The Rest of the Best of 2016

Favorite Moments of 2016

1. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Being in Wrigleyville during the series. Being at the parade. Pure emotion. Being with Jordan when they won. Eamus Catuli switching to all zeroes. Not quite giving up hope when it seemed all but over MULTIPLE times. Continuing to ride that wave.

Katie Nixon and I near the seventh largest gathering in human history.

2. Meeting Bruce Springsteen the day before my birthday. Also, his show at United Center on August 28. Magic in the night.

3. The Hold Steady: Reunite with Franz Nicolay, play a bunch of really awesome shows behind my favorite album of all time. The Frenchkiss reissues of AKM and Sep Sunday. Lifter Puller twice in one year, including the opportunity to stand on stage at Red Rocks. Denver meh, Chicago good and New York was wonderful but I could have done without the concussion. Great openers: Titus Andronicus, Laura Stevenson (so nice!) and Lifter Puller. Nights go on forever and guitars are cool.

4. Nashville visits, March-August (Just a few: recording in the Third Man Booth, all the food, Infinity Cat House, Doom, Tim buys a guitar, City Winery, meeting Daddy Issues and Diarrhea Planet, and pretty much everyone that made my time there awesome.)

Hanging with Emmett and Evan from Diarrhea Planet.

5. More travel: Austin, TX trip with my Mom. Hanging in Boston and candlepin bowling with some of my best people and Vineyard Youth in Pawtucket, RI. Additionally, anyone who came to visit me and had a good time.

6. Health and wellness: PRing my third 5K on the October 30 Hot Chocolate Run. Exercising regularly for the first time in my life. Reading the most books this year than I’ve read in a decade.

7. Personal: Getting the opportunity to write for Men’s Journal and interviewing Dolph Ziggler, Chad Gable, Hot Doug and Andrew Wyslotsky.

My team beat his in the World Series. I ain’t sorry.


8. Wrestling: American Alpha winning the NXT and WWE Smackdown Tag Team titles in the same year (all of the great wrestling this year, seriously.) Owens and Zayn at Payback in a total mindblower. Zayn and Nakamura at Takeover Dallas. DIY and Revival at Takeover Toronto. Meeting Jerry Lawler randomly in Memphis inside his restaurant and being able to tell him we shared a birthday.

9. Food: Qui, Parachute, Rolf and Daughters, Husk, Mitchell’s Delicatessen, Maketto, Pinewood Social, Row 34, Mission Chinese and a ton I’m missing.

10. Trash Pandas releases two EP’s and having involvement in them. They make me laugh and proud I did a thing that’s out in the world.

Shows

I saw 37 shows this year. Take a look.

Everything I Listened To

I made a playlist for every month this year of everything I listened to individually (excluding albums). Check it out.

Getting Up Seems Impossibly Grand

With the year in its final days, I’m giving some last thoughts to all of the amazing stuff I’ve been able to do this year.

I saw the Rolling Stones. Ate amazing food. Went to more live professional wrestling shows than I’d like to admit to. I even learned to appreciate certain types of mayonnaise.

But that’s nothing, really. I don’t think there’s anything I’m more proud of this year than getting back on an airplane for the first time in almost five years.

It wasn’t always like this. My first flight was at two-and-a-half weeks old in December 1985 when my mother took me to New Jersey. My grandmother was terminally ill and it was one of the few opportunities she’d have to meet me before she passed.

The first I remember was another trip out east a few years later. My mom surprised me after a day trip on a Metra train in preschool. When she went to pick me up, she asked; “Do you want to take an airplane too?” She had packed my bag and we went straight to the airport. I remember sitting in the window seat staring out the window, looking at the ground below and wondering where the adventure would take us. Taking a plane was always something special. We didn’t do it all too often, but when we did, it was always very exciting. Little did I know that some people I knew didn’t have that opportunity until they were older.

But when I turned 21, it changed in an instant. On another trip out to New Jersey (I apparently don’t go anywhere else), I was with friends that were several rows in front of me. I’d never been by myself where someone I knew wasn’t arms length of me on a plane. The anxiety started to build. The sensation of takeoff – what seemed like a ceaseless climbing feeling was unbelievably intense. Every synapse fired. I gripped the armrests and my palms sweat. Slight turbulence was heartstopping. I have no idea how I got there and back. I managed to fly two more round trips the following year, and after that, September 28, 2008 would be the last time I’d get on a plane for four-and-a-half years.

