The Power of the Bite-Size Romance

Sometimes middle age hits with surprising force. I noticed it one rainy evening when I got together with my 40-something girlfriends, the girls I usually see with glasses of wine in their hands as we talk about “books” at our “book club.”

We shook out umbrellas and piled up at a table in a dark pub. A singer-songwriter burbled her way through some dull tunes. Two of us ordered a “half litre” of house wine to share; the carafe was so full, it could’ve been a Tahiti Treat bottle from an 80s birthday sleepover.

And like those sleepovers, our conversation centred on hot guys. Or, one guy in particular: Armie Hammer, the lead in Call Me By Your Name, which we’d just seen in the theatre. My friend, obsessed with the film, had insisted we go. She was right, considering most anybody could use a good dose of two hot men kissing no matter what their situation. Flattened as we were by kid duties, overwork, and lack of sleep, two and a half hours of shirtless Armie dawdling through Italian piazzas, lounging by the pool, reviewing his manuscript (shirtless), and caressing Timothée Chalamet’s face as they made out was crippling. He’s so gorgeous, one of us said. He wasn’t near as appealing as the Winklevoss twins, said another.

We came to the conclusion: This guy is so beautiful in the film, he’s as untouchable, as life-altering, as a work of art.

I’m generally not prone to liking blond, or built, guys, nor movie stars, but now that I’m reading the book that inspired the film, I can’t get him off my mind. Like my friend. This has nothing to do with Armie, though his beauty does help.


Instead, his character – initially awkward at the best of times, frosty at the worst – blossoms throughout the story, to reveal someone deeply invested in connecting with another human who compels him. The passion that then erupts is thus what we all have felt, or yearn to feel. Oliver (Armie’s character), in making himself available for love, receives the profoundest kind of love in return. It manifests repeatedly in the book in the line, “You’ll kill me if you stop,” applied not just to their sexual encounters, but their connection, affection, lived out fully in the limited time they have together.

What attracts us to stories like this? I believe it is the restrictions placed on them. No romance can survive the realities of differences in age, experience, background, and geography like these two had. Nor can it withstand the imposition of daily life and duties in a more mundane setting than northern Italy in the summer. Moreover, the secrecy of it, as with most compressed, passionate affairs, is part of its appeal. Turn off your world, I’ll turn off mine, and we’ll create this tiny one together. At the end, the two men go on a short trip, the alternate surroundings and time limit offering a setting neither would have to return to once they were apart.

Naturally, I likened this kind of romance to a song. I always enjoyed “Static on the Radio,” sung by Aimee Mann and Jim White, for the way it revealed its characters’ interiority, and felt like you were caught in an intimate embrace between the two.

When it’s done, it’s done. You snap back to reality, go about your day; nothing in your regular business sounds or feels like this.

I once had a romance whose terms were clearly defined. This can’t last forever, we told ourselves. It’s not sustainable. On this day, we stop seeing each other. And we held to that, bawling like pathetic babies as we counted down the minutes. Snap: it was done. Nothing in our regular lives felt like that.

Therein lies the power of the bite-size romance. Unlike snacks, its power is not reduced by its scope.

I can see how it was appealing to our group of middle-age ladies, tied as we are to our long-term partners, sometimes unclear as to what still binds us. Not that I’d assume unhappiness on their parts, nor suggest my own romance is dullsville. It’s just that mine is more like this song:

Where every day could either progress as before, or log a surprise shift that takes us in an unexpected direction for a while, only to return to the familiar. We’ve got the time to sort it out, see what transpires. Not to mention we’re also bound by a mutual love of Geddy Lee. (Is this not the dorkiest?)

Call Me By Your Name was mostly compelling because it was a story that took me several weeks to understand. Why was I invested in these characters? What makes us care? As a narrative arc, it traces the impossible to the potential to the real; from the faraway dream to the fantasy to the realization of them. Long-term love may start this way, but its trajectory is defined by its length, not its limitations. Perhaps the constraints forced on these two are ones we rarely, if ever, encounter – though I’d argue it’s just these constraints that make a good story.

Justin Timberlake and the Future of the Past

George Monbiot said last year that all we need is a good story, and we can change the course of anything: elections, environmental destruction, misogyny, you name it. Naomi Klein, in her latest book No is Not Enough, tells us basically the same thing.

As we round the corner into 2018, it’s easy to assume we’re at the end. Why just this morning, the stories I heard on the radio detailed the northeastern deep freeze, the collection of cold-shocked lizards free-falling from trees in Florida, and scariest of all, a half-hour long documentary on the big earthquakes coming to swallow the west coast. Yikes. To quote the James Brown to-do list: Get Up. Get Up Offa That Thing. Get The Hell Outta Here (the last one’s mine). Yesterday, I read about the biggest mass extinction since we lost the dinosaurs currently taking place. It goes on. Yet someone like Klein succeeds with her fairly polemical writing because she’s telling us a good story, and that is: we can change it. We’re not too far gone. She says this even after she visits the bleached Great Barrier Reef – on full display on the latest series of Blue Planet episodes. Power to the people. Nobody can stop the masses.

If the masses were then to get worked up about the right thing, as recounted to me in the JMS podcast on the return of McDonald’s Szechuan sauce via my boyfriend, amazing changes could happen.

It is with this mindset that I watched Justin Timberlake’s new video, “Filthy.” Assuming it lined up with past imperatives like “Bring Sexy Back,” or “Take Back the Night,” I figured he was telling us, the listners, what we are to do next with him. Nope. Here, then, is my preliminary analysis of the video, having only watched it once. Perhaps I will nuance this over time; likely  not.

I’m a JT fan, but not rabid. I’m aware of his important work (say, “Dick in a Box”) (seriously, he does need to work on his titles – imagine reading a singles discography a hundred years from now! [If we live that long.]). So I enjoyed the irreverent leap to the stage he took, figuring he’d lead us down a path equally lined with sexy humour and MJ-derived dance moves. Then I realized he was acting like Steve Jobs, turtleneck, glasses and all, espousing the value of AI to a – get this – docile yet enthusiastic East Asian audience. Because no one else is going to buy into his narrative of the future. Right?

Shockingly, JT is quickly replaced by a robot, and he moves offstage, relying on our collective understanding of his greatness and the spectacle that unfolds to keep him firmly at the centre of our consciousness. Great, you think as the late-capitalist viewer, tired old neoliberal story of heroic entrepreneurialism; the smart white man succeeds yet again, and most people might never realize that’s what’s happening because his robot, you see, has a heart.

There are a few dance moves performed by the robot, which seem to superficially be controlled by JT, though as the video progresses they become more explicit (in other words he mimes fucking one of the dancers – the horror! the shock! gasps the well-behaved audience). Then it’s basically done with a laser light show emanating from the robot while JT is revealed to be nothing more than a digital figment of our imagination.


Had the all-lady cast of dancers not been clad in booby suits and crawling around onstage in a choreographed please ass-fuck me routine, I might have been willing to say JT was perhaps among the more enlightened of mass-entertainment figures, but nope. I’ll explain more below. Nevertheless, dull misogyny aside, allow me a second interpretation of this video.

Is it possible, that amid the display we’re offered, JT is telling us a different story? One that, with the right moves, we can appropriate, and re-appropriate, for potential good purposes? I mean, he’s appropriating enough as it is – dance moves stolen directly from black pop culture, the great man story from the Hollywood machine (embroiled in its own myriad, multi-level, incessant forms of appropriation), the white man telling the East Asian audience that the perils of technology so feared by the American populace are actually good for us.

[Hold on a second while I stop laughing.]

Maybe it’s time to appropriate him for reals. Let’s shear off the surface level, all-too-easy analysis of this video that privileges all these things: racial essentialism, appropriation, poor storytelling, exploitation of persons of colour and women, and go elsewhere. I won’t attribute these potential deeper meanings to JT; it’s possible he was thinking these things, but it feeds into the “great white man sees all that’s wrong with contemporary society and fixes it” narrative. Also, I don’t think he’s that smart. Talented, yes.

For one, over the course of the video, it seems like the women initially have a lot more control and presence than we’re used to seeing in, say, country or rap videos of late. After all, you could read the female-majority audience as a collection of curious intellectuals attending a new-technology convention. But then the dancers come in, and the robot starts immediately grabbing their butts, so that’s where that possibility ends. Really JT? How can any of us take back the night if now we not only have to fear men raping us, but robots – first controlled by men, then controlled by digital figments of men – grabbing us, chasing us down the streets, and pinning us down with steely strength? Is this how the modern male pop star exonerates the misdeeds of the past, by deploying an aggressive avatar in his place? Yeesh.

Ok, never mind that last point. Let me try again.

Interestingly, the music was what most got my attention. Some initial thoughts: there are no real instruments here. Perhaps we’re no longer surprised by this, considering the explosion of EDM-informed pop hits over the last year. Nor do I want to suggest that any form of electronic sound is inferior to a “real” instrument, because at this point that is pedantic, whiny, and probably a little gerontocratic. However, JT in the past made no secret of his allegiance to soul, which privileged complex arrangements that employed horns, percussion, piano, guitars, you name it, at length. A fully electronic underpinning is at once surprising because it’s JT, on the other hand, not, because he’s a pop star.

Not only that, among the – dare I say pretty interesting – electronic timbres we can’t really hear his voice. I had no idea what the lyrics were; his trademark falsetto is nowhere to be found; he’s often drowned out by all the other noise of the track. Where has the great man gone?

