finding a party the night before Thanksgiving, but Christmas Eve is for putting the kids to bed early so they can dream about Santa Claus visiting the house; for the most righteous to find their way to midnight mass.

We sat in this bar. A portly, glossy eyed, unshaven behemoth of a man in a tweed sports coat sat at the opposite end, sipping rum and cokes and staring at his cell phone, while we kept to ourselves, save for visits from the bartender, clad in an unseasonably light charcoal tank top that exposed the tattoos along her upper arm. Daniel. Vincent. Perry. Three wise men, I mused, or more likely the names of her children. I didn't ask. She tipped the bottle and filled our glass tumblers to their brims. The surface of the bar was badly scratched and lined with rings and stains.

The only sign of Christmas in the place was a solitary, barren wreath over the cash register, set over a back drop of neon blue, probably intended to make the place look cool or hip, but now out of place. The lights in the window were the same ones that shone year round. From the bar stool they read Bud Light and Labatt Blue and Open, all in reverse.

I took a sip of whiskey and remembered out loud, "My grandma used to let us open one gift a piece on Christmas Eve. I'd always pick one of the small ones, because they were the Nintendo games, then they were cassettes, then they were CDs I asked for." My grandmother had always bought me what I wanted.

"We used to have a party at my great aunt's. There must have been thirty, forty people," Billy said. "My sister and I would wait on everyone and get them drinks or tomato pie or Christmas cookies and everyone would tip us. We'd walk out with fifty, a hundred dollars each and feel like we were rich."

"We used to eat petit fours," I said. "And we'd play Pitch because it was a good game for a lot of people, and it wasn't too complicated. And even my mom would play sometimes. And she hated playing games because my dad always gave her a hard time."

"Remember when we used to roll dice?"

My mind raced through a thousand images. Grade school choir concerts where we would sing a half dozen Christmas songs and one about Hannukah to be inclusive to the two or three Jewish kids at the school. Watching It's A Wonderful Life with my mom and my sister. My grandmother egging folks on for one more bite of dessert. One more drink. Hanging out with Billy's family when we were home from college, until people peeled off one by one and it was just the two of us left in the living room, stomachs full, staring at the flickering light of a fiber-optic tree and, even then, reminiscing about better days, without any concept of how good we had it right then.

"Another double shot?" the bartender asked Billy. His glass was already empty.

"You got it," he said.

I drained my glass, too, drinking too much too fast. It burned my throat. "Make it two," I said again. My voice was a croak.

We took our time on the second round and waited around to sober up before the short drive back, opting not to make it too late of a night. After all, by the time we were done with those drinks, it was technically Christmas. It was time to get home.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Open Mic Night

The scene is the café on the main floor of the student union at Geneseo. Two dozen people are seated, drinking coffee and eating oversized chocolate chip cookies purchased via the flex points on their meal plans. The couches are all turned to face a makeshift stage in the corner, where a live microphone waits on a stand. A rail-thin, too-tall kid with bushy black hair, baggy jeans and a gray collared shirt that’s at once too baggy and too short for him stands, his voice projected across two speakers, too big, and turned up too loud for the café so sound permeates the rest of the Union.

That kid—that voice—is me at 20 years old.

“I need for everyone to move their hands up and down like this.” I bob my whole arm like someone who has never seen a basketball before trying to dribble one—or, as my mind projects, in my best approximation of what Marshall Mathers would get an audience to do.

And, against any discernible rhyme or reason, the limited masses go for it, from my friends, to the freshmen girls, to the guy pouring coffee behind the counter.

Before they can stop—before they can conceive of what they’re really doing, I rattle off, “This is ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem, as performed in the voice of Kermit the Frog."

There’s laughter. Some of it in synch with the absurdist humor I’m aiming at, some of it on the spectrum between uncomfortable and bewildered. The choruses go reasonably well, when I'm familiar enough the both the cadence and lyrics to not have to look at the lyrics sheet I printed that afternoon. The verses are rougher--the first far from stellar, the second downright bad and when I look up to face the audience on the proceeding chorus they've stopped waving their hands. Some have, mercifully, stopped pay attention to me altogether. The looks of bewilderment have spread like wildfire.

*

I performed in a lot of open mic nights in college. I read poems and excerpts from short stories. I sang songs--a call and response version of Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," a Kermit-voiced rendition of "The Rainbow Connection" that ultimately led to my 8-mile gaff. There were failures, few as abject as the "Lose Yourself" incident. And I had my share of triumphs. Moments that were remarkably gratifying for fledgling artist and performer, desperate for some form of validation of my work.

But all the more so, these open mic nights at various Geneseo locales marked the discovery of a community. Sometimes on a big scale when as many as 30 to 40 people were there as audience members, as performers, and as new friends to talk to when the performances were done. Sometimes on a more intimate level, when only a half dozen people showed up and we each read or sang three or four times and hung around to drink coffee and talk about the rest of our lives.

The open mic scene--particularly the scene that I frequented, skewing toward literary endeavors over acoustic guitars--have a mixed response. I've met folks who object to open mics because they feel like amateur hour without any semblance of quality control. I've met others who balk at them as pretentious and too consciously artsy. But I think that I always loved the scene for the flip sides of those criticisms. That without quality control, amateurs in the purest sense of the word get the opportunity to share their work and to learn from people who are more experienced (I know I did). That an artsy scene need not be pretentious or ironic--it can be about people earnestly offering to the world their work.

After college, I went seven years without attending an open mic night before friends from my grad program at Hopkins had started a literary 'zine and started a monthly open mic, ostensibly to promote it, besides cultivating the writers' community in Baltimore.

I went to my first one, a little trepidatious, and sipped whiskey and coke on the sidelines before putting down my name to read. I hadn't written much poetry in the interceding years, and I always found lengthy prose pieces to be a drag in this setting--difficult to engage the audience with, and often too long. So I read vignette from one of my early posts on this blog. And rather than reiterating the calamity of "Lose Yourself," it seemed to work. I read more excerpts in the months to follow, and even settled into a loose habit of writing poetry again, more or less for the purpose of reading it in this setting.

But better yet, I heard from others. Peers from my grad program I'd never read much work from, people from another grad program based in Baltimore, an unabashed alcoholic who said he didn't write like Bukowski, but thought that he might one day.

And I savored this scene. These words. These people.

But I retired my Kermit the Frog voice.