I’m positive that after that flight I didn’t actively decide to stop flying, but after abruptly canceling a plane trip that December it started to come into focus that it wasn’t going to happen.

After that, I wove an artful tapestry of excuses and devised alternate routes of travel to get me where I wanted to go. Oddly enough, these were the most active travel years of my life so far, as I saw The Hold Steady perform nearly fifty times in cities across the United States and Canada. I’d carpool with friends, take Amtrak or make creative and elaborate Megabus itineraries. One time I even took a 40-hour train trip from Chicago to Spokane where my friend from Vancouver picked me up, and then we drove the eight hours back to Vancouver. On the way home, I took the same train back, only to stop in Minneapolis before taking another bus ride. It was not for the faint of heart.

For that first year it was easy to say that my travel-by-ground scheme was cheaper since we were going to so many cities in such a short time to see one band. But after that, it was a hinderance. It became an avoidance of a very obvious fear. I was openly admitting I didn’t like to fly. It was a way of life. In 2010, I moved to New York. Every time I came home it was a 20-hour Amtrak ride. Once was in a car, but the trip was cut down only by a few hours. I had lost touch of the problem. I’d lost the feeling of what it was like to be up there. All that was left was bad memories and a lot of wasted time.

In retrospect, this was a relatively innocuous personal issue. By 2011, my health took a serious downturn. I was also deeply depressed and made the decision to return to Chicago and seek help. The first six months of my illness were the most difficult. I was very paranoid and fixated on fears that had no bearing on my current situation. A major focus point? You may have already guessed.

Flying.

At this time, I was unemployed and spent most of my time watching reruns of “The Wonder Years”. That was most of my day. If I wasn’t doing that, I would be thinking about flying. If I could do it again. If I could go anywhere, really. I wasn’t much for leaving the house at that point either. I knew it was time to go back into therapy.

After spending most of that year learning how to refocus and deal with my issues in a proper manner, I started to focus on smaller issues and knew in my heart it was time to face my fears. I had bought a ticket to WrestleMania in November, and by the time it came in April, I wanted to be on a plane to New York to get there.

It helped that my Mom would be joining me on the flight because her sister lives nearby in New Jersey. So, I wouldn’t be alone. My therapist and I strategized about what exercises I could use to preoccupy myself when I got on the plane. I have never told anyone about this, but I watched videos on YouTube of people secretly recording takeoff so I could remember what it sounded and looked like. Lastly, I got a low-dose prescription to help settle my nerves and curb a potential anxiety attack.

April 3, 2013 came quickly. I remember waking up very calm. No real nerves. As we rode to the airport, I sat quietly and stared out the window, and noticed a plane in the sky. I realized that would be me in a few short hours. It was here. It was happening. No turning back now.

We sat at our gate for what felt like forever. As we boarded, I remarked how little room there was between rows of seats. It seemed so much more compact than I remembered. Soon after, the plane taxied down the runway and time stopped. The moment was here. The rumble began, it moved forward. I stared out at the ground, and almost effortlessly, we were in that “precipice between groundlessness and flight”, as Ani DiFranco once said. I was in disbelief until I saw Allstate Arena below me out of a window on the opposite side of the plane. It was over. I was in the sky.

It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to do something that absolutely terrifies you. The moment you cross through that passage is like nothing else on this Earth. It’s a revelation. Any construct you have immediately crumbles. It empowers you. You’ve conquered it.

I’ve flown three more times this year – home from New York and a round trip to San Francisco. For the most part, it’s been fine. Flying takes you places you could never go any other way. Or maybe that it’s simply convenient and time-saving. There’s many ways to look at it.

For me? I suppose I’ll be staring out the window, looking at the ground below and wondering where the adventure will take me.

My Top Ten Events of 2013

By far, 2013 was my most active year in terms of the number of different events I’ve attended. Here are my favorites.

1. The National at Riverside Theatre (Milwaukee, WI) – August 5, 2013

The National are all about subtlety – until you see them live. It’s entirely different than what you hear when you play one of their records. While those brood, crest and fall, the live performance is visceral and at times, in-your-face. The Dessner twins play their guitars with deadly determination and the Devendorf twins combine as an on-point rhythm section. Let’s not forget singer Matt Berninger, though, ambling around the stage, wine bottle in hand, prodding, mashing, stumbling.

