Friday, December 30, 2016

My 2016 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. “Could Have Been Me” by The Struts I encountered this song in late 2015, and in early 2016 it became shower music and running to catch the bus music--in either case the kind of song that’s full of momentum and got me moving

2. “Formation” by Beyonce This was the it song of late winter. I was pretty enamored with the whole Lemonade project to follow, but this song in particular stands out for its bombast and non-traditional but nonetheless irresistible structure and instrumentation. I have a mixed audience that reads this blog, so I’m going to steer clear of the political implications and controversies because I’m not looking to incite new debate. Regardless, this song left an indelible mark on me early in the year.

3. “Stutter” by Marianas Trench I’d come across this song years earlier in a cappella circles, but in 2016, found that it surfaced on my iPhone on the walk from my hotel to the Los Angeles Convention Center, my first full day at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I’d been to AWP once before, but this time, five-sixths of the way through my MFA program and actively submitting to journals and contests, I felt a different energy about the experience--at once educational, a reunion, and a celebration of this writer’s life that I’d chosen. A can of Red Bull in hand, this song blasting through my earbuds, I was ready for a day of panel discussions, readings, and mingling with editors. A lot more exciting than it probably sounds.

4. “My House” by Flo Rida I didn’t go to WrestleMania this year (it overlapped with AWP), and given other life commitments, didn’t get nearly as invested in celebrating it as a holiday this year as I have some others. Nonetheless, WWE programming remains an inveterate part of psyche, and so the theme song that played over shows leading up to ‘Mania, not to mention the event itself, finds its place in this soundtrack.

5. “Rivers and Roads” by The Head and the Heart On one road trip or another, this song came on as Heather and I were driving along a patch of highway surrounded by trees and Oregon greenery. I’ve known this song for years and always liked it, but when the lyrics hit--

A year from now we’ll all be gone
All our friends will move away

--I found myself profoundly affected. For a year and a half earlier, I’d left my friends in Baltimore, my friends and family on the east coast altogether, to pursue my writing career in earnest in Oregon. And there I was a year and half later, unsure of where my next steps would take me, but nonetheless cognizant that things would change again. For all of these friends I’d made in Oregon, all of these people I’d finally found my bearings with and grown comfortable around, we’d soon be going our separate ways again. There’s a bittersweet-ness to that sensation of growing close so quickly, then moving along to another life just as fast.

Been talking 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
And if you don't know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

6. “Levels” by Nick Jonas I’d heard this song in passing at the gym, where I absorbed most of my pop music through osmosis, but couldn’t dismiss it as background when I went to New York City once again for Varsity Vocals’ a cappella Finals weekend, and a number of groups gave this song a whirl (most memorably, my pick for the top college group, The Carnegie Mellon University Originals). It stuck with me through a good, if quieter take on this annual pilgrimage, the first time that our crew for this trip had whittled down to just two friends.

7. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind As graduation approached, I started reflecting on music from the era of my high school graduation, and got nostalgic (as I’m wont to do). Cheesy as it may be, this song stood out as not just one I remembered well, but one that felt like pure celebration, which felt appropriate to wrapping up all of that hard word and all of those good times from the preceding two years with a series of parties and more casual get-togethers, not to mention the graduation ceremony itself.

8. “Falling in Love” by Lisa Loeb and 9. “Truth and Bone” by Heather Nova There was a brief awkward period--only three-to-four days really, though it stands out in my brain for feeling longer--after Heather and I had moved the overwhelming majority of our belongings into storage, after Heather had left for her summer gig, when I was on my own in our cleared out apartment.

I was working on a new flash fiction project, featuring an idiosyncratic narrator and when I listened to this old Lisa Loeb song, it provided the skeleton of a story of this narrator meeting her new partner. I encountered the Heather Nova song for the first time during this same stretch. For a long time, I’ve found my enjoyment of her catalog uneven, with songs that I absolutely love, and songs that bore me to tears in more or less equal proportions. This was one of the ones that I really liked, and I remember listening to it on a long walk between the gym and the empty apartment under the early summer sun.

