Personal

Personal

Introducing The Geekdown Podcast

Sometime in 2014, the Doctor Who relaunch hit Canadian Netflix. To that point my only familiarity with the show was a vague recollection of being terrified as a child when that creepy theme music started playing after Polka Dot Door ended on TVOntario. But with the 2009 reboot, and especially David Tennant’s turn as the Tenth Doctor, the show became a sort of phenomenon in my circle of friends, specifically with young women I knew who never expressed any tendency to nerdery before. So I made an effort to check it out.

And I hated it.

I could spot the reasons why I hated it (the camp, the mugging, the threadbare special effects), but every so often I saw what others saw in it: when the Ninth Doctor inadvertently stumbled on The Last Dalek in the Universe and proceeded to taunt and torture it, I thought I was all in. By the time the Tenth Doctor was fighting werewolves with Queen Victoria the next season, I was throwing up my hands. And I was troubled by what I seemed to be missing. Of course no one has to like everything, but this was something of “my people,” and I felt lacking because I couldn’t get over whatever was keeping me from just enjoying it. It couldn’t be the space travel, I loved Star Trek: TNG. It couldn’t be the time travel, I loved Back to the Future as much as any eighties baby. Was it the Britishness? I grew up loving American superheroes and Japanese anime (still do). Did my fandom fall along nationalist lines? I took these concerns to my friend Caitlin, one of the aforementioned young women who loved Doctor Who, from well before its 21st Century reboot. We never really reached an answer, but I never stopped thinking about this idea that Caitlin and I were both nerds/geeks/dorks, but in completely different ways. Surely our fandoms had to overlap somewhere?

And that’s when Geekdown was born. Every Tuesday, Caitlin and I will bring each other things from our various areas of interest, things the other likely wouldn’t check out, and talk about whether we like it, and why or why not, as we try to find the sweet spot where fandoms intersect.

There will also likely be high levels of nonsense, of the sort that only good friends of five-plus years can provide.

Subscribe to Geekdown on iTunes and Soundcloud.

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All In

Back when I was playing in the band, occasionally friends who knew me outside of the group would ask what I got out of the experience. I was never shy to point out that I rarely listened to the sort of proggish-metal we composed and performed in my personal life, Tool/A Perfect Circle and the odd System of a Down track being the occasional outliers. The response I would always give is that the simple explanation behind my musical preferences is likely no different than anyone else’s, I just require music to make me feel something. When I was striving to be the loudest thing onstage with three of my closest friends, that made me feel transcendent; when I listened to 90’s-era Manic Street Preachers I felt invincible; when I heard Sam Cooke I felt longing but never lonely.

You could argue I experience emotion a little more acutely than others (while being simultaneously oblivious to the feelings of those around me. It’s a process), I don’t think I’m unique in what I want out of music. We all have our artists that we cherish more than others because they strum that string in our souls that can be guaranteed to instantly summon a certain feeling. But it’s important to reiterate as I investigate how I became the guy who wrote a book on J Dilla and became totally enthralled with a Japanese girl group in the same year.

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Greendale Saved

It’s just a silly TV show. Some gags and some chucklery once a week by a smart and talented cast and crew.

So why has news that Yahoo! has saved my beloved Community from the brink of extinction yet again filled me with such elation? Is it because Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna are returning to run things? Is it because Donald Glover seems to be finding his smile again after a year of touring and expressed a willingness to bring closure to the story of Troy Barnes? Is it because one half of the prophecy contained in a throwaway line from Season 2 will be fulfilled? Yes to all, but also more.

Community has always been, in many ways, a show about failure, about characters who couldn’t function, or gambled and lost as they stumble back to solid ground. The victories, when they come at all, are tiny and fleeting, a truth mirrored by the show’s history. Renewals tempered with shorter episode orders, no scheduled premiere dates  midseason hiatuses. When it did make the air it was put in a punishing time slot facing down the Chuck Lorre twin-ratings-behemoth of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two shows it could never really compete with because it was too busy gleefully jumping up its own ass. It almost seemed poetic that the show would die brushing its fingertips trying to reach the improbably prophesied sixth season.

