On being a fan.

In my more cynical moments, when considering the artist-creation continuum, I think the thing I’m best at, and that I should stick to, is being a fan. The one who consumes, digests, adores, cheers. Not a creator, not a critic, but simply a fan. Of course when I’m feeling more optimistic I hope I can be all three, that each role informs the other. Every writer I know constantly beats themselves up for not writing enough, for not trying as hard as they should be. We have such high hopes and standards and still, we’re never doing every single thing we could be doing. In fact, I just wrote an email with this closing line: i guess i didn’t write much this weekend :/ Being a fan is sometimes a relief. I know what to do and I’m good at it. I’m a completist, I’m a little obsessive, I like to tell people about the things I like.  These are all good qualities in a fan, and I sometimes wonder if I’ll grow out of my fangirlish tendencies, but I’m firmly ensconced in my thirties, and while I maybe don’t go to the same lengths I used to, that same urge is still there.


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Now You're Supposed to Miss Me

I wanted to write a post about the readings I’ve done in the past 2 weeks, and I’ll get around to it soon, but I’m feeling worded out right now and am instead posting an entry about mid-nineties nostalgia, a topic that is discussed in some form or another somewhere on the Internet on a weekly basis. I’m also currently working on a movie project set in that time frame. I should write about that sometime too! It’s still in its infancy, although Soraya and Chris have been working fantastically hard.

Here are my favourite articles I’ve read so far: Carl Wilson on The Gen-X Nostalgia Boom and Liz Barker’s I Hate All This Nevermind Nostalgia And Want To Die.

In all of this mid-nineties reminiscing, my thing is Canadian indie rock, the poppy, kind of twee, often lo-fi stuff that emerged mainly out of the Maritimes or Ontario (the bands in Ontario were the ones I was more likely to see at a Sunday afternoon all-ages show). I cut my teeth on these bands – a Sloan fanzine was my first zine, for instance. Wilson says in his article, “What is nostalgia good for, then? For one thing, it runs search-and-rescue missions against the disposability of consumer capitalism”, so on this evening where I don’t feel like typing many words, here is my personal search-and-rescue mission, my mid-nineties Canadian indie rock soundtrack, minus a few bands I didn’t have the heart to include (I’m looking at you, hHead) and yes, heavy on the Eric’s Trip side projects.

Oh youth, music with a little bit of fuzz, Canadian indie rock, etc.

Scrapbook #9: Repetition


My birthday is coming up, and the week around it is all flooded with music. I’ve already spent one evening watching Marie Chouinard’s bizarre and amazing modern dance interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice – all half naked, gyrating bodies and music composed more of singular sounds than songs – wails and bells and distorted lyre strums (thank you, Caro, for the ticket!). I’ll spend another night watching Anton Kuerti play songs on the piano (thank you, Andrew!) , and then another with the Pixies making their way through Surfer Rosa (thank you um, me!).

So I’m thinking about music and about getting older.

The other day I went searching for some songs I thought I’d lost on an old hard drive, but found other mp3s instead, these little, teeny tiny songs I wrote at the height of a time where I felt most serious about making music, not just listening to it, around 2001/2002. Listening to these songs was a like meeting an old friend I used to know well, but lost touch with for awhile.

The One That Got Away.mp3
(Click to listen in another window)

These songs are so strange to me! And embarrassing! I apologize for the painful hissiness of them, like they were recorded in a room with a tin roof on the rainiest day of the year. This was before the ease of digital recording, recorded on two-track cassette player and then painstakingly wired to a computer. Lo-fi still felt kind of charming back then.

All Those Years.mp3
(Click to listen in another window)

I wanted to write songs like Lee Hazlewood, full of heartbreak and regret and swagger, but these songs are nothing like Lee Hazlewood. I never really had the stamina or music vocabulary for songwriting, either – these barely scratch the 2 minute mark.

I Only Stay.mp3
(Click to listen in another window)

But I’m grateful to that younger version of myself who had the arrogance and the ego to commit these half-formed songs to tape. It’s a nice reminder from my 22 year old self to my (almost, practically) 32 year old self to do these kinds of things, even if they’re a little raw and out of tune. Also useful: my 30-something self plagiarized the lyrics from one of the songs in the novel I’m working on.

I remember learning how to play the guitar when I was 16, before I took any lessons or knew how to form chords, just sitting with a nylon stringed classical guitar and plucking out songs I knew note by note. The same songs, the same notes, repeated. And then I learned chords and soon my parents got a dial up connection and I would print out pages and pages of guitar tablature, punch holes in them and keep them in a fat green binder. All these songs I could play, a new kind of freedom.