10. “Can’t Stop The Feeling” by Justin Timberlake and 11. “Love yourself” by Justin Bieber It was a long summer, but, overall, a good one for me. I had my first experience teaching a CTY summer course. While thirty hours a week of guiding a writing workshop for the same group of kids was draining, it was also one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. I followed that up by working as a Dean of Residential Life for the first time in nine years. I was, admittedly reticent about stepping back into the job, but found rewards there, too, in working with the kids and working with a stand-out group of RAs.

Still, when early August hit, I was relieved about the chance for a break. As I was walking through dorms to gather items left behind, I treated myself to downloading these two pop songs that the RAs had played so often through evening social times and Friday night dances.

11. “Palisades Park” by Counting Crows At the end of summer, I traveled to Upstate New York for a bachelor party weekend with three of my closest friends. We kicked it off with tomato pie and a Counting Crows concert in Syracuse. Listening to this song, in particular at the start of the Crows show, felt like a book end. It was during my cross country drive to move to Oregon that Somewhere Under Wonderland, the Counting Crows album that opened with this song, first dropped, and here I was some of my oldest friends, at the front end of transitioning to whatever life would have in store next.

The concert was good, the company was better, and we moved along from there to a night at the Turning Stone Casino, and two days in Saratoga Springs.

12. “Glorious Domination” by CFO$ WWE capped its summer with SummerSlam weekend, including a great NXT: Back to Brooklyn special. During it, long-time indy star Bobby Roode made his debut, and did so with this song playing him to the ring, and a cast of fans singing along to it. Needless to say, I was hooked.

I downloaded the song and played it in the early mornings and on long stretches of open road until it became something of an unofficial anthem for the trek Heather and I made back to the east coast.

13. “I Choose You” (Live, Acoustic) by Sara Bareilles and 14. “Uptown Funk” by Marc Ronson ft. Bruno Mars Within a few months of dating in earnest, Heather and I selected “I Choose You,” and more particularly this acoustic version as our song, and so when we got engaged there was little doubt that it would be the song we played for our first dance.

Leading up to the wedding, we decided we might splice in another song, and could think of none better than “Uptown Funk”—a cliché, perhaps, but a song we had engaged in impromptu dance parties to in the car before, not to mention one that people would know. As we spent the month in the mountains of Boone, NC, and the wedding approached, I choreographed, Heather refined, and we practiced over a series of days before we were ready to perform.

Our wedding week turned out to be a stressful one--more so than most, I’d argue, for the specter of a hurricane that would pass nearby, a shuffling of plans last minute, and a number of people who were important to us not making the trip to steer clear of the storm. Just the same, the wedding itself--the ceremony and reception--went as well if not better than we could have expected. This dance marked a turning point for me in particular, the last piece I meaningfully had to remember or keep track of before relaxing for the rest of the event.

15. “Happy Birthday Guadalupe” by The Killers I came upon this Christmas song a year ago, so it wasn’t entirely new, but still relatively fresh to me in 2016, and the last track of the holiday playlist that I played and replayed throughout the month of December.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

On Concentrated Christmases

For eleven months out of the year, I do not listen to Christmas music, I do not watch Christmas movies, and I do not drink eggnog.

But once Thanksgiving passes, all of the above are fair game. Moreover, I feast upon them.

I’ll be the first to admit that the way in which I celebrate Christmas is arbitrary and more than a little silly. Plenty of folks balk at seeing Christmas displays in stores the day after Halloween, but I know of few others who both reject all things Christmas-related so vehemently for the length of November, and who so passionately embrace traditions, custom and cliché alike, after the fourth Thursday of that month has passed.

That’s me, though. With the onset of December, things don’t feel right if I haven’t propped up my crooked little fiber-optic Christmas tree in a corner of the living room. If I haven’t watched It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooged, Elf, Home Alone, and a handful of other films. If I haven’t listened to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “The Christians and The Pagans,” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” a couple dozen times each.