But for those of us who love the show, who really love it, with the sort of all-encompassing passion usually reserved for Whovians or Browncoats, the show speaks to us because we recognize the struggle. Maybe we gambled and lost, too. Maybe we took the long way around to discovering why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do. As Jeff Winger says to the Dean after his bout of insanity while producing a TV commercial for the school, “We’ve all been there. Which is why we’re all here.”

And there will be many who bemoan that the show was never the same after the “Gas Leak Year” of Season 4, and the losses of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover. That it never regained its spirit even after Harmon returned, that it felt tired and out of ideas and should be left to die. And they can feel free to lean back with their arms folded and a smirk on their mugs. Yesterday I might have agreed with them, but it would only be to soften the loss I was feeling. From now until next spring, I just don’t have it for them. This isn’t refusing to let go of a notion the show may have outgrown, I don’t think Harmon’s the sort to do something he didn’t want to do, even if it was to honour the fans. If he didn’t think he had any stories to tell, he would walk. It’s a silly little TV show, but despite everything going against it, it’s still kicking. And so are we.

Darkest timeline averted, Human Beings.

Graining on That Wood

Five years ago I sat in a Starbucks in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, pulled out my then-girlfriend’s burdensome six-pound Dell laptop and started a WordPress blog. I named it after something I’d had scrawled on a white board in my apartment, something I thought might have ended up the title of my first story collection.

Poetry for Gravediggers was my fifth blog, and my first after being downsized as the ‘Online Editor’ of The University of Windsor’s Lance newspaper. Freed from the demands of mandated content creation, I had a surplus of time on my hands and no receptacle in which to dump my ramblings. So I started this.

This is some of what I wrote on May 28, 2009:

“Maybe you got away from your city, eager for the opportunities for reinvention such a move would afford you.  Maybe most other aspects of your life are happy.  But that need to tell stories never really goes away, does it?  Whether retelling truth or crafting your lies, stories have strong roots, you can never fully pull that need out of you. So you start writing your little stories again.

And if you’re like me, you fail. A lot.  You don’t finish. You despise every word that goes on the page, you question the sanity of anyone who ever had faith in your “talents.”  You get irritable with family, coworkers, friends and lovers.

And if you’re like me, you probably get sick of feeling like that.  So maybe you decide to take some of the skills you picked up when you weren’t writing, and use them to keep  you motivated as you try to make something of yourself, because your thirtieth birthday is already fading behind you and you finally understand that no one is going to make it happen for you.

So maybe, you start a blog.

This site is for me, as I call the bluff of adolescent mentors and supporters; we’ll see if you were right.”

Yesterday morning Okayplayer, a site I’ve read off and on long before I started this site, posted a lengthy and complimentary review of my first book.

You could say it’s been an eventful five years. My then-girlfriend became my ex-girlfriend, I moved to a significantly less-fancy Toronto neighbourhood than Rosedale (as ice cream truck jingles and sires waft through my window) and somehow instead of getting any short stories out into the world I messed around and became a non-fiction writer.

And suddenly this blog  shifts from chronicling ‘How I Got Over’ to ‘How I Stay On.’ One of the best things I ever heard was from the songwriter Mike Doughty when someone asked him why he finally decided to write a book about his time in the 90’s alt-hop band Soul Coughing. He said the reason he did was because someone called his bluff: he’d been saying he should write a book for so long someone finally handed him a little money and said, ‘So go do it.’ And that’s terrifying, because, as Doughty said, if you actually try, if you put yourself out there, you lose the comfort of being an undiscovered genius. It’s a comfort I enjoyed a lot over the last five years. And now I don’t have it anymore, which is good, if unsettling.  I’ve heard it enough that the fear of failure is really just the fear of success, and I finally know what that means. Because now that I’ve achieved some infinitesimal measure of success (I’ve almost stopped shuddering when I refer to myself as a “writer,” which is huge if you know me), I have to do it again. Which I really have no idea how to do, judging from the wall of silence that greets me after I get introduced to editors by mutual friends.

Which is kind of….great?  I recently pointed out to a new acquaintance that I have zero connection to the literary community of this city, not out of any aversion to meeting them, I’m just socially awkward and keep weird hours to pay the bills, so don’t have much of an opportunity. But part of me likes being an unknown quantity who came out of nowhere. Part of me likes that whatever small ripple my book’s announcement made in the community was essentially, “Wait, who?!” Or, to quote that unsung poet, Miguel: “I’ll do it all without a co-sign.”