And it’s here we can say maybe this is the sound of the future. I don’t mean because it’s all digitally generated. I mean because we’re witnessing the loss of the individual; he’s being folded into, absorbed by the collective. What is more collective than music that everyone can dance to? That doesn’t privilege just one voice? Perhaps JT feared this and insisted on booty dancers because it’s the last thread of power he was hanging onto. That won’t last long. What if these sounds are telling us that the only way into the future is to fully reject the past? That past is certainly not doing us good right now.

I’ve often contemplated this thought on a very superficial level because I don’t understand what relevance roots music has in my life anymore. And interestingly, its revival occurred right after 9/11, when the celebration of all things old and American seemed like the right thing to do, however conscious of that you were. Is that really working for us now? Can we rightfully say yay to the Carter Family and string bands and Hank Williams when they all rose up out of the very communities that produced the current administration? Don’t freak out about my oversimplification of good, old music; I know that’s what I’ve done. Do give it some thought though. Does the fact that this music – JT – is replacing teens’ thirst for Mumford and Sons or “Old” Taylor Swift suggest we are in for a future that has no resemblance to the past? Might it be a harbinger of not just music, but life, to come?

My Top 15 2017 People

I’m an adherent to the “write what you know” mantra, so I succumb to writing about those things. Country music, ballet, country music, books, country music, cats, country music, academia, country music, class, country music, ladies. Wrapped into those subjects is – too often – my own experience of them. As such, 2017 became the year when I got so sick of myself that my writing stunted, my growth stunted (aside from the belly), and I decided to consciously avoid myself wherever possible. Here, then, is my year-end list: a tally of – some of – the most interesting, influential people I ran into this year. The list inevitably rounds itself back to me, but I’ll refrain from overexplaining their influence on my life, and leave it to you to find out how magnificent they can be for you. Happy New Year lovelies.


Christian Smith
This man knows everything. I was floored when I went to his house and saw a 3-D printer, astounded when he read my MRI images and explained my brain to me, amazed when he told our writing group how he was going to set up a one-stop shop for all things creative nonfiction. Then I had to learn how to impose the chandrabindu diacritic over an “e” in Word, and freakin’ Christian Smith stepped in! This guy is a wonder. After reading a recent draft of a chapter of his book, I know he will be an author’s author someday. The words, the crafting of the story, his reassuring authority: magical. If he’s in your life, you are lucky. 

Erin Silver
Lovely Erin was around, but we weren’t super close, during our MFA. Then one day we had lunch and suddenly bonded over a shared project. Her writing also floors me, but more than anything, Erin is a kind, supportive, helpful person whose cheerfulness will get you through your worst conundrums.

Nellwyn Lampert
Just when you think all hope is lost, Nellwyn steps in with a targeted one-liner about your writing, and you’re on your way to being a new, improved you. She also, as she called it, broke the writer’s code (by inventing a new one, I say), again in a selfless gesture of fellow writer assistance. Above all, she introduced me to the infinite possibilities of the bullet journal. 2018 beware: I’ve already got you organized.

Burke Carroll
Dear Burke, I wrote in my Christmas card to him, I’m a failure as a student, but you’re still my favourite part of the week. And indeed, the depth of his knowledge of that mysterious beast, the pedal steel guitar, can at once confuse and dazzle someone who thinks they have a grasp of it. We’ve settled into a routine of “I didn’t practice,” “That’s okay, I’ll give you something I hope you’ll practice,” peppered by good tunes and a lovely friendship. He’s one of the main reasons I’d worry about leaving Toronto. His brilliant musicality drops into the oldest country standards through to atmospheric rootsy Dakota-basement tunes, and everything in between – like Christian, he’s a musician’s musician. He’s even turning up the heat on Hawaiian steel, which I suspect will help him take over the Toronto scene yet again.

My lady students
Fearsome and fearless, my lady students are everything I wanted to be at 20, but kept hidden inside. Subsequent to many interruptions and after-class heated debates, I finally gathered them together to talk pop music at the end of term. These girls are sharp, critical, and above all, aware of how inclusivity and understanding should operate in practice. The new world that opened up for me after this meeting deserves to be experienced by everyone; stay tuned, we’ve got a new year’s project in the works.

Rebecca Solnit
In short, one of the smartest, sharpest, feminist writers; she stays active and in touch with current events, roping them back to the writings of early 20th-century lady authors, seeing through wise, curious eyes. She isn’t afraid to let herself wander and see what comes of it. A new year’s resolution for all of us should be to actually physically wander and generate our creative inspiration from silent exploration.

Emmanuel Carrere
I’ve written about him before, so not too much to say here. However, if you’re anxious to write about tragedy and sickness from a sensitive, empathic perspective, he’s your guy. Also a master of concise clarity, even after translation.

Karl Ove Knausgaard
As may seem to be the case with many of the people on my list, I like artists who take chances. If nothing else, prolific Knausgaard does. While his six-volume memoir might have seemed like overkill to some, his four-volume season series dedicated to his unborn (then born) daughter takes it down several notches. I have an idea, he seems to think. Why don’t I work on it and see what emerges? If only we all could.

David Gessner
Before I listened to the Longform interview on Gessner’s Ultimate Frisbee book, I did not care about Ultimate Frisbee. I’m not sure I do now, but that interview made clear to  me how the nichest, or most mundane, topics can seem irrelevant, and all it takes is a good author to make us understand their importance. His passion for writing, and teaching writing, carved a permanent path in my head, helping me draw all the disparate components of my own work together.

George Saunders
Again, an author who takes chances, this time in the reverse from Knausgaard. From the minute to the expansive. They are models for us all.

Elizabeth Warren/May
If the world were run by grounded, practical, no-nonsense politicians such as these two, we’d not be totally effed the way we are right now. Their ladyness is a bit beside the point; try getting any lie, any bluff past them and you are TOAST. And of course, that toast would be crisped via solar power.

Janet Jackson and Shania Twain
These ladies have proven that none of us should be afraid to age: they’re a million times better in their 50s than they were in their 20s.

Rachel Notley
“Good job,” Rachel Notley told me when we met at the Wide Cut Weekend festival this past fall. I was like, good job? Good job?! Look who’s talking! Pray that she’s still the master of all in 2019, and only onward and upward from there.


Year in Review

In a vain effort to keep the art of criticism alive, here’s my contribution to the year-in-review wasteland. There are about four people who have the same taste as me – and we’ve had some kick ass conversations! – so this is also an attempt to get more people consuming the things I do in my ultimate cultural takeover. Or, more kindly, a contribution toward the community pile of cool stuff to share.

A lot of these have nothing to do with 2017, only that I discovered them in 2017, making them incredibly relevant to your life.

4. Linda Ronstadt, “Blue Bayou.”
My steel teacher tossed this to me to learn, and though we never returned to it, it’s become a staple in my practicing. Although the steel on early Ronstadt recordings is killer – check out “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” or “Silver Threads” – this song tugs at me because I always connect it to Billy Cowsill’s voice and the first few times I listened to the Co-Dependents Live at the Mecca record. And I did see them at the Mecca! I’m one of the few truthful tellers of that tale.

3. Skinny Dyck, 20 One-Nighters
One thing that pulls me back to working on Wide Cut Weekend and writing about Alberta artists is the community of musicians there that I haven’t found the same way in Toronto. Steel guitarist Dyck’s collection of tunes with 20 songwriters is the best example of that this year. Not only are half of them now living in the “new Calgary” (Lethbridge), they also appear in a series of portraits inside the disc that kept me occupied for half an hour trying to label all the faces. Anchoring all the tunes is the Dyck’s steel, making him the best player to come out of the province in ages.

skinny dyck.jpg

2. My Spotify List
I opened up Spotify to see what I’ve been listening to, and it came up with an offer: “Review your year! Tap here.” Convenient. I’m not worried about big data at all. Why are you?

Top song: “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarden. Interesting. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but the song indeed makes me crazy. I really got into them after – ha, sorry – Chris Cornell died, and the NYT Popcast did an episode on him. And then the album was a romantic backdrop, along with a Max Martin playlist, on a drive to the Annapolis Valley. We decided on that drive that the line “Am I sexual?” from the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” (Backstreet’s Back)” (from where??) is one of the stupidest lines ever. And not sexy.

Other top songs on my spotify list:
“Whiteout” by Warpaint (killer)
“Outshined” by Soundgardern
“Want you Back” by Haim
“In the Dark” by Vanduras – oh man, this band was on constant rotation this year; surfy pedal steel, and it totally drowned out the baby that moved in downstairs. Yes, moved in.
“Dwight Yoakam” by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers
“Control” by (sigh) Janet Jackson
“Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” by Squeeze

1. Plastic Machine by Tom Phillips
It feels like Tom got a makeover, and that nothing changed at all. His band got one though. I’ve spoken at length about the quality of his character and music elsewhere, so I won’t repeat myself here. All you need to do is listen to “Swallowed a Bird.”

... And that leads me to BOOKS.
Tom was also the person who convinced me to tackle Infinite Jest in 2018; though others have tried, he was successful. In the meantime, I attempted to read 40 books in 2017. I was close, and am a mere few short Harlequins away from meeting my goal. While those definitely do not top my list, here are a few that do.

4. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
The main story seems too crazy to be true, and also crafted for one of those Discovery channel melodramas – snakes, horrific weather, corruption, etc., but it’s also a sharp commentary on the tolls climate change and its facilitation of the spread of disease will take on marginalized island nations. Too real, and too scary.

3. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My partner and I formed a “rogue” book club wherein we actually talk about the book. (At my book club we’ve become such good friends, we sometimes forget, and get on to other topics like babies and feminism.) With his three best friends and their partners, we agreed to read Underground Railroad. And read it. And ... never met. Still, in passing we noted its powerful, sparse writing, terse storytelling, and mounting tension: will she make it? You’re never sure, but also what can making it possibly mean?