And I know that there’s a part of me that’s been programmed and scripted to adore such things. It’s the same part of me linked to shopping Black Friday sales online as much out practical deal hunting as out of a sense that this is what I should be doing. None of this holiday season hoopla, objectively, means anything. It’s a load of commercialized sentimentality plastered over one of the otherwise bleakest months of the year. It’s romanticizing the snow that I hate eleven months out of twelve, and recalling fires as warm and inviting rather than the stuff of primal humanity’s survival against the unforgiving cold.

But when my most cynical, disillusioned Grinch of a self starts to take control of my faculties--when I stop listening for sleigh bells and forego the eggnog in favor of a lower calorie beverage--I remind myself of why it all does matter to me.

I recall sitting on opposite ends of the basement couch with my sister, blankets over our laps, with stuffed animal dogs and bears and rabbits between us, as the pencils we used for school became the instruments with which we crafted our Christmas wish lists.

I remember biting into petit-four after petit-four around my grandmother’s kitchen table, watching Wheel of Fortune on an ten-inch black and white television, and the moment when the lot of us simultaneously solved the puzzle, “Dashing through the snow,” and went on to sing, “on a one horse open sleigh, over the hills we go, laughing all the way ho, ho, ho.”

I remember my de facto niece, Gianna, four years old, clutching the middle, ring, and pinky fingers of my left hand between her two tiny palms, pleading that she wanted to sit next to me at the table, and giggling when I picked her up to carry her to dinner.

I remember cramming altogether too many guests into my one bedroom Hampden apartment for a white elephant gift exchange, and thinking that having too many friends was about as nice of a Christmas problem as I was likely to have.

And I think that that’s why all of this jingle bell crock resonates with me to this day. Why I grow misty eyed each time George Bailey runs up the stairs and kisses his children, his wife, and his broken banister. Why I have trouble keeping my mind in the present when I hear the through the years, we all will be together. It’s not December 25, or the weeks leading up to it that matter. It’s this life, for which I could so easily, so regularly, lose myself in nostalgia, for all of these amazing people, and places, and things I’ve seen.

Concentrating this holiday fever into a single month keeps me from looking back too long, from spending too much money on presents, from letting all semblance of a reasonably fit grown up’s diet fall by the way side. But savoring it while it lasts--that month of December--reminds me of all of these pieces of me that still matter. People who have come and gone. People I have yet to meet.

And so, this December, I pour another glass of eggnog from its carton, warm it in the microwave and stir in a twist of Jack Daniel’s. I drink deeply. I am merry.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Laundry Room

I still remember laundry days when I was young.

Like so many processes in the house, including dishwashing and shoveling the driveway, my father was possessive over laundry out of a sense that no one else knew how to do it right.

At first blush, the absence of my having to do such banal chores sounds like a gift--that I had the luxury of having extra time for homework and extracurriculars and writing and reading and watching movies without these domestic responsibilities. But when the implicit commentary was that I was incapable of doing such things correctly, it made each of these chores simultaneously a rite of passage and the object of intimidation because I’d never really learned how to do them.

As a kid, I didn’t think much of laundry. The days simply came and went when my father stripped the sheets from the bed, removed the towels from the racks, emptied the hampers and started the loud, clunking laundry machines at the foot of the stairs in our raised ranch. Those stairs led directly to the front door and the moisture from the washer would fog its window. The whole house smelled of detergent. Always eager to save a buck, my father was reticent to run the dryer, and so in the days to follow, damp clothes would often hang from the shower curtain rod, and from kitchen chairs; socks and underwear would line the perimeter of laundry baskets sitting in the corners of rooms.

I went to camp packed with enough underwear, t-shirts, shorts, and socks so that I wouldn’t need to do laundry for the three weeks I was away.