So what does that mean? Part of it means refocus on the next book (pitch being refined daily) double down on posting around here, make connections when I can but don’t relentlessly network to the detriment of the real work.

In 2009 I wrote a post reviewing two volumes of the 33 1/3 series. Five years later,I have my name on one. This blog may have fulfilled the promise it was created for, but its purpose never ends.

And we won’t stop.

Cause we can’t stop.

 

On Alistair MacLeod

Considering the book launching this week will likely lead to an influx of traffic around here, I should probably keep the proceedings hip-hop-centric, but I’ll have to go outside my primary demo for a moment here.

Sad literary news today as we learned the award-winning Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod passed away at age 77, likely due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered last January. I find myself surprised at how taken aback I am by the loss.

I had the good fortune of taking one of MacLeod’s classes on the Early Romantics during my undergraduate studies at the University of Windsor. I am not unique in this regard, he must have taught hundreds if not thousands of students during the four decades he was on the Faculty. I found him a charming and engaging teacher, prone to interrupting his lectures to chat with a pigeon who’d flown onto the windowsill of our classroom in Dillon Hall. He also had a disconcerting habit of breaking into coughing fits that would turn his entire head the a shade of red so deep we would glance at each other with brows furrowed, kids who barely knew each other looking for someone to take the lead and call for medical help. But he always shook it off and went right back into his lecture on The Castle of Otranto without missing a beat, leaving us to roll our eyes in relief like, ‘Can you believe this guy?

But more than any of that, what I always appreciated him for was knowing me.

I maintain I was an unexceptional teenager but I’d managed to stake a small reputation as ‘The Writing Kid’, the one who always put on a show of scribbling bad poetry into a journal during study period to make it seem as though I was deliberately keeping other people away from me.  It was a good gimmick, it served me well.

When I got to university, majoring in English because I didn’t really know what else I could do with any degree of success, I became one of hundreds of ‘Writing Kids’ many of whom were far more adept at self promotion than I was, so I set about the business of staying unnoticed. I met few people and made fewer friends during my time there, I walked through campus like a ghost.

One afternoon I had to drop something off at the Department Office (I had a habit of skipping class to finish papers and leaving them for the professor before the end of the business day). I admit I was creeping a bit, wandering the hallways of Chrysler Hall North, reading the bulletin boards and single-panel comics on the office doors (English Major Gangs: “What’s the word on the street, Johnny?” “Hermeneutics.”), fascinated by this world running parallel to mine that I was ostensibly a part of but felt no membership in, when he rounded the corner.

“Ah, hello!” he said. I think I may have actually jerked my head around to make sure he was talking to me.
“Uhm…Good afternoon, Dr. MacLeod.”
“I’m just coming back to grade your fun papers!” He was always calling our assignments “fun papers,” in that east coast baritone of his.
“Heh, ah, I hope you think mine was fun after you read it,” I stammered awkwardly.
“Oh yes, yes, you do well, don’t you? Where’s your friend, the young lady with the..” he pointed at the corner of his eye. He meant my then-girlfriend, who had a habit of taking Crayola stamps and applying them along her lower eyelid. Be nice, it was the 90’s.
“Oh, she’s gone home. I’m just waiting for my ride to finish his class, and had to drop something for Dr. Atkinson.”
“Ah, I see. Well have a fine evening, I should have your fun papers back for you on Monday.”
“Thanks, Dr. MacLeod. I’ll see you next week.”

Such a boring and pedestrian exchange. Nothing he would ever have remembered. One could make the case that I’m trying to take some inconsequential encounter with a recently deceased person of note and inflate it with meaning but trust, that’s not what this is.  I’ve never forgotten that five-minute chat we had in the hallway of the English Department. That’s why I’ve always been so proud to tell people he taught me once, not because he was this titan of Canadian fiction, winner of the most lucrative literary prize in the world (The IMPAC Dubin Award, won in 2001 for No Great Mischief), but because he took the time to see a confused, angry, directionless kid and speak to him as an equal, when I thought it was my mandated role in life to remain invisible. I will always remain grateful to him for that.