2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Fuck, I mean holy fuck, wtf was that book? I was glued to it from start to finish. It should have been five times longer. I suppose this makes me a bandwagon jumper, something all my hip radars tell me to avoid, but this time it’s for good reason. I’ve never read such a structurally messed up book. It could have been disaster. It was brilliant.

1. Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere
I am suggestible, especially if those suggesting are every single one of the NYT Book Review hosts. One by one they read Lives this year, and one by one came in gushing about it. So I fell for it, then fell into it. No other book has treated illness and death so kindly and beautifully. I had a library copy, but I’m going to buy it now as a reference guide to getting sick and handling it with grace. Lincoln in the Bardo was a close second, but this won out.

Janet Jackson
Dwight Yoakam

See them before you die.

These cookies I made last week.

Screen Shot 2017-12-11 at 6.21.31 PM.png

Also, haloumi cheese, first grilled by the great Helen Johnston, now a permanent resident in the dinner repertoire.

Dehydrated watermelon.

Now that I’ve entered the realm of the silly,


Apostrophe. b. beginning of language. d. 2017.

I thought I was going to murder the next person who incorrectly (or didn’t, didn’t, DIDN’T) deploy an apostrophe, but then I realized: someone already murdered the apostrophe. Shame, since its rules were actually not that bloody hard to learn, but whatever. I guess it’s now only for iphones and people born before 1985 to know.

Happy holidays! Im dreaming of a white Christmas I hope you are too.






You ever heard that demeaning phrase “She’s pretty _____ for an older woman”? Ever said it yourself? Post-40, ladies are generally understood to be incapable of having fun, being attractive, doing anything worth noticing, not being fat. You know, the things women are measured by.

I’ve got approximately 9 months until I’m 40. Convention tells me I should get it on tonight so as to fill that time gap with a child, since babies on the brain are probably the only reason I can’t remember basic things like the name of Exile on Main Street at a moment when it matters. Truth is, I never think about 40 anymore. The last couple of years have sent me careening towards it in ways I didn’t anticipate, so I finally just let my hair go grey and said fuck it. I’m looking forward to being less visible; expectations going down. Maybe I can start doing whatever the hell I want instead of pleasing someone else.

Of particular relevance at this moment is – no, not that I can almost do the splits still – I’m going to stop shutting up. I’m going to get louder, and more opinionated, and more annoying, because I no longer care about pleasing people. I’ll stop hiding the secrets I’ve been keeping the way I thought I was supposed to. I’ll stop pretending I don’t have to do anything because all is fine with me when I’m in position to fight for others.

I’m going to be like Janet Jackson.


As I taught Janet a couple weeks ago, I was informed by a student who couldn’t contain her excitement that she was coming to town. WTF, I said. I need to go, I said. Convinced the boyfriend in short order, and we showed up a few minutes into the opening act, waited in a line constituting groups of decked out ladies in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, rejected the free makeup samples handed to us, got two extra-large teas at Tim Horton’s and sat in our seats. It was our first date there since the romantic Rush concert of 2015.

Palpable excitement. The ladies were out in full force. The last time I saw a crowd like that was for the Dixie Chicks post-“I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.”

And then Janet emerged.

“Let’s dance.”

For nearly two hours, that woman danced like our lives depended on it. I mean come.on. Even the fittest three-year-old hopped up on smarties can’t dance that long. Janet did it with attitude, pleasure, commitment. She was mad, sweet, friendly, determined. She was not going to put up with anyone’s shit.

Control opens with the following lines:

“This is a story about control.
My control.
Control of what I say.
Control of what I do.
And this time I’m gonna do it my way.
I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I do.
Are we ready?
I am.
‘Cause it’s all about control.
And I’ve got lots of it.”

In a move that’s apparently now standard, she went through pretty much every hit in medley form. One verse of “Escapade,” a chorus, on to “Miss You Much.” Finish it off with a section of “Nasty.” About eight dancers surrounded her, dressed head to toe in white outfits. Janet, meanwhile, replicated all the moves of thirty years prior, geared up in long sleeves, turtleneck, boots. Danced as hard as her dancers.

Even the “Miss You Much” sequence was the same.

Did I mention this woman is 51?

We hear so much about Madonna aging before us, grasping at partial dance moves while her backup team shoulder most of the labour. We witness other supposedly deteriorating pop stars, bestowed with compliments like “hardly any work done” or “still has a great body” and Janet is never mentioned in these comments. Meanwhile, she’s dancing better than any 20-year-old could in their wildest dreams. And meanwhile, in the midst of us not talking about her, we’re anticipating Justin Timberlake’s epic return to the Super Bowl halftime stage, after the “wardrobe malfunction” wherein he revealed Janet’s nipple got her expelled from the NFL for life.

You know why, right? Because he’s a white dude and she’s a black woman. Therefore it’s her fault. Naturally.

I cried during “Rhythm Nation.” And I don’t mean teared up, I mean wet face. My boyfriend laughed. “Are you overcome?” he asked. I told him to leave me alone, assuming he thought it was a funny moment.

Actually, Janet was giving me exactly what I needed. In the stripped-down stage – just her and her dancers – no spectacle, the show was all about community, working together. It wasn’t about the star who still “has a great bod” at 50, or has enough stamina to dance through a show. No, instead Janet, who has been misunderstood and maligned through her career, was showing us that while white, middle-class, educated women are turning on each other and fighting out the trivial tenets of feminism, accosting and accusing from comfortable places, there’s still a load of work to do. Most women cannot sit ensconced in warm spots, berating each other from the safety of their keyboards, hidden from true threats. Janet is one of those uncomfortable women. And more than 30 years into her career, she’s telling us we have to come together and turn our attention on the outside world, on the forces still keeping us down. Nothing has changed since she released Control, or Rhythm Nation 1814; in fact, it’s largely gotten worse.

Why is she dancing so hard? Because at 51, she still has to work her ass off to get even a portion of the recognition of her privileged counterparts. Because at 51, even at the superstardom peak, her life as a black woman is hard.

Janet does far more for me than any woman with a PhD or a tortured song about heartbreak did. She’s telling me to bring people together, to keep trying.

She’s telling me now's not the time to shut up.

Voices in My Head

If someone were to animate me, they would draw a big headache. I don’t know what that would look like, nor am I suggesting I’m a nothing but hassle. I think. But I spend most of my time dodging the dreaded headache, ducking like it’s a bomber flying above threatening my day with total destruction.

I think headaches are assholes. Just like there are different types of assholes, there are different types of headaches. It occurred to me last night that I could draw up a comprehensive headache typology, and for your benefit, identify them by the singing voices I most despise. You’ve got your Win Butler headaches, your Ed Sheeran, etc.


1. Migraine With Aura, or Janis Joplin.
You walk into a Shopper’s Drug Mart and you’re staring at the dental floss, and you’re like, is it … happening? Is there a hole in my vision? And you reach for the Reach and realize it’s six inches to the left of where you thought it was, so you turn to the right and stare into the distance until you realize you’ve been giving a baby who just materialized a creepy stare and the mother hustles the stroller around the corner to get away from you, that’s like when you hear the strains of Janis Joplin over the intercom and you’re thinking, is it … happening again? Do I really have to hear her voice? And as soon as you realize yup, it’s her, she’s SCREAMING IN YOUR EAR with that horrible scratchy voice and you’re wobbling around trying not to crash into a stack of halloween candy, searching in your purse for some advils, and, too late, it’s all Janis Joplin in your throbbing ears and snowy television screen vision and people are asking you what’s wrong but you’ve lost the ability to talk, so you shake your head and point to it, and grope your way home where the only thing you can do is listen to repeats of Nashville on very low volume, because the show doesn’t require you to actually watch the five-second eruptions between characters that make up each scene. This process repeats itself several times over the next few days.

2. The Sore Back, or Nickelback.
You’ve been standing on your feet all day, and what started as a small oof when you bent over to pick something up has morphed into back pain that scorches up your spine, tightens your shoulders, and grips your jaw, the same feeling you get when you’re reminded of who Nickelback really is, a bunch of dudes complaining about girls in grinding repetitions of trying to get that piece of steak lodged in Kroeger’s throat out once and for all.

3. The Bad Weather, or Ed Sheeran.
“Wow, nice”: a phrase applied equally to a radical change in barometric pressure leading to some break in the weather and to Ed Sheeran’s meekly misogynistic songs about women’s physical attributes disguised as romance. Both are fine as the background to a date (when there’s nothing else to talk about: “Hm, looks like we’re finally in for that storm!” “I love the shape of you.”) but not for the head. This usually manifests as one pinpoint over the left eye, making you feel like the rest of the world must finally see you as the cyborg you really are until the snow stops falling or the chinook has turned the streets into a river of melting ice. You cower under the blankets while everybody else puts on a pair of shorts in the middle of February. “Thanks for the weather forecast!” says your friends. No problem.

4. The Monthly, or the Rob Thomas.
This one, for whatever reason, is always a shock. The same reaction when you hear a Matchbox 20 song on the radio, TWENTY YEARS after they were not popular. Why? Why is this happening again? And there’s no buildup, it’s just like wham, let me slam the front of your head in a vice and make you wonder what the point of being alive is, usually while you’re in the middle of something where you have to appear smart and not fog-headed like this is doing to you. And you go home thinking, was it something I ate? And then Flo visits and you’re like, oh yeah, even though you had Clue going on your phone to tell you “PMS is happening today,” etc. You’re still somehow always surprised.

It's just the worst? Why did this ever happen?