In the late stages of junior high and into high school, I grew frustrated with how infrequently my father wanted to do laundry, forcing me to either wear my favorite shirts two or three times between washes, or to forego wearing them for weeks at a time. I grew jealous of a friend who wore the same red t-shirt and khakis at least three times a week and admitted to doing loads of laundry with just those two items of clothing so he could wear them over and over again.

I went off to college and like so many of my peers--particularly other young men--learned to wash my own clothes. In his typical fashion, my father had given me a theoretical lesson on measuring detergent into a machine, loading clothes, setting the temperature of the water and starting a washing machine, but the practice of actually doing so, like most mechanical operations, baffled me.

My first time in the college laundry room, another boy and I stood by the washing machines, clearly equally baffled. Fortunately, a young woman came downstairs to fetch her clothes from the dryer and guided us through the process.

And so I was off and running--laundry-independent, and I relished the opportunity to wash clothes on a weekly basis, and took advantage of the ostensibly free machines (the costs, assuredly, woven into housing fees) to machine dry each article of clothing. I grew familiar with the etiquette and common practices of such facilities. That contrary to suggestions we heard over orientation about thwarting thieves, no one waited in the laundry room while their clothes washed and dried. That if you left your clothes in the dryer too long after the dryer had stopped running, people would unload it for you--some of them neatly folding your clothes (in a way that was likely meant as a peace offering, though it always sketched me out to think who might be handling my delicates), some dumping them in a heap on top of the machine. That most polite folks afforded you a five-to-ten minute grace period before they unloaded for you, but others were impatient or in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered.

I considered all of this a part of my education, and a part of a broader thesis that college was not only about learning course content, but learning to live away from home and in other communities and to operate like a functioning adult. I lived in the dorms for three years and did my laundry in the basement in each location, then, in my first off-campus apartment, hefted my laundry basket outdoors to visit the laundry room in a neighboring building.

When I moved to Baltimore, I encountered another basement laundry room in which centipedes, spiders, and cockroaches the length of poker chips consistently wandered the floors and walls.

When I decided to move to Oregon and to move with Heather, we talked about what we wanted out of a living space. We agreed to start with two bedrooms so there would be doors to close when we each needed to work, and sheer space for our respective stuff. We agreed about not wanting to be on the ground floor, and not wanting to live anywhere too close to bars or Greek life that would be too loud.

And I prioritized having a washer and dryer in the apartment.

Having the washing facilities right inside our place may seem like a luxury, but I was tired of feeling the need to keep quarters on hand, make myself presentable, wander up and downstairs, and battle bugs just to wash my clothing. I wanted to stay. To do laundry at my leisure. Never to have to wait for a machine.

And I got my wish.

I came to take our washer and dryer for granted. Laundry still felt like a chore, and more often than not, I still ended up cramming it between the margins of things on the weekend.

Just the same, as I write about laundry, I suspect I’ll look back on these days fondly--as a period before I wasn't responsible for owning and maintaining laundry machines per se, but just the same didn’t need to leave the comfort of my apartment to use them.

And I suppose that’s the nature of chores. We think about them. Plan around them. Dread them. Endure them. But for all of this, they’re ultimately a necessary part of life.

I recall hearing the Jason Mraz song “Geek in the Pink” when I lived in Syracuse, and trying to espouse its enthusiastically delivered opening lyric, “It’s laundry day!” as anthem to gear up for the routine. But later, in Baltimore, I discovered a song that seemed to more genuinely represent what laundry was about--“Laundry Room” by The Avett Brothers. It’s a beautiful, layered song, juxtaposing (broken) love with the impossibly dull. One of my favorite lyrics:

Keep your clothes on,
I’ve got all that I can take.

I still listen to this song every now and again as I gather the sheets from the bed. As I fold and hang clothes once they’re clean and dry. And as absurd as it is to romanticize something so simple and domestic, I remember all of the different laundry rooms, family and friends that led me to that moment.

I am a breathing time machine,
I’ll take you all for a ride.