This night was no different. A perfect setlist of ragers like “Abel” and the majesty of “The Geese of Beverly Road” (a perfect wedding song if i’ve ever heard one) and of course, “Mr. November” where Matt took off into the crowd and ran all the way up into the seats. There are moments at a show you marvel and moments you lose yourself. Screaming “I WONT FUCK US OVER, I’M MR. NOVEMBER!” is the latter. Many moments may seem bigger on this list, but none struck a nerve quite like this one.

2. The Replacements at Riot Fest Chicago (Humboldt Park, Chicago IL) – September 15, 2013

Riot Fest was enormous drag. Too many people, too crowded of a space and on the third day, it basically rained the entire time, which was miserable. But not too long before the ‘Mats took the stage, it stopped, and it stayed like that. Then there they were. There were the songs. Pretty much all of the ones you’d want to hear, too. We celebrated, sang and screamed.

The fact that this even happened still dumbfounds me. I never once thought in my life I’d have the opportunity to see The Replacements (or what’s left of them) play for an audience ever again. Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson. I’m typing those names out because it still seems preposterous.

To put it in the words of the guy you can hear on the bootleg recording of the show after “Alex Chilton”: “I just peed my pants. It was totally worth it.”

3. The Rolling Stones at United Center (Chicago, IL) – May 31, 2013

The Stones have been on my band bucket list for over eight years since the end of their last tour. Our seats were nosebleed-terrible, but it really didn’t matter by the end of the night. A bunch of seventy-year-old dudes BROUGHT IT. We got the hits. We got “Shine A Light” – my favorite Stones song – which voted by fans to be included on the setlist through the band’s website. Mick did his classic moves. Keef sang. Mick Taylor was there and Sheryl Crow even showed up. It was way better than I could have ever imagined and I’m happy to say I was able to see them on what could be one of their last full-scale U.S. tours.

4. San Francisco, California – November 16-19, 2013

Earlier this fall, my girlfriend surprised me with a trip to San Francisco, where neither of us had been. To put it simply, it was great. In a two-and-a-half day timeframe, we went to Haight-Asbury, Amoeba Music, Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, In-N-Out Burger, drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into the Marin Headlands, explored Chinatown, saw both the “Full House” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” houses, walked through Union Square down to the San Francisco Ferry Building, walked up more hills than I’d like to talk about, saw the Cable Car Museum, rode a cable car, and ate lots of great food. It was a lot of fun and I’d most certainly like to go back sometime soon.

5. The Chris Gethard Show at MNN El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center (New York City, NY) – April 3, 2013

If you haven’t heard of The Chris Gethard Show yet, go right to the show’s website and start watching episodes. Simply, it’s televised quicksilver. A late-night show on New York City public access that’s streamed globally is a dazzling array of high-concept comedy bits mixed with a low-budget mentality. It’s DIY TV personified. In it, is comedian (and sometimes actor) Chris Gethard, UCB stalwarts and more (hilarious) fictional characters than you can count present episodes with entirely different themes. A recent AV Club review said “This low-budget talk show has plot twists as thrilling as Breaking Bad’s”. Perfect.

That evening’s episode was titled “Royal Rumble of Twister”, which couldn’t have been more perfect for a professional wrestling fan like me. It featured indie professional wrestler (and Chicago native) Colt Cabana as a guest. Chris and Colt as well as the show’s cast of characters spent an hour playing Twister, while fielding phone calls from all over the world. Hijinks and hilarity ensued. Seriously, just watch it.

It was awesome to get to see a show that’s been appointment TV for me every Wednesday night in person. Having the opportunity to the cast members as well as Colt Cabana after the show made it perfect. While it’s time on cable access may be over, the fact that they’re making a pilot for Comedy Central is great news. We’ll see what happens from here. But I won’t forget this one.

6. WWE Payback at Allstate Arena (Rosemont, IL) – June 16, 2013

This is damn near impossible to explain to non-fans, so I’m just going to go for it. I went to a lot of professional wrestling this year (More on that later.) This was my favorite.

Without a doubt, Chicago (okay, Rosemont) is the best town to see WWE. Some fans would like to argue that maybe New York can compete, but those fans are soulless and hate everything cool. For this event – broadcast live around the world on pay-per-view, it showed that the crown was rightfully ours.