5. The Ocular, or the Sarah McLachlan.
This one is the headache who’s always trying to get on your good side, maybe with a nice tune about the usual heartache, delivered in smarmily poetic lyrics, saying I’m smarter than the other migraines who are equally annoying but not as darkly intelligent, because I don’t actually turn into a headache. I just threaten, covering it up with disingenuous earnestness and sincerity. Perhaps this gasp will make you come around, or this slight hiccup in my overwrought delivery. I hang in the air, never leaving, manifesting as a giant white spot in the shape of Africa, annoying you every time you look around, but never really doing anything objectionable.

6. The Lingerer, or the Win Butler.
As a headache, this is the most annoying, sitting as it does in the background, never amounting to much, but stopping all enjoyable activities like reading or sex, or reading during sex, because it’s a vague annoyance, slightly diminishing one’s ability to truly feel good. Like just man up already and stop it with the warbling and be a real headache! Jeez.

It’s My Birthday; I’m Gonna Be An Asshole

I am supposed to be perpetually offended by myself.

I’m a thirty-something white woman, who grew up in the suburbs consuming the worst products pop culture had to offer: NKOTB. Saved By The Bell. Street Cents (remember Street Cents?). Barbies. 90210. You name it, I was into it.

Then I grew up and, after a million years of school, basically became an anti-capitalist. A miserly-socialist- (if that’s a thing) who still wears camisoles full of holes so I don’t have to spend money – the system is telling me to deploy my credit card in the name of fast fashion! – slash-cultural-anthropologist who now views these once dear products as artifacts to be endlessly analyzed. In the name of better understanding my kind. Or, keeping my job.

White women are the enemy of culture. What we like is mindless, frivolous, dumb. Consumerist, uncritical. We are fickle. We are drawn in by gossip and cat fights, men with bare chests, our comrades perpetually angling for a marriage proposal. My critical distance from these things, facilitated by my many graduate degrees, allows me to coolly proclaim I once enjoyed, but now find fascinating, the objects of my youth, the targets of my desire. But no, I do not enjoy them anymore. Should I briefly fall into the trap of unadulterated joy, I can right things by performing speedy self-analysis. Phew. I thought I felt something. I just let down my critical guard! Back to distanced objectivism, right after these messages.

Well, fuck it, I decided this week. It turns out I really love country music, and yes, I’m a white girl, and ooh I’m from Alberta, how obvious, and well, just, who cares. So I let it crawl in my lap and snuggle in and make me feel something, and basically I did it because it was my birthday and I’m nearly 40, and if I don’t care about my undershirts or frizzy hair, then why do I care if I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC?

Well, there’s this.

Right, so (to begin a sentence like all guests on CBC Radio – which, by the way, is hip), it’s a little dangerous to love country music right now. A student recently undertook the Toronto bro country fan base as the subculture to study for her essay, and – to paraphrase – she was horrified at the Bay Street types who barely managed to loosen their ties before they got shit-faced in high-end downtown bars while classic artists like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line played in the background. Let’s keep the money rolling through the white community, yo. Let’s listen to borderline rapey songs while we ply the ladies around us with drinks. Let’s let loose at these mega country festivals on the summer weekends, leaving piles of plastic waste in our wake as homage to how great things used to be, when we suburban folks could do what we pleased without repercussion.

So, there’s that. You say you like country, you run the risk of being, well, that.

Nevertheless, the great proportion of country music – like 80 years’ worth – and country music fans – millions’ worth – does not celebrate this entitled white man assholery so prevalent in bro country right now. The problem is we’re just at a crossroads, perhaps even an impasse, where should we continue on this trajectory, we might end up looking back on bro country as the warning bell for a scary white nationalism.

Pushing aside that very pragmatic reason for distancing myself from my taste, why not investigate some other reasons why I don’t readily admit to it? Just kidding. You thought I was performing self-analysis!

I went to see Dwight Yoakam the other night. I’ve waited twenty years to see the man, and he delivered. Surrounding me at the show, I noticed, were people … like me? All white. Mostly over 35. Being in a room full of white people in Toronto is one of the weirder experiences one can have in life. It’s so noticeable, you feel more conspicuous than you do as a straight girl at a bar on Church Street on a Saturday night. Except everyone is conspicuous, because where did they come from? Like, the country? What else do they do for hobbies? Watch 90210?

Performing self-analysis at the show, because I was watching my alcohol intake and was thus sober enough to be in work mode (notice how smoothly I deploy “thus” in a sentence. Do I ever turn it off?), I wondered, why do I like Dwight Yoakam?

There’s the dance, of course.

And there are the wonky lyrics.

And the very relevant lyrics, depending on one’s station in life.

His general air of mystery – he said all of six sentences to the crowd.

Oh, stop it already. I like him because he makes me feel good. There, I said it. I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC. I LOVE DWIGHT YOAKAM.

But if we really want to perform Gillian-slash-cultural-analysis here, we could say that Gillian has a tendency to appreciate the sort of country artists who are traditionalists, but not revivalists, those who “instead of evoking a bygone past,” prefer “to evoke a familiar, unchanging present.”

Revivalism is the stuff of (white) people with leisure time, or no sense of the relevance of their own culture. Turning to a past era, a bygone way of life, or something exotic (e.g., made by an artist of a lower economic class) makes one feel good, like they’re tuned into something real. I’m not talking about the revivalist religious movement of the 1700-1800s, though that’s not to say similar analyses don’t apply. That explains why you’re more likely to find white people my age at a string band show, or listening to something under the roots umbrella, than attending a new country performance by a 1980s artist. It is cooler to do that than to listen to something that can’t be referred to as “nostalgic,” in other words, the Top 40 country songs from the late 80s and early 90s.

So I can say to people, “I went to Dwight Yoakam, and it was great.” And they say, “Oh yeah, good for you, who is he?” And I can’t really explain, other than to say he was the bad guy in Panic Room. And they go, oh yeah, right.

But then if I say, “He did a four-song set dedicated to Merle Haggard,” I get the wow response. Because, you know, Merle Haggard was old, and just died, and was “the real thing,” went to jail, etc., etc., a sort of Johnny Cash figure for people who know slightly more than average about country music. They might even know “Silver Wings” or “Mama Tried.” But they probably don’t know “Pocket of a Clown.”

I end up in this weird position of liking something that isn’t cool, and yet my participation in something now not as mainstream as in the 80s, and unknown to most listeners – some of the main determiners of cool – does not yield me any cultural capital. So I think my solution is to say, It’s my birthday, and I like country music. So there.

A Music City Manifesto

The other day, progeny of escaped High Park capybaras Bonnie and Clyde were bestowed the names of Toronto legends Geddy, Alex, and Neil of Rush. If I can be honest for a second, I was briefly miffed, since the names I had picked out for my next cats were Alex and Geddy. Thieves!

Then I got over it, because this is the best demonstration of how a big, apparently unfriendly city creates a community. Geddy (the person) in particular is a fixture here, prompting the city to mark Rush’s dedication to their hometown with varied honours, including this. But because the capybara names were decided on by vote, we all felt in on it. Even if we didn’t vote. It still felt like a meaningful moment. It helps that we as a city also spent time earlier this year wondering where Bonnie and Clyde were gettin’ it on during the months they were missing from the Zoo. Geddy’s flower garden? Perhaps.

I also got over it because maybe that’s a sign my own cat will hang on a little longer, until those names go out of fashion. And I further got over it because I have another destination to add to my “Important Rush Sites” tour of Toronto that will mark the last year of my 30s later this month.

I brought this capybara business up in class because we’d done a unit on the band (naturally) and realized later that it’s a fairly specific class where news like that is actually relevant, aside from being another reason to make fun of the teacher. I don’t teach “Mating Rituals of the Capybara,” nor do I teach “Influential 20th-Century Composers: Rush” (though now I’m going to propose that for Fall 2018!). Music and the City instead examines how urban centres facilitate (or impede) musical activity.

Since the course was due for an overhaul, I did a bunch of research on the idea of music and the city. My maddening findings included the innovation on the part of the City of Toronto to feature local artists on the 311 hold music, and their City Hall concert series. Other bold thinkers have paved the way for local musicians to “network,” or found ways to increase outside musician traffic to Toronto, suggesting that it could be musical tourism destination because we have “international acts.” There was even a vote! Toronto City Council was unanimous on making Toronto a Music City. Because, you see, it wasn’t before the vote occurred.

Not one of these initiatives considers how to keep ALREADY WORKING musicians in Toronto. In fact, both Music Canada and the Toronto Music Advisory Council produced studies that suggested one of the first ways to keep any culture – musical or otherwise – in an urban setting is to make space available and cost of living cheaper. You may not know this, but you can’t actually make money as a musician anymore. So if you want a creative fucking city, be fucking creative.

Anyway. Initiatives like Making Toronto a Music City are draped in bureaucratese, turning the straightforward and specific into bumbling platitudes of vagueness. What have they done so far, you ask? Why, “facilitated links to other City departments,” of course. “Provided business-to-business connections.” What could be achieved with a couple of full-time employees instead morphs into tripping subcommittees of ineptitude, resulting in a mayor who “doesn’t have time” to visit sister city Austin during SXSW and stalled debates on whether liquor licensing for venues should differ from pool halls or restaurants. We also get the reports proudly detailing the economic contributions of musical activity to the city, reducing creative processes to dollars – and, supposedly, jobs. “Productivity” wins again. Let’s only value music by comparing it to how many cars are shipped off the assembly line rather than as a central component of any place with good standards of living.