There is something about playing music that feels, for me, like the most tangible expression of learning, like I can feel my brain processing, chugging along while I do it. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a brilliant musician – it’s too clunkily attached to my physical self; I can’t really noodle around or god forbid, jam. (Unless you need someone to play G and C chords over and over? Then I’m your girl.) Writing, on the other hand, is more mysterious. It comes from somewhere I don’t understand. For me music is comforting because it’s nice to know that dogged repetition is how I go from not being able to do something to being able to do it.

Junk shop in Vermont

I try to apply that principle to writing: repetition works. (I try to think this when I psych myself up about jogging too, but I’m still not there yet, probably because I can sit at home in my PJ’s to play the guitar, but have to get dressed, wear running shoes, go out into the world, etc. if I want to run. Laziness sometimes trumps other pleasures, and the older I get the more I’m okay with that.) But still, the act of doing the same thing over and over makes that thing, whatever it is, easier, and I also know that the more I remind myself of that, the more I’m likely to believe it.

Greece update #5 – Lykavittos Hill

Lykavittos (or Lykabettus) Hill as viewed from the Acropolis

Someone in our block of apartment buildings is waging a war against the neighbourhood. His weapon of choice is a recording of maniacal laughter that lasts approximately 20 seconds and then ends with a cheery woo woo! This person, whoever he is (we refer to the culprit as a he, but don’t know for sure) plays this recording randomly throughout the day, sometimes in 15 minute stretches, play and repeat, ad nauseum. Everyone generally ignores it, but recently he’s taken to playing it late into the night, and at two in the morning, his neighbours aren’t as forgiving. The cops have been called twice and we don’t quite understand why they can’t do anything about it, but usually it escalates into amazing screaming matches, everyone spouting off their opinions from their respective balconies. So far this mysterious man always has the last (recorded) laugh.

Lycabettus Hill
View from Lykabettus (by Andrew)

A few days ago we walked from Kypseli to the top of Lykavittos Hill. It’s the highest point in Athens and a fairly popular tourist destination, but at dusk it’s not overrun. It’s peaceful, actually, and quiet. No car horns honking or creepy recordings of evil laughter. You can get a drink at the bar or you can simply sit near the church and marvel at the view of Athens from the top of the hill, an impossible tangle of squat buildings interrupted by the occasional splotch of green park, the sea way off in the distance.

Lycabettus Theatre

We returned a few days later for a different reason. At the last minute we’d purchased tickets to see Rufus Wainwright play at the Lykabettus Theatre. Neither of us were huge fans, but we had a hunch that the atmosphere would be perfect for live music. The first half was a performance of Rufus’s latest album, a song cycle that included him slowly marching onstage wearing a 17 foot feathery cape. Visuals were projected on a screen behind him and the audience wasn’t allowed to clap between songs. Something about the constant stream of music and the night sky made it easy to sink into the songs.

The second half was my favourite. He emerged (sans cape), this time chatty and charming, playing older material. For his finale he covered one of his mother’s songs. Kate McGarrigle passed away from cancer in January, and watching him play was intensely moving. “The Walking Song” is a love song Kate wrote for Louden Wainwright. It’s the sweetest song, despite the fact that their marriage ended horribly. The bittersweetness of that combined with Rufus singing it as a tribute to his mother while still obviously grieving her death was powerful. There weren’t many dry eyes around, at least not in our little corner of the amphitheater.

The show ended after midnight and we shuffled out quietly.We walked back down the hill and found a taverna with hanging vines in the courtyard and ate eggplant imam and roast pork with mushrooms and drank white wine and decompressed. One of my favourite things about Greece is that you can wander into any restaurant after midnight and there’s not a question whether or not they’ll still be serving dinner. Of course they are. A stray dog also showed up and he must’ve been a regular because the owners had a little baggie of saved leftover food for him. When we left we saw that they’d also given him water in his own little glass.It was magical, the whole night. By the time we arrived back home, Kypseli was silent, that rare window in the middle of the night when most people are dreaming, too sleepy to make noise and terrorize their neighbours.