The card was unique in the fact that many of the matches weren’t rematches from previous pay-per-view events (save for the main event) and that Chicago native CM Punk was allegedly about to make his return after a two-month absence to face Chris Jericho. No one was sure he’d actually show up until his music hit that evening. When he did, the roof exploded. Punk was decked out in Chicago Blackhawks tights. This was right in the midst of the Hawks 2013 Stanley Cup winning run and he couldn’t have been any more popular, despite the fact that the angle he wrapped before his absence was that of an ultra-bad guy who stole the urn of the Undertaker which may or may not have contained the remains of his former (and dead in real life) manager.

Curtis Axel won the Intercontinental Championship that night – Father’s Day – the very same championship his Dad, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig won 22 years prior. Daniel Bryan (arguably WWE’s number 2 or 3 top good guy now) was beginning to ride the wave of enormous popularity that shot him to stardom, leading all 17,000 people in the area to chant “YES! YES! YES” (his catchphrase) back at him in unison.

TL;DR: It was a really fun way to spend three hours. Go to a WWE show and tell me that you didn’t find at least one moment that you didn’t enjoy. It’s impossible.

7. Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z at Soldier Field (Chicago, IL) – July 22, 2013

Two modern-day icons at the height of their powers alternating songs at a machine gun pace, attempting to outperform each other in a football stadium. Absolutely bonkers.

8. WWE WrestleMania 29 at MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, NJ) – April 7, 2013

WrestleMania is professional wrestling’s Super Bowl, and WWE’s most important event of the year. There’s nothing like it. In a good year, WrestleMania showcases the culmination of long-simmering feuds, resulting in the biggest matches of the year. Of course, that was the case with this year’s installment.

Headlined for the second year in a row by The Rock and John Cena, WrestleMania 29 was attended by a staggering 80,676 people. It is the second highest attendance for a WrestleMania behind III in 1987, which was the highest-attended indoor sports event in the world with 93,173 people, a record that would not be broken until 2010.

I’ve never been anywhere with such an enormous number of people. The show itself was all about pageantry, fireworks, high-definition video screens and of course, top notch wrestling talent. While the matches may have not been my absolute favorite, being in a football stadium with a set designed to look like the New York skyline (complete with the Statue of Liberty above the ring), watching wrestlers put their bodies on the line for our enjoyment was one of the more ridiculous situations I’ve found myself in this year.

9. Paul McCartney at Miller Mark (Milwaukee, WI) – July 16, 2013

I saw a Beatle.

Paul is seventy-one and he played a thirty-eight song set. THIRTY EIGHT SONGS AT SEVENTY-ONE. Beatles songs. Wings songs. Songs from his solo records. Two encores, and a lot of fire (and fireworks too.) From that, you should know how it went.

10. Harmontown Live at UP Comedy Club (Chicago, IL) – January 22, 2013

Dan Harmon, best known as creator of NBC’s “Community”, had a brief wilderness period after being dumped from the show for it’s fourth season before eventually rejoining for it’s fifth. During this time, he took to the road with his podcast featuring regulars from the LA version of the show. I can’t remember a night where I laughed as hard as this one. It was looking into the mind of a (rather hilarious) madman.

It all seems like a blur. It actually pretty much was. Probably for him too. I remember “Dungeons and Dragons” being played with cast members. Some drunk dude had an awkward back and forth with Dan, and a 16-year-old was invited on stage to chat with him but ended up rambling on about Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. But at some point it devolved into audience members rap battling with him and ended with Dan crowd surfing while singing the podcast’s theme song.

——

Honorable Mentions:

Titus Andronicus at Metro (Chicago, IL) – May 4, 2013

The Mountain Goats at Lincoln Hall (Chicago, IL) – June 17, 2013

Run the Jewels at Pitchfork Music Festival (Chicago, IL) – July 21, 2013

Superchunk at A.V. Club Fest/Hideout Block Party (Chicago, IL) – September 7, 2013

The Hold Steady at A.V. Club Fest/Hideout Block Party (Chicago, IL) – September 7, 2013

WWE Monday Night RAW at Allstate Arena (Rosemont, IL) – September 23, 2013

Top Albums and Songs of 2013

Without further adieu, here’s my top ten favorite albums of this year (in order), and then my favorite songs of the year (in no particular order).