Toronto, and other North American cities, might do well to sit in Oslo, or Copenhagen, for a day or two, where going out to hear music, and building spaces for it to be made, is quotidian. Not special. Because the problem is not that we’re incapable of doing things like reducing artist rent, offering spaces to create, extending the hours of public transit so people can hear music later, reducing rent for music venues, improving parking and loading zones around venues, creating city-sponsored events and concerts, etc. etc. We could do all of that in relatively short order. Instead, we have to change our thinking about what music is. It’s not a commodity the way it might have been in the past. It’s not a generator of “economic activity” – or if it is, that’s a lovely byproduct, not a goal. It’s a social activity, a community generator, a way of life for many people. But if all we do is work, and focus on the output rather than the process, then we misunderstand music – or any art’s – purpose.

What if, in a radical move, governments offered days off to go listen to music events that it funded? What if everyone could be done work in an 8-hour day so they could go out at night? (It does happen in other countries.) What if music was seen as a vocation that could generate a sustainable income rather than a commercial product to be created in one’s offtime and sold in a market oversaturated with competitors? What if there were more tax breaks for presenters and venues and people taking music lessons?

All of these things require a substantial shift in ways of thinking about art. These ways are deeply entrenched. I don’t expect anyone can make that happen.

But it’s the only way to start actually creating a music city. And if there’s ever a moment where that shift is apparent, and we head in the right direction instead of applauding for institutional soundbites, for promises without follow-through, then I’ll get three more cats and name them Peart, Fripp, and Squire in the name of true progressiveness.

For a Good Time, Call G ('s Bookshelf)

Hi. You’ve been wondering where I’ve been, haven’t you.

If you haven’t, that’s fine because I’ve been hiding. Now I have such good recommendations from the last six months of my cultural consumption that you can’t finish your book club book.

Here are the hot, hot items.


1. My latest book club book. I know, you want to join our club, but you have to ask Deb, she is the boss, and Deb is very good at saying no. My job, as such, is to tell you what we read and whether you’d even need to bother coming (anyway, we mostly talk about diapers and cats and Riverdale and KNAUSGAARD – I’m going to talk about KNAUSGAARD at our next meeting, some how, some way, sorry, so you would probably not enjoy yourself anyway).

We read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Going for a “classic.” This is an astoundingly good book (says the 21st century occasional book critic with surprise). Its chapters are all cliffhangers, and though the intended symbolism of portrait absorbing the real self, etc., may be fairly rote 130 years later, it’s still a pretty subversive, gay, Marxist piece of reading. I like all those things. Thumbs up.

2. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, by Carrie Brownstein.

At first, I thought, she’s a great writer. Then about halfway through, I started thinking, Carrie I want more from you. She’s oblique and opaque exactly when you don’t want her to be. And then she’s vulnerable and transparent again. It’s a wild ride, I tell you. I’m not quite done, but even if it ends badly, I think the trip is worth it.

3. Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.

Not feminist, too many boners, but good plot. Sometimes that’s all you need.

4. The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston.

You know, pretty good. It has all the elements of a thriller – snakes, parasites, drug cartels, corrupt governments, and also lost ruins. Read it with a full can of bug spray next to you.

5. The House of God, by Samuel Shem.

This is not for everyone. Especially if those everyone has any sort of medical problem, has spent time in emergency, or has dealt with job-induced depression. It’s also really not feminist (not that this is necessarily a requirement for me, but the descriptions of women might be troubling for some); in the end, the afterword, written many years later, makes you adore the author.


1. The Handmaid’s Tale

I have nothing important or critical to say about this. I just want to give you some recommendations if you haven’t started yet.

Pour a drink first.
Do not watch late at night.
Line up at least two episodes of Brooklyn 99 to watch immediately afterward.
If a man must be present, ensure that he is very sensitive. Apologize beforehand for yelling at him when the credits roll. It has nothing to do with him.
Lock your bank account.


1. Chris Stapleton, From a Room: Volume I

I don’t have a lot to say about this either. I’m not sure why I like it, because it’s both neotraditional and new country. And sort of traditional. Would you agree that most of us country fans actually secretly like our new artists in the traditional vein to sound just a teensy bit new country? He’s like Merle Haggard meets Charlie Daniels (or is that just the beard) meets Kid Rock? Good lyrics.

2. New Pornographers, Whiteout Conditions

It was good, but I’ll admit I got sick of it and took it out of rotation. Still, it’s worth at least 5-10 straight listens, especially if you want to learn how to write a good pop song.

3. Tin and the Toad, Out of the Wind

Out of the wind blew five dudes who make the rockingest songs about like cows and being on the farm, and somehow even though they can be funny they’re also sincere and sad and smart and everything you want songs to be. Makes me want to adopt a bull and make it my friend.

4. I’m interested in Honeyblood and War Paint, but have not given them thorough listens yet. Call this the “albums I’m curious about section” of my recommendations. Add Harry Styles to that. Just kidding. I’ve heard that song far more than I should have. But I’ll add Aimee Mann and a proper listen to Drive By Truckers and Jason Isbell and maybe Haim, although I didn’t like what I’ve heard of it too much.

5. Back catalogues. Feel free to talk me out of any of these:
Janet Jackson (I’ve done the big ones)
Led Zeppelin (never really committed)
My Bloody Valentine (I started, so far okay)
Kate Bush
White Stripes (I know, I know)
Sonic Youth (also started)
Gino Vanelli (this is a recommendation, I don’t know who from)
Fred Neill

6. Music I went back to.

a. The first four albums of Linda Ronstadt. This is killer. Songs are classics, her voice is incredible, the band, astounding. That steel! Seriously. But it’s hard to do the four albums at once, especially if you’re inclined to sing along.

b. This song, which I listen to all the time. Mostly because of who’s singing it.

c. For anyone afraid of losing their stiffy, a la Franzen:

d. Dwight Yoakam. Nothing better than Guitars, Cadillacs.


1. All you need is this episode of Sound Opinions, which contains the best story ever told. Ever.

Such a Waste of a Beautiful Day

The New Pornographers have a new album out. It’s pretty good.

Just kidding. It’s really fucking good. What are you doing still reading this blog? Go buy it; stop withholding your cash from actual talented people who are way better than you. Come back to this blog when you’ve listened to it at least four times, because they deserve your attention more.

I listened to it on the way home last night. I was trying to read a book at the same time. It was distracting. The book or the album? I don’t know, but I chose the album. Listening to it on a train, on your regular route home from your regular shift is weird, because all the songs sound like you’re supposed to be doing something more epic, like prepping for your first space flight, or dying your hair blue before you go roller-disco-dancing at the club. But no, I was just sitting on the sideways seat, swaying back and forth, looking at the dirty floor, the way I did going in to work, and the way I did 4,942 times before.

I noticed the sneakers on the dude across from me. He was doing something on his laptop that made his mouth hang open, but his sneakers were nuts. The socks didn’t help: clashing patterns and bright colours and all sorts of craziness that were more apt for the tune in my ears. By this point it might have been “Whiteout Conditions” or “High Ticket Attractions.” The continuity of the phrasing in NP songs is partly what makes them good. It worked with the socks.

I started looking at everyone’s shoes. They fell mostly on the crazy spectrum. I am perhaps not the most qualified to speak on the issue, given my choices are limited by my size 11 feet and a package of requirements I take to the store that include fashionable, comfortable, reasonable (price), durable, etc. Still, what is up with everyone’s shoes. First the girl beside me left the train on a pair of royal blue sneakers, then a woman came in with velcro wedges. I kid you not. Three strips. Another guy with turquoise-and-blue sneakers. Sneakers are among the worst offenders. It was a veritable shoe circus.

Shoes, I realized, are one of those commodities that facilitate a sense that you’re both individual/cool and fitting in/alike. Small variations on general homogeneity that don’t make you feel too out of place. Also, bonus, they are “necessities” so you don’t have to feel bad purchasing your primary form of transportation, or replacing the old crazy with the new using an entire paycheque, because “they would eventually wear out anyway.”

Since we’re all in the business of routinely switching our identities, shoes can be doubly functional: don’t cut your foot on dangerous objects outside, plus, be somebody different from who you were earlier today! While you are stepping out in your current weird shoe, look at pictures of yourself on your phone to determine who you should be next, or perhaps check and see how many likes that most recent selfie got. If you didn’t get enough, maybe it’s time for a new shoe.

I was covertly spying on the shoe wearers’ phones last night, wondering what sorts of treasures they were drowning in. By and large, it was pictures of themselves. They were either scrolling through libraries of their own snapshots, or looking at pictures they had posted of themselves. There seemed to be a sort of shoe/self-absorption aspect ratio, wherein the level of shoe crazy could predict the amount of time spent staring at one’s posed version of the self now available for widespread consumption.

I got on the bus. A guy sat next to me; he was good-looking and quite large, so my body reacted in that way where contact is intimate but not necessarily acceptable or unpleasant. Sort of like the dream I had the other night where I was in Stockholm with Knausgaard and I was trying to tell him I slept with Khal Drogo by accident and as I was explaining it I was drawing lazy lines on his bare back while he sat next to me and we stared out to sea, and then I woke up with that warm feeling of intimate love only made possible by dreams. (It is no secret what my pop culture-literary inputs are at the moment.) I looked down at the bus guy’s shoes, and lo and behold they were quite classy loafers. Wow, I thought, and as I did, he lifted his foot to cross his legs, thereby displaying in all its glory the loafed foot for me to admire.

He took out his phone. I kid you not. And – I kid you not again – he did not look at a picture of himself. He checked his emails. And he had none, so he put it away.

I got off the bus. Such a waste of a beautiful day.