Rest in peace.

The Pitch

During my trip back to the Windsor area last Christmas, my father got a call from a childhood friend, someone I vaguely remembered having visited us once when I was younger, but not anyone I thought my father still communicated with. They didn’t talk long, but from where I was reading the paper at the kitchen table, I could hear him on the phone in the basement rattling off the state of the family: Cousin 1 just had a baby and has turned into quite the sailor; Cousin 2 took a job as a news reporter in a big city; Cousin 3 is graduating journalism school this year and thinks he might look for a government gig, since J-schools produce far more graduates than there are jobs. Then there was a pause.

“Oh, no, no he’s here. About a week. Uhh, well he lives in Toronto now, working for [redacted]. It’s not a particularly high paying job, but he likes living in Toronto, I guess. You know my brother [redacted] had some health issues there for a while…”

And that was it. My cousins all had lives worth talking about at length, but his only son works a low-paying job and lives in Toronto. No mention of crossing the one thing I never thought I would ever do off of my life’s list of ambitions. Remember this if you think having your name on a book spine will change your life in any meaningful way.

But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

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Step Right Up

If you were to guess that the flurry of activity around here lately had to do with me getting the itch again now that the draft has finally left my grubby hands and flown overseas to people like designers and copy editors, you would be correct.

You don’t need me to tell you that writing is like running, or weight lifting or whatever other questionable endurance sport you might partake in. Use it or lose it, and I took my damn sweet time recovering from the process of writing the book (Level 56 on Grand Theft Auto Online, email me for my Gamertag. Get at me, dog). But then ideas for things to write about start to percolate and the longer they stay in there the longer they fester until the process of expelling them from my brain is lacklustre and disappointing. Not unlike passing a bowel movement.

As for how I’m feeling now that it’s out of my hands, the wonderful Julieanne Smolinski summed up that feeling with more precision than I ever could.

Yup.

None of this is to say I’ve been completely slovenly the last couple of months. I continue musing about whatever nerdery comes to mind over at 22 Pages for the University of Toronto (latest are here and here) and I also branched out a tad by tossing some pieces to the folks over at The Same Page on, oddly enough, the 40th Birthday of Hip-Hop and the release of Grand Theft Auto V (do you think I’m developing a niche here?)

As well, my friends and colleagues at 22 Pages Khaiam Dar and Alex Correa have collected the first volume of the webcomic they started in 2011, Smells Like Maturity. If you’re in the Toronto area, swing by Red Nails II at Jane and Bloor for their release party on November 15. I wrote the introduction, so if you’re a Ferguson completist, you’ll want to pick that up. Writing it turned out to be a bigger deal than I was expecting it to be, but I’m really happy with the piece, and for the opportunity to toast those two jerks on the occasion of making their longtime dream come true. Of course they’d release their book six months before mine comes out.

So that’s what I’m staying up to, friends. It’s a moment of respite from book madness as it moves to the production phase, but I’m sure you’ll be inundated with Dilla-related content as the book nears release. For the moment, I’m just enjoying the relative peace and trying to figure out how to stumble my way into being a quote-unquote “writer” instead of someone who wrote a book once.

Kind of weird to think now about how that struggle is what this blog was meant to document in the first place. .

Accepting the Snobbery

At the time, I thought it was a silly question.

Back in the summer my editors at Bloomsbury asked me to do a little interview for their website, all of the authors in my “class” were doing it, a way to introduce ourselves, talk about the albums we were writing about, what we were trying to bring to the table. By the time my turn was up, I started to get this itch like I wanted to jazz it up, do something new, not because I thought the interviews were getting repetitive, but because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. So I asked the editors if I could throw together a video instead.  It was fun, I always like flexing those muscles, even if I did blatantly rip off the rhythms and style of a million other video bloggers.

One of the later questions in the interview concerned how I listen to my music: vinyl, CDs or MP3. At the time I said that as much as I enjoyed spending an afternoon flipping through stacks of records, living in a bachelor apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood presents certain realities of storage space (not to mention the financial barriers) so most of my music had to live on my laptop.