Top Albums of 2013:

1. Jason Isbell – Southeastern

The story goes like this: Former Drive-By Trucker who regularly outshines his peers with his contributions leaves the band amidst a variety of personal issues. Spends the next few years cutting good-not-great solo records. Finally sobers up and puts out this collection of crystalline beauties that are not just a stone-cold classic this year, but in ANY year.

Check out: “Cover Me Up”, “Flying Over Water”, “Relatively Easy”

2. HAIM – Days Are Gone

Hearing “The Wire” for the first time was one of those fulcrum listens. Either it was going to be the best thing HAIM ever did, or it was just a taste of what the band was capable of.

Luckily, it was the latter – the sisters beat the hype and wrote a record of sun-kissed classics. Make no mistake, this is pure pop appropriated for an indie audience. You know that’s true. “I know, I know, I know, I know” that too.

Check out: “The Wire”, “Falling”, “Running If You Call My Name”

3. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels

El-P and Killer Mike took the hip-hop world by storm last year with their solo releases – El’s “Cancer For Cure” and Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” (which El-P produced in its entirety). Both guested on each other’s records. Both also landed on many year-end lists.

So what to do for a victory lap? Join forces, obviously. The eponymous debut from Run the Jewels was released for free on the internet this June. What could have been phoned in with the cut-and-paste feel of a mixtape is instead a tight collection of straight-up bangers with monster beats. El-P and Killer Mike seamlessly flow into each other’s rhymes with bravado. No – scratch that. Gusto.

Check out: “Run the Jewels”, “36” Chain”, “Sea Legs”

4. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National – at least from “Alligator” and forward, have brilliantly constructed top to bottom classic records that give the air that they were furniture, they’d be refined from the most skilled of woodworkers. Every sound is considered before the final product. Allegedly, on an earlier release, they recorded the same drum sound an exhaustive number of times until it ‘sounded right’.

If anything, “Trouble Will Find Me” is a surprise. It’s the sound of a band loosening the reigns for the first time. The songs feel more organic. They have a sense of space that’s not part of any of the earlier releases. If there’s any knock on it, is that it sort of feels like a band in transition. What you get here is a band pushing the boundaries out just a little more. It’s exhilarating for them, and it’s exhilarating for the listener. But you can’t help but think what they’ll do next time.

Check out: “I Should Live In Salt”, “Sea Of Love”, “I Need My Girl”

5. John Moreland – In The Throes

Admittedly, this is a late addition to this year’s list, but a well-deserved one. Oklahoma-based Moreland delivers a thirty-eight minute gut punch. It’s intimate. It’s vulnerable. It’s big-hearted. It’s an album full of simply great songs delivered simply. No bullshit.

Check out: “I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am”, “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore”, “Break My Heart Sweetly”

6. Kanye West – Yeezus

At this point, even giving a brief rundown of Kanye’s album-by-album trajectory is pointless. His public persona and his role of an artist are now so diametrically opposed that the thought he’s actually a working musician is an afterthought. Everyone has an opinion about Kanye West. He has many about himself. The amount of noise between the artist and the public is overwhelming, from fans to non-fans. That’s the best thing that ever happened to him – it freed him to do whatever he wants in the studio.

So, he does.

For as spontaneous as some of his other career moves seem, “Yeezus” is quite the opposite. It’s a carefully crafted, reductionist masterwork, laying waste the grandeur of much of his previous work. The beats are brutal, guest spots as brilliant as they are puzzling (Justin Vernon and Chief Keef on the same track?), and the message unfettered: he’s taking no prisoners.

We’re far past the point where a Kanye West album is a showcase of peerless production and top-notch talent. It’s art for art’s sake. He might even agree with that. Everyone else might too, if they stopped talking and listened for a change.

Check out: “On Sight”, “I Can’t Hold My Liquor”, “Bound 2”

7. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

The sense of insularity and delicate nature of Laura Marling’s fourth album leaves me fighting myself to compare it to the great early records of Joni Mitchell. Obviously by typing that sentence, I’ve failed. Perhaps the best way to put it is to suggest “Once I Was An Eagle” is its spiritual cousin. The four-song opening suite is startling and effortless, delivered with the maturity of a person far beyond her 23 years. From there it ebbs and flows, (“Master Hunter” is a definite highlight) one beautiful melody and texture after another. It’s an album best experienced in one sitting. You’ll know that as soon as it begins.