I Want to be the Filling of an Open-Faced Sandwich

Part of the trouble with being middle class, I’ve discovered, is you’re not supposed to want to stay there. It is an aspirational position from which you should want to move up. Or down. You lack the glamour of the nouveau-riche; saying I “started from the bottom” now I’m here doesn’t sound so good when all I’ve got is a cookie-cutter suburban bungalow and a ford taurus. And it doesn’t have the working-class exoticism of eating pork n’beans straight outta the can, or the edge-of-your-seat drama of maybe not paying the rent on time. So, it’s time to move.

The middle is a bad place to be. Think about it: middle of a staircase? A little dangerous. Go up or down. Middle seat in a car? Your knees touch your chin, and not in a life-affirming way. You’re reminded of your monster butt as it’s crushed under neighbours’ hips. Middle of a book? You cannot post on Goodreads that you’re done. Middle of a storm? Now, the centre of a hurricane is fine, but of course centre suggests purpose, the point around which all else circles. Middle is, well, middling. Boring, without direction or motion. Undefined. Blobby.

Take the middle of a sandwich: its contents are rarely defined clearly. I mean, tuna can be like tuna with mayo or without, perhaps with added onions, pickles, celery (ew). Ham and cheese could desire a dollop of mustard, perhaps a wisp of lettuce. Basically, the middle is constantly striving to be something else, because, you see, it doesn’t want to be like all the other middles. And isn’t a sandwich defined by its bread? Not what’s in between the bread. What makes a sandwich a sandwich is that something exists between two breads.

Except in the case of open-faced sandwiches, where things seem a little more equal opportunity.*

I’m entering my moment in the sandwich generation. I modified my own middle by choosing a cat instead of a child, and now said cat is dying even though she’s younger than me. Bad choice, perhaps, but the care doesn’t differ all that much. A typical afternoon goes like this (all cat utterances approximated, naturally):

Pumpkin: Hi. Do you know where I am?
Me: You just woke up from a nap in your bed.
Pumpkin: Oh. Right.
[sits down]
[keeps sitting]
Pumpkin: Hey, I have something to show you.
Me: Alright. [gets up from boring computer work]
Pumpkin: Where am I?
Me: I know you’re blind, but there’s only three rooms in this place.
Pumpkin: Right, right. I think I want to go in the bathroom …
… no, no, I want to go in the bedroom!
Here we are.
Me: What do you need?
Pumpkin: I think I need to be lifted into my bed.
Me: Like this?
Pumpkin: Yes, that’s what I needed. Thank you.

Five minutes later

Pumpkin: Hi. Do you know where I am?
Me: Sigh.
Pumpkin: I have something to show you.

This generally goes on repeat 20+ times a day.

I wonder, as I care for Miss Senile, if I was supposed to aim higher? Like, be somebody? Or was I just supposed to stay here and stop trying: show up to work, do duties while zoned out, collect paycheque and spend it on aspirational whiskey (Drake’s Virginia Black looks good on the sideboard (which is a wealthy person’s piece of furniture)), and stop working on other projects? Start something: ‘I have big plans! I’m going to achieve this thing and be quite famous!’ and then stop because it got in the way of watching Riverdale and being tired from getting up to go to work, and fun weekend activities like mowing the lawn and taking yoga classes in my neighbourhood. But even Riverdale reveals, as Emily Nussbaum says, people may look happy, but are “just faking it.”

Let’s see what one of my favourite middle-classians, Chris McDonald, has to say on the subject. “On the one hand, to belong to the middle strata of society, is, for many, to be mediocre, average, another face in the crowd … On the other hand, middle-class values emphasize upward mobility and self-improvement; the central belief is that the individual’s hard work, innovation, and initiative will lead to material gain, satisfaction in life, and personal distinction.”

Yes. That is what will happen: I will become great. I don’t know if I’ll finish this project, however, since I am a dull nobody with nothing to say.

Hm. Maybe I’ll turn to my hero Knausgaard instead: “As far as the larger picture was concerned, I never had any doubt that I could attain whatever I wanted, I knew I had it in me, because my yearnings were so strong and they never found any rest. How could they? How else was I going to crush everyone?”

Oh yes, right. I am great. Nobody who came before me did this thing quite like I’m doing this thing. I will conquer! Achieve! I have a new routine: get up at 5 am every day and complete this amazing artifact I’m making. Someday, I will be adored. Someday, I will be the filling in an open-faced sandwich. And nobody will think twice about the foundational bread on which I was created.

*You know where open-faced sandwiches are popular? Denmark.

I Don’t Find You Very Funny

Put Me on A Pedestal, and I’ll Only Disappoint You


I have just graduated from my program. You might find this impressive. I’m fairly certain my entire sense of self depends on what you think of me. Please accept my:

-Job application
-Grant application
-Program of study proposal
-Book proposal
-Material for review
-Summary of Twitter followers
-Digital platform

I look forward to your prompt response.

I will get up every morning and check my email to see if you have replied. I’ll double check your voicemail message to see if you are in the office this week. You are? I wonder why you haven’t responded. Maybe I’ll just have a quick look at my analytics again – no, no sign that anyone in your city viewed my pages. I wonder if my [application/proposal/self summarized in set of statistics and likes] ended up in your spam?

Finally. Oh ho! Today we have a response.

“Thank you for your [application/proposal/self summarized in set of statistics and likes]. We are intrigued by the bundle of skills you have offered us. You have accomplished quite a lot in your short time on this earth! You stand far above your fellow applicants. Perhaps we could offer you a sense of a potential opportunity, upon receipt of more evidence that you are indeed the candidate we are searching for? Please send additional materials at your earliest convenience.”

“Hello. Thank you for your swift reply to my initial email. I hope this finds you well. I have attached here evidence of my flexibility. You see, I am everything you need: ‘the business, the raw material, the product, the clientele, and the customer of my own life,’ I am the ‘headline star and enraptured audience of my own performance.’* I’m quite sure you will agree. I look forward to your reply.”

“Dear applicant,

Thank you. We have found someone not as intriguing as you, but they are more flexible, have social media training, and they are quite a bit cheaper. All the best in your life endeavours.”

Tell Me I’m Exceptional and I Promise to Exploit You


I’d like to send you this material for consideration. You see, I’m trying to “make it.” I can’t “make it” without you. In particular, I’m in need of “good reviews.” I understand you are normally a paid reviewer, but I am young and in the beginning of my career, and as such have nothing to offer other than good thoughts.

I’ve heard that in the past, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. My paid publicist would contact your editor and I would not have to cold-email you. Seems like a time when people had no self-motivation, if you ask me.

Evidence of my own work ethic is contained within this enclosed offering. You can’t deny my ability to entrepreneurialize my self. I worked on this thing from start to finish, including the Go Fund Me campaign that paid my rent for the time I worked on it.

I promise to pass your good name on to anyone else who requires a “good review.” Many thanks in advance! Please let me know if I can send you additional materials.

Give Me All Your Money and I’ll Make Some Origami, Honey


I know you think I’m lazy and entitled. Quite the opposite: I’m not in this for the cash. That is what we in the biz call “selling out.” If it is not evident from my [application/proposal/offering], I’d be pleased to do this thing for free. I mainly do this for the “love of it” and if that means cleaning toilets to pay the cell phone bill, so be it.

I heard, actually, that you might have a small cash offering at the end of my service for you, though that this is contingent on “available funding” and a “review” of my work. Fair enough; I mean if you’ve got it and you’re willing to offer it to me, I mean, I could perhaps with it purchase a new self via office-appropriate attire. After all, the loss of this job will require I tailor an entirely new persona that is pleasing to other employers/reviewers/granting bodies. I will have to “forget my past and become a different person.”* I will be without paycheques, and all I have to blame is “some immobile attribute of [my]self.”*

I will have to alter my online self in order to appear ready for the next cash-free offering, thus ever destabilizing my identity. My Facebook page, a “jumble of unexplained tastes and alliance, the melange of which requires the constant care and management by an entity that bears some tenuous relationship to the persona uploaded, but who must maintain an assured clear distance from it,”* will change. I’m already planning it.

I Think You’re a Joke


I come home from a long day in the self-management-online trenches – oh wait, I’m already at home – and I make fun of you. You dangle importance in front of me: you say you can make me “someone.” That “persistence pays off.” That you too worked long, hard, insecure hours before you “became someone.” And god knows, all I think about is how to become you.

I cook spaghetti. I will not tell you about this meal tomorrow, when you are describing the new “bistro” you went to with our colleagues, where you left half a bottle of $200 wine on the table, because you all “had to work” in the morning, and anyway, your expense account is covering it. You tell me “I’ll understand” someday when I’m as “important” as you, and I too must get back to the grind in the am. After all, the only thing I’m doing right now is altering my quiddity “in an ongoing adjustment of agency to the requirements of social and physical adaptability to shifting market forces.”* That’s not real work.

I tell you that I’m trying very hard.

You laugh. “Tiny little thing,” you say. “You’ll understand someday. When you’ve reached the magical age I’ve deemed old enough to allow for some sort of shaky alliance between us. Only then, I’ll be accusing you of refusing to understand my newly vulnerable position as an elder. I’ll be expecting you to pay for my inability to pay for myself. After all, I left the world in good shape for you to flourish.”

But I Don’t Find You Very Funny

*From the Book Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

Annual Review: Am I Meeting My Middle-Class Responsibilities?

Hello! You might remember me from one year ago, when I was but a young entrant into that elusive tax bracket we call middle class. What an exciting time it was.

This position elicits great respect. And with great respect comes great responsibility. As per all honourable titles, I am now up for my annual middle-class review, and it’s nothing but good news from the M-C trenches.