Short films, big questions

I was feeling a little overwhelmed today – too much stuff to do these days – and after running a bunch of errands in the evening, Andrew convinced me that we should get out of the house for awhile. So, we checked out a screening of the 2008 Oscar nominated Best Animated and Best Live Action short films at the Cinema du Parc. I haven’t had the chance to watch prior years’ nominees, but, give or take a film or two, the 2008 batch dealt with the big issues of Life And Death: an older person reflecting back on their life, someone on the brink of death reflecting back on their life, someone placed in a new situation and reflecting back on their life. You can definitely pack a punch in the gut in two to thirty minutes of film. It was a little exhausting.

These were my favourites:

La Maison En Petits Cubes (Pieces of Love, Vol 1), Japan, 2008, Dir. Kunio Kato: This animated short was beautiful – a kind of scratchy, painted animation – about an old man living in a heavily flooded area. Every time the water level rises, he builds another floor on his house, resulting in a cubist Habitat 67 esque tower. He takes a scuba diving trip to retrieve a dropped item, and as he descends deeper into his house, he relives moments from his life. It’s the kind of movie that made even Andrew a little weepy. I hope this one wins Best Animated.

In the Live Action category, I can’t pick between two. New Boy (Ireland, Dir. Steph Green) is based on a Roddy Doyle short story about a young African immigrant starting school in Ireland. It’s only 11 minutes long, but the film feels way more substantive than that. The children acting in this are fantastic. It makes me wonder if short stories are the best form of literature to adapt into films – there’s just so much more space to work with (i.e. think of “Secretary” or “Brokeback Mountain”). Auf Der Strecke (On the Line) (Germany, Switzerland. 2007. Dir.: Reto Caffi) is almost 3 times longer than New Boy, which allows it to incorporate more ambiguity and a longer story arc. It’s about a department story security guard who spies on a bookstore employee. He regularly “accidentally” boards the metro with her because he can see when she’s leaving work, which eventually leads to his bizarre and sad involvement in a tragic part of her life. There’s a scene where he overhears her discussing Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”, and then buys a copy for himself to impress her. You see him flipping through the book and creasing it up to make it look like he’s actually read it. He should’ve read it! It’s a fantastic book.

Anyway, I’m curious to see who wins on Sunday. As for my other Oscar picks, all I want is for Mickey Rourke to win Best Actor for The Wrestler. Everything else, whatever. Oh, and Heath too, but that’s a given, isn’t it?

ETA: So, my favourite for best animated short won. Yay! My favourite for best live action short did not. Boo! And Mickey Rourke sadly did not win Best Actor, thus denying the TV audience of a repeat of a speech like the one he gave at the Independent Spirit Awards. Double boo.

The intersection of writing workshops and Okkervil River

I’m having a bit of a music crisis these days (hence the embarrassingly unupdated music blog). I shuffle through songs on my Ipod and hardly anything feels right except for the following: Okkervil River’s “The Stand Ins”, anything by the Pixies and “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. It’s weird. I wasn’t into the Pixies as a teenager or even an early twenty-something. But then Andrew and I listened to them a lot over Christmas holidays and I guess something clicked. And I don’t know why that Bob Dylan album is the one that’s doing it for me, but it is. I suppose the Okkervil River fascination is the least strange, although I’ve overdosed on their other albums and can only stand to listen to this one. Particularly the song “Starry Stairs”, mainly for the way Will Sheff sings the phrase “I’m alive/ but a different kind of alive/ than the way I used to be”. I don’t know, there’s something about it. I like it.

The first creative writing workshop I took was in my second year at the University of Toronto, and it was an awkward little class. We weren’t very chatty and we never really bonded with each other. I can imagine that our professor felt like he was pulling teeth; we were so tentative. The stories I wrote for the class weren’t very good, but they were the first “serious” stories I wrote, so I was defensive about them. The class was kind (or at least, not very verbose) and I escaped unscathed, but I do remember the really sweet girl who wrote a story about the death of a pet. It was maybe the only time we banded together to tear something apart. She started crying, and we realized that it was autobiographical. Shit. My childhood pet Snowball had also recently died and I felt awful – I knew how she was feeling! I lent her a Red House Painters CD, the one where Mark Kozelek has a song about his cat. I’m sure she thought I was weird when I pressed it upon her. Anyway, the point is that, other than the cat incident, the thing I remember most clearly about the class is that the professor distributed “Okkervil River” to us to read together, the short story by Tatyana Tolstaya and it was one of my favourite things I read that year. So years later, when I learned about the band Okkervil River, I figured they could only be good. And they are.

Here’s a live version of “Starry Stairs”

And, how wonderful, a clip of Will Sheff reading Tatyana Tolstaya’s story: http://daytrotter.com/bookery/1471/okkervil-river-bookery