Check out: “Take The Night Off”, “I Was An Eagle”, “Master Hunter”

8. Deafheaven – Sunbather

We live in the time of the egregious usage of the word ‘epic’. Here’s an album worthy of the phrase. On “Sunbather” walls of whatever-brand-of-metal you call it and sweeping melodic passages combined with bridge effortlessly with vocalist George Clarke’s screams to create a whole that is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. I may not understand a damn word he’s saying, but the sheer ferocity of his vocals seize your attention. It’s metal for non-metalheads – beauty in a genre where you expect something ugly.

Check out: “Dream House”, “Irresistable”, “Vertigo”

9. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

In the summer of 2008 I watched Vampire Weekend perform selections from their debut album to a crowd of thousands at Pitchfork Music Festival. Then, they were a relatively unseasoned live act, a fine listen, but not quite capable of that knockout punch of the others that played the stage the same day. My feelings of their debut album and it’s follow up were similar to this – songs that were okay for the moment, but didn’t hold a whole lot of resonance. I figured they’d be fun to bring up for a laugh a few years down the road or to recapture that moment when we were just a little bit younger and thought we were a little bit hipper.

Instead, they grew up with us. “Modern Vampires of the City” is a headfirst plunge into uncharted territory. It’s a series of calculated risks for a group that treaded dangerous waters as a very (popular) one trick pony. Here, the band deals with heavier themes such as life and death. Look no further than the pitch-shifting prowess of “Diane Young” (Get it?) for example. The differences are also textural – the wispy “Step” and soothing synths of “Everlasting Arms” are obvious departures. The big takeaway though – there’s plenty of nuance here when none was ever really expected.

Check out: “Unbelievers”, “Step”, “Everlasting Arms”

10. Disclosure – Settle

The debut by English brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence kind of passed me by on first listen. I didn’t think much of it and shuffled it away pretty quickly.

Then I heard “Latch”, a perfect piece of elastic electro-pop. It turns out that’s just the gateway into the many gifts that this record holds. Jessie Ware drops in for the robot slink of “Confess To Me”, and “F For You” competes with London Grammar on “Help Me Lose My Mind” for the second best hook on the album. I’m going to stop now – play this album and get ready to dance.

Check out: “Latch”, “F For You”, “Confess To Me”

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Top Songs of 2013:

HAIM – “The Wire”
Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”
Disclosure – “Latch (feat. Sam Smith)”
Superchunk – “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo”
The National – “I Should Live In Salt”
Jason Isbell – “Cover Me Up”
Run the Jewels – “Run The Jewels”
CHVRCHES – “Gun”
John Moreland – “Break My Heart Sweetly”
Laura Marling – “Take The Night Off/I Was An Eagle/You Know/Breathe” (Opening suite)
Paramore – “Ain’t It Fun”
Zedd – “Clarity (feat. Foxes)”
Jai Paul – “Crush” (Jennifer Paige cover)
Kanye West – “On Sight”
Vampire Weekend – “Diane Young”
HAIM – “Forever”
Jason Isbell – “Relatively Easy”
Deafheaven – “Dream House”
Arcade Fire – “Afterlife”
Justin Timberlake – “Mirrors”
Jay-Z feat. Justin Timberlake – “Holy Grail”
The Replacements – “I’m Not Sayin” (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
The National – “Sea of Love”
CHVRCHES – “Recover”
Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”
HAIM – “Don’t Save Me”
Neko Case – “Man”
Paul McCartney – “New”
CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
Jason Isbell – “Flying Over Water”
The Dismemberment Plan – “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”

Some Sort of Magical Thinking

Death is not easy to talk about. It never has been for me. It’s scary. It’s final.

I have death anxiety. Severe. There are extended periods of time (ie: the winter, bad break-ups) where I’m completely preoccupied with ‘the end’, obsessed by the idea that it may be right around the corner. Will my next step be the wrong one? I’m superstitious. I’m extremely paranoid. I’m not comfortable writing any of this right now, because I feel like something bad will happen to me.

The other day I stood outside The Dakota at the corner of West 72nd and Central Park West, gazing up at the top. It’s an imposing building with it’s gargoyles and gothic architecture, but in a way, it’s wickedly beautiful. I visit often because I’m a big Beatles fan. It’s where John Lennon lived. It’s also where John Lennon died.