First of all, let me apologize for the late delivery of this report. You see, after my last tax appointment, I was distracted by the new episode of Riverdale. I felt I must complement the renewal of my middle-class status with a dose of TV designed for the masses; who else would be watching it if not me? And then, quite honestly, I went to Hidden Figures and was accordingly emotionally manipulated, feeling contempt for my fellow white man, sympathy, great regret at our troubled history, etc., on cue. I capped that weekend off with an episode of Nashville, wherein I truly felt something during the choir-girls-in-the-hospital-room bit, and followed that up with appropriate anger whenever someone finished off a two-minute conversation that had relatively little time to escalate with angry outburst and out-of-room stalking.

Phew. My job was done! It was all in preparation for the next day’s water-cooler chat: I was ready to offer my summaries and opinions on the important cultural events of our moment, with a good dose of levity and slight ashamedness at consuming such trite pieces of garbage. One bit that’s confusing about middle-class cultural consumption is how I’m actually supposed to feel. Bloated? Hungry for more? I’m unsure. See, if I don’t watch these things, I may be cast out of my social strata, unable to make over-the-boiling-kettle small talk in the office kitchen. However, if I am too eager about Rayna’s car accident, or the stilettos Veronica and Cheryl Blossom wore at their sleepover, I might not feel so hip should I bring it up with a couple of bearded dudes judging Ryerson’s Battle of the Bands with me.


At the same time, I am awfully entertaining at book clubs and dinner parties, offering a critical recap of my “guilty pleasures” to raucous laughter, because you see, everyone knows I’m being sarcastic. I don’t actually like these shows. Or do I? Or is the uncertainty just so postmodern and hilarious? Nobody can know who I actually am or what I actually like. Identity is malleable. Subject to external influence.

Oops, I’ve gotten off-track here. You’re curious as to whether I was buying things last year? because my primary duty as a middle-class person is to consume things and keep the economy running. My patriotism reflected in brandishment of brand-name handbags and shiny new versions of kindles on which I read a combination of the latest bestsellers and other literary Mount Everests. I pretend it’s David Foster Wallace, but it’s really Danielle Steel. Etc. I post my progress on Goodreads. I am cultured.

I don’t think I bought as much as I was supposed to. Is there like an average amount to spend, or number of things to acquire each week? I confess to being obsessed with saving money on groceries (old habits die so hard), so I’ve been buying multiple packages of toilet paper and cheese when they’re on sale, and there’s no room in my fridge for artisanal bread crumbs or hand-crafted olives because the cheese takes up like the whole bottom shelf. Note to self: this is an area for improvement in 2017.

And then I realized I should have an inordinate preoccupation with various underclasses and marginalized peoples, since I am now a privileged person and have a) much power and b) time and c) a voice that is quite important. As such, I’m supposed to be taking up a lot of airtime and bandwidth, etc., espousing my opinions on issues like Black Lives Matter and for working-class women who don’t actually get time to write feminist blogs because they’re working six part-time jobs. But one problem with this is, I went to my massage therapist and she said that a lot of my back problems are from carrying too much change in my purse, so I started throwing all my extra coinage into a jar at home, and carry nothing more than toonies, but now what am I supposed to do about the people asking for change? Again, I am confused.

Am I failing this review?

I must have a hobby! I decided, to calm my agitated hands and alleviate wealth guilt. I have this pedal steel guitar (voice of the Southern American working class! Yeehaw!), and the vibrato I can generate from my deep levels of anxiety being worked out with the bar is quite something. I have also taken to bird watching, a new obsession of the white 30-somethiing female crowd who apparently find some solace and grief management techniques in staring at beaks and feathers through binoculars.

Most importantly, I am to sustain an unmanageable level of debt, one which should wake me up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. Bam. Covered. I still have nearly half of my student debt remaining. Oh, except I guess I wasn’t supposed to take on extra work and cut all frivolous spending in an effort to kill it in less than two years. Another area for improvement.

Long-term goals:
1. Buy more things. The more clutter they create, the better. By 2019, I should have a storage space with rent equal to my apartment’s to hold said things.
2. Express more concern for pressing topics of the day, mostly through angsty Facebook posts, not any tangible action.
3. Find more distracting TV, and if possible, do less reading.
4. Make sure all reading that is accomplished is of high literary value, so as to be conversant with the upper class to which I aspire.
5. Vote for whichever party says they are going to cut taxes.

I hope my review has been sufficient in demonstrating my promise as a member of the middle class. Should you require additional information, or wish to review anything herein, please do not contact me.

Going Off Brand

I’m backed up to a free air hose.

That’s a sentence I’ve always wanted to say. Not necessarily because I want to be pregnant – which is what being backed up to a free air hose is in western parlance – but because I want to say awesome phrases that have no apparent connection to their meaning. “How are you, Gillian?” “I’m backed up to a free air hose.” “No way!” “Congrats!” Etc.

Granted, the origin of getting oneself backed up to (into?) (onto?) a free air hose is mysterious; as such it may be meaningless. I found it in the back of a cowboy song and poetry collection and I’m trusting it’s correct. May the cowboy gods punish me should I ever misuse the phrase.

I wonder if the cowboy gods roil in the sky while mortals co-opt their words for other nefarious purposes.

“Giddyup.” = Party. (Not, you know, go.)
“Joy Juice.” “Kansas Sheep Dip.” = Whiskey. (Ok, that stayed.)
“Pecker.” =   (Actually means appetite.)

To burn.

Brought over from German, the old English use of brand is to refer to burning, sometimes more specifically to a piece of burning wood. Use of the word increased in the late 1800s and through the early 1900s as cattle were subjected to the process; use skyrocketed in the early 2000s when the former middle class, shunted through modern capitalist life like confused cattle, opted for a self-imposed, less smoky but no less painful, version.

Well, I sure feel like I’m burning. (up?) (out?)

Questions I’m supposed to be asking myself right now include: Am I on brand? What if my message is off brand? Can I speak, write, produce something that is not on brand, and if I do, what are the consequences? Perhaps I will confuse someone! Is questioning everything I’m told to do a brand in itself, and if so, is there a logo for that? Because I could use one. tells us in their “Basics of Branding” article that “your brand is your promise to your customer.” (I have to have customers?!) Am I the “innovative maverick” or the “experienced, reliable one”? Hmmmm.. So many choices! Apparently I am supposed to build brand equity, like Coke did, and then I can charge my customers more.

Let’s see what the cattle have to say about this, as originators of the process.

Okay, so first of all, you have the bosses (investors?) leading the way, saddlin’ up the horsies, and their assistants, the dogs, hanging out, tongues a’waggin’, looking forward to kicking some cattle ass ahead. Everything’s cool, everything’s cool. They go up to the cattle and they’re like, don’t worry, this is going to be a great time. Just come with us. And the cattle are thinking yeah, okay, I mean I had nothing planned today, might as well, and they all head down together, just joking around talking about their weekends and stuff. Even at 0:32, there’s a couple dudes who are pretty keen and jogging, and then at 0:36 you can see the brown guy’s thinking, uh, maybe this isn’t for me. But then he goes along too.

The horses know what’s happening. They’ve seen it before. The guy at 0:58 stares into the horizon with a flash of regret.

So everyone’s gathered in the pen and it seems like a good time, some even run to get the front row, and then. And then. The real reason they’re gathered becomes clear and all hell breaks loose. Have you ever tried steer wrestling? It ain’t easy. The party is knocked into a cocked hat, as they say.

Cattle who until this moment felt unique, in charge of their destiny are rounded up, roped, held down; unspeakable acts done to them, one of which is a logo branded on their ass. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want this, as evidenced by the little brown guy’s turn at 2:22 where everyone’s like, shit, you didn’t tell us it would be like this! And the other cattle are freaking out, trying to help him but they get stopped by Horse.

Once he’s branded, he gets up and runs off, but never the same will he be. You see, he’s offering a promise to his customer. My Ass Logo = Premium Beef. If my Beef does not live up to the brand you’ve come to know and love – Innovative Maverick Beef – please call the customer service line imprinted on my hoof and we’ll refund your money right away. He sort of feels burned in other ways too, yet this seemed like the right thing to do.

I mean, everyone else is doing it.


Get Out of Our Way

It’s job application season. My partner, after a mix-up on this issue, now asks my permission when applying for full-time jobs. “Do you want to live in Australia?” No. Then no application. It’s simple.

When I got sick, he went bananas applying for jobs and demanding better job security in his crappy position, spending most of his time raising his professional profile in different ways. I saw him less, he was distracted; even texting and phone calls slowed down. “What’s going on?” I’d ask.

“Do you want to live in Denmark?” Yes. Then at least I could have cancer no problem. No fear of losing my job. Socialism all the way.

Permission: this is a foundation of partnership. Checking in, allowing someone space and freedom. Without permission, you become trapped, without the right kind of permission, you’re trapped in a different way. It’s always being granted. In the outside world, permission functions very differently. There, it’s granted by people in power, withheld if they are threatened by the request. What if I went the way of my partner, spending time on CVs and job talks instead of staying at home offering the highly developed nurturing skills I’d cultivated over a lifetime of being a woman. “How dare she,” people would whisper behind my back. “He deserves a better partner than that. She should be his soft place to land.” My yearning for financial stability or certainty that lasted longer than four months would be evidence that I was mean, hard, selfish – and worst of all, ambitious. Not an attractive quality for a lady.

Instead here we are and I must wither, pale and fragile, while my man does everything he can to save me, western-movie-hero style. Must I wither?