A few weeks later I was back in my hometown staying at my parents’ house. The plan was to get out of the city, to the peace and quiet of small town living where I wouldn’t have as many distractions and could bang out the first terrible draft of the book, spending the rest of the month tweaking and polishing. I packed a gift I had received for my birthday the previous year, a copy of Donuts on vinyl. My folks had a turntable and I was curious to see if I’d hear anything different in the album in that format. Donuts is intentionally constructed as one continuous piece of music, meant for a compact disc. Listening to it on vinyl adds an entirely different dimension to it because the listener has to change the record every five tracks or so. None of this ended up in the book, but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.

The draft didn’t really get done while I was down there. In all honesty, it was one of the worst trips home I’ve ever had. In addition to opting for the couch instead of my father’s bed, which had been known to give me backaches (the couch gave me worse backaches) I also received some upsetting information of a personal nature that put me in a panic for most of the week. The plan was to wake up early every day, shower and coffee by 9.00 and put in a solid workday of bashing out pages.  That happened maybe once. The rest of the time I was texting friends, emailing colleagues for advice or lying on the floor and generally trying to avoid things in any way possible.

This is where I fell in love with vinyl again.

As later documented on Instagram, I spent an evening rooting around my parents’ crawlspace and digging through their record collection. It was filled with what one would expect to find in crates belonging to white people of a certain age: Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Journey, some disco, a little new wave. I grabbed a stack of LPs known and unknown and took them out to the stereo. My father’s had all of the same equipment for as long as I can remember, so even the act of turning it on was nostalgic and wistful: the chirp as I flicked the power switch on the receiver, the clicks of the levers on his old Dual turntable as the tone arm lifted and positioned itself at the edge of the disc, the pop and crackle through the speakers. There wasn’t much that made me feel good on that trip, but that evening I spent sitting cross-legged in front of my father’s stereo, as I had as a child and teenager was a happy moment. I started thinking it would be cool to have a turntable in the house. Back when I lived with a woman, we talked once about how cool it would be to take the CDs, rip them to a hard drive, sell them, then buy the essential, desert island discs on vinyl.

It’s an idea that never really went away, I just figured it would be too much of an investment. When you start digging through websites about this sort of thing, people will have you convinced that a minimum of 500 bucks is the minimum investment required to  really hear the nuances of the recordings and blah blah puke.

Last weekend I took a stack of birthday money and bought an Audio-Technica LP60. Cost me a hundred bucks. I’m running it through my iPhone dock. I couldn’t be happier.

Cause you see, what I was reminded of back at my folks’ house, what I had forgotten in recent years, is how vinyl forces you to really connect with a piece of music. When I’m walking the streets with my headphones on, I’m constantly skipping through tracks. Three hundred songs on my phone, I don’t want to hear any of them. You probably do the same thing. And walking the street or riding the train is the place for that. Thing with vinyl, though? I put that record on, I’m stuck with it. I have to listen to it. Sure I could skip songs or swap out the record, but that’s a pain in the ass. Putting on a record has forced me to reconnect with music in a way I think I’d maybe forgotten about.

What’s also fun about all this is how little I care for the ancillary concerns that fuel most other collectors. I’m coming at this as a fan, not an audiophile. An audiophile would see my setup and laugh me out of my own house (foremost among the reasons why, in my investigations at least, “audiophiles” are the worst). I don’t give a shit about original or Japanese pressings. I’m only buying albums I consider classics. I’ll get to my hip-hop essentials eventually, but at the moment I’m into soul, funk and jazz. I’m not really into 45s because they seem too disposable to me. I know I should splurge on the 180g  reissues, but I love a record that feels like it has some history. When shopping last weekend, I had to choose between the remaster of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or a cheaper copy in a dingy, weathered sleeve. Of course I chose the latter.

I’m giddy with the excitement of having a new obsession. I love drafting my wishlist in my head, I love the idea of heading out to the shops in this city, looking for the cheapest copies I can find. Comic books were probably the last thing that gave me a similar sense of meditative peace (sad as that is), but comics could only be found at comic shops. You can find records everywhere. I love the fact that you can spend 10 bucks on a used record and feel like you really bought something. CDs never made me feel like that. I love that the Donny Hathaway album I bought had a gatefold with liner notes by Nikki Giovanni.

Mostly, I just love feeling like a music fan again.