As I looked at the archway – that archway, I imagined what it must have been like that balmy Monday night – December 8, 1980, Lennon walking out of his limo and through the archway before a man stepped out of the shadows fired gunshots into him. He probably had no idea what happened. Did he feel them? Was he sure they were gunshots? Did he experience pain? Could he feel death coming? Just minutes later, it was all over. Gone forever.

Exactly four years and 356 days later, I was born. My first breath came that long after his last. It’s stunning to think that these people live their entire lives before others are born. I mean, this has been happening for thousands of years. It’s just a weird thing to think about.. Why do I think this about John Lennon? I don’t know. There’s something personal about his death, so unfair and sudden that even those who didn’t even exist when he lived can feel that injustice on such a visceral level.

That brings me to the book I just read. A book about death. Real death. Personal suffering. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were two renowned authors who worked and lived together for nearly 40 years. They mostly worked together, were close confidants and aided each other in their writing process. Throughout their time together, they had one daughter, Quintana. Sometime in 2003, Quintana became gravely ill and ended up in a coma. This is essentially where the book begins.

On the night of December 30, 2003 the couple returned home from the hospital. As Didion began to prepare dinner, Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack. Within seconds, Didion’s life is changed forever. She loses her confidant. Her daughter is gravely ill, and she’s right in the middle of it.

This detail of the story should be compelling enough to make it a book worth reading. What surprised me the most was the clarity Didion recalls this year. Her process of grieving. Trying to come to terms with her husband’s death while she needs to tend to her very sick daughter. It seems insurmountable. But she finds a way to do it.

What’s special about this book is that It’s free of melodrama and self-help anecdotes – instead, there’s a plainness to it. Crisp, clear and direct. She doesn’t want sympathy and doesn’t provide the reader the opportunity to feel bad for her. This is her life. This is her experience. This is how she is dealing with it. Cut and dry.

The Year of Magical Thinking made me feel better about dying. Of course it’s going to happen to me. It will continue to happen around me as the years go by until it’s my time. What I learned from Didion is this: You must keep on. You must persist. If you don’t, you’re doing just as well as those that are already gone.

New York Groove

Illustration by Ashley Elander

It’s been two weeks since I moved to New York City, and taking the time to write this feels like the first stretch that I’ve been able to focus on one thing in quite some time.

In short, it’s been a rush, but completely magnificent.

Really, this is a hell of a place. I understand I’m still wide-eyed with the newness and excitement of being in a different place, but I think that’s something that even the most hardened New Yorker doesn’t actually forget. This place feels endless. It’s like a theme park with all these different rides, and even if you have been on them a million times already, they never get old.

Most people from back home approach me here with a bit of tenuousness about my experiences here thus far – and that’s understandable, because I have a less than stellar track record when throwing myself into a new situation. This time, though, I’m not writing to detail my feelings of nervousness or anxiety, mainly, because they have been minimal. Since I got situated here, I’ve really felt one thing.

Fine.

Besides the initial first-day “WHAT DID I JUST DO?” after I moved in to my apartment, it’s been really fun. In my free time, I’m constantly moving about Manhattan and Brooklyn, learning the subway lines (and all of the transfer points, natch), stopping at bodega after bodega for water (the heat wave here has been totally insane – moving day, it was over 100 degrees out) and any pizza joint that looks remotely decent. I’ve had arepas from an Argentinian restaurant, taken advantage of being geographically close to a Pinkberry, and devoured Tastycakes Kandy Kakes that are available at Duane Reade.

I don’t think I truly understood how much of a cultural melting pot this is. There is really an insane division of people here. Chicago, it’s more or less black and white (literally and figuratively) but here – I don’t think I’ve heard so many different languages in an enclosed space.

There’s something about New York City that separates it from any of the other cities I’ve visited. It feels so huge, so self-contained, like it’s completely independent from America and operates as it’s own country. I don’t know how to explain it other than recommending a visit here. You’ll feel it soon as you hit the ground. It whacked me in the face when I was sitting in one of the pedestrian plazas in Times Square last week. It’s weird to feel so alien and so home in one place.

We’ll see where it goes from here. There’s still a lot of this story that has yet to be written. I’ve found plenty of things to do, may it be shows that pop up, places I want to visit for the first time, or people to see that I’ve met through my various travels over the years. I’m excited for what’s to come and I think that’s the best attitude to have going forward.

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Visit Ashley’s site here.