I wonder, did the Dixie Chicks ask permission to sing “Long Time Gone” when they made a rare CMA appearance last week, still living down a well-informed, unyielding anti-war stance developed first by instinct, later by education, that started over a decade ago. They finally get to appear on the stage again, and instead of choosing any number of songs that made them household names, they go with the two lines that skewer country radio in its soft fleshy side for refusing to acknowledge its legends properly. Sturgill Simpson is a hero, Dixie Chicks are “ruining country”.

Because how dare they bring a black woman onstage, never mind one of the most successful black women in history, whose anger is unmatched by few besides the Chicks, and who appeared because she’s been wanting to sing with them for ages? How dare they? Who gave them permission?

You see, we’re still having to ask permission, every fucking day, to do the things we do – and do quite fucking well, thank you. You wonder why we’re mad? We are mad because we should not have to ask permission any more. Yet, here we are plastering the sweet smiles on our faces, standing beside men who bravely go out and fight the good fight, waiting for fucking ever for our turn. At what point will those granting permission get out of our way?

I shed many tears as I watched that performance, some of the angriest women I’d ever seen letting me fully feel my own anger legitimately. And I celebrated and cheered that we might be in a moment where this is allowed – someone is still granting permission – but that allowance comes before normal settles in. Need an example? We allow gay marriage until gay marriage is normal. And then I stopped celebrating because the one woman who had put aside many, many, many years of her own advancement for her husband and in response to those around her granting permission, was forced to realize, as we all were, that normal is still a long ways away.

Get out of our way.

Within 24 hours that encompassed election day and its following international day of mourning, I encountered eight separate conversations involving women. Five of them were with doctors, self-assured experts in their fields who commanded respect and told me how things were going to be. Two were with students, whose own opinions on subjects were so well-formed, I adopted the position of fellow commiserating angry woman instead of teacher. One, which I eavesdropped on, was four beautiful 14-year-old girls on the subway; girls who we still expect would prioritize gossip, lip gloss, or boy bands in their conversations but instead only talked about exams and study habits – with a brief interlude on going to the dentist. We were fucking passing Bechdel tests all over the place, so it’s time to get the fuck out of the way.

We are cars barrelling through the intersection to turn left before the oncoming traffic starts up at the green light. Maybe that’s against the law. Maybe it’s time we broke the “law”.

Get out of the way. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry.

Let's See if I Can Fit You In

I’m a bad friend. I know I am because there are many unanswered emails in my box, lingering invitations that I’ve ignored. I don’t call anyone unless a predetermined time for a chat has been set over email. Visits are short and at places where food and drink is cheap. Nobody would say “Call Gillian” when the shit hit the fan because I might not answer the phone, and if I did, I don’t have luxurious things like a car to help move people around or get somewhere fast.

I have reasons for not being a good friend. They say time is money, and I don’t have much of either, so I’m always looking for more time to find more, well,… The to-do list is so big that friends are both additions to and casualties of it. “Email Monique,” I write; two weeks later I scratch it off either because our conversation is dead or I finally did it. They understand. Right? I rationalize in my head that they are busier than I am, on business trips, looking after kids. All I have to do in comparison is manage the list and an occasionally demanding cat. We try to organize book club dates and meet-ups: everyone in true big-city fashion whips out their phone to examine the calendar, filled with must-dos and appointments and the partner’s G-cal entries. Dates get negotiated, renegotiated, then someone gets left out because they can’t change this trip or that deadline.

Therefore I’m no worse than anyone in my circle. How privileged, how disgusting of us to lament our busyness, the oh-so-tiring administration of our social lives. How terrible that I have “so many friends” I can’t fit them all in.

Is friendship really the routine organization of face-to-face encounters? I see Sija every three months or so; Deb every two weeks. Paul maybe every two months and Calvin once a year. It’s comforting to know, like the holiday season or the bathroom cleaning schedule, when your next encounter “should” happen. You get the itch, the wondering what’s going on in that person’s life. Anything outside of the routine is disruptive: you brush away attempts, waiting for the right time. We just saw each other three weeks ago, you think. Later. I can’t fit them in right now.

Then too long goes by and the guilt piles up so much that you have become a bad friend.

The only time we stop to think about the possibility that friendship doesn’t have to be encounter administration is when a friendship doesn’t fit into that. Someone calls at an odd time and just wants to talk. You sit down for a quick chat and four hours go by. You dump the news and they drop everything and show up with a casserole. It didn’t matter that they had tickets to a concert; they’re now in your living room.

Do your friends really like you? asks the New York Times. Many don’t: “Recent research indicates that only about half of perceived friendships are mutual. That is, someone you think is your friend might not be so keen on you.” Like the middle class and roots music, saying what friendship is not is much easier than defining it. Experts in the article say, “People are so eager to maximize efficiency of relationships that they have lost touch with what it is to be a friend.”

More importantly, friendship is “who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence.”

Whether the friend sits and listens in the absence of their own agenda, or serves to distract from the “Elephant,” the true ones are sometimes a surprise, hiding and waiting for the right moment to come out. When they do, you realize how much you hope you can be that friend yourself someday.



When I Come Back, I Want to Be Hot at 40

See how I used this title to make you read my post? Maybe it’s intriguing: it suggests that I’m dying, or that I’m going somewhere, or that being hot at 40 is an actual possibility. It’s the equivalent of using pop music to grab someone’s attention when they’re not interested in your (rock, country, soul) songs anymore.

Remember Liz Phair?

Remember how amazing she was for talking about sex in ways that were realistic, and reflected actual women’s experiences? Remember how awesome and raw her sound was, fuzzy distorted guitars that often almost drowned out her monotone vocals? It was angry, hard music, good for us girls growing up in the 90s.

Then, remember this?

I was thoroughly confused when this came out. I listened to it a lot in my apartment on the York U campus, and while I liked the song, I didn’t get why she of all people had recorded it. Then I figured it out: she was dangerously close to 40, still writing angry tunes that didn’t fit the current radio landscape, and who would listen to her now? Suburban moms her age who weren’t mad anymore? Girls in their 20s? So her record label forced her to work with a production team that had worked with Britney Spears, and came up with “Why Can’t I” and other poppy tunes on the record. Simple, right? That's the only explanation.

Do you know about Shelby Lynne?

I used to love Shelby Lynne. I still do. My introduction to her came via a mixtape someone made me that included a few of her songs. So I started buying albums. Her stuff is insane – but I’ll come back to that in a second – she was getting a lot of attention around the same time as “Why Can’t I” because I Am Shelby Lynne was being touted as “the best debut album” of the year, despite the fact that it was her SIXTH and released a decade after her actual debut. Then she released Love Shelby in 2001, again when she was (gasp) into her 30s and she’s all sexed up on the cover and in videos like “Killin’ Kind.”

I wonder how many people followed her after that. I sure did. I went bonkers for her Dusty Springfield covers album, being a closeted Springfield emulator myself. And then there was Revelation Road, released on her own label, which documented her and sister Allison Moorer’s turmoil following the shooting death of their mother. By their father, who then killed himself.

Sheryl Crow got in on this action. By 2002, she’d faced 40 with sun-kissed confidence, lounging on the beach with surfers and singing about summertime and dudes. “Soak Up The Sun” was an odd turn for her, again rooted in the language of pop rather than the hard rock she was known for. Sex it up, Sheryl, we assume her label told her; otherwise you may not sell any records in your advanced age.

Recently on the podcast “Switched on Pop,” hosts Nate Sloan and Chris Harding did the right thing and brought in the girl experts: Andi Zeisler (author of We Were Feminists Once), Robin James, and others, to talk about feminism and the language of pop. “Certain sounds become gendered,” says James, citing the “booty claps” of trap music. Sounds are not neutral but can be loaded with gendered connotations, they add. James calls the “strong voices” like Taylor Swift’s vocal melisma in “Shake it Off” the “lean-in style corporate post-feminism.” We’re used to hearing her more “girly” voice, with shaky uncertainty or limited decoration, in her country tunes. We are trained through repeated listening and the messages that accompany them, to think of women or men when we hear certain sounds.

That’s why, after a decade of hearing women like Crow and Phair make noisy, aggressive music, using sounds that aren’t “feminine,” along with cohorts like Michelle Shocked, Ani DiFranco, Sleater-Kinney, Suzanne Vega, and Victoria Williams through the 90s, we might not be pleased by their new pop turn. Check out this commentary on Phair, devoid of spellcheck, from Stereogum: "Phair’s also working on a studio album due out this fall. In an essay composed for the Exile reissue, Alan Light writes, 'Phair spoke for the uncertainties facing a new generation of women, struggling to find a balance between sexual confidence and romance, between independence and isolation… Exile in Guyville sat at the center of a culture in transition.' We agree, but it’s hard to say she’s done much speaking for or two anyone or anything since Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg. After that are more the half-naked photo years. With her vintage material on-stage and back in circulation, it’ll be curious to see which Phair shows up to record the new stuff." Add to that the unavoidable assumptions we draw from visual cues like tight or cleavage-baring clothing, fresh tans, and bleached hair; all we can think is these women are far from the self-possessed rock icons we believed them to be – they are only puppets of the pop industry.

Well, fuck that. I actually like “Shake It Off” way more than Swift’s other material. It’s a good song. I learned all the words to “Why Can’t I” and sang along constantly when it came out, which is more than I can say for Phair’s prior material. I wrote a paper on Crow’s C’mon C’mon album and presented it at the graduate colloquium in 2004. This is good shit. And it hardly affected the way I thought about these women, because guess what – I’m going to say something so groundbreaking, are you ready? – they’re not one-dimensional. 

Presumably, these real women do things like crave relationships and closeness, they get mad about music industry misogyny, they wish their husbands looked at them the way they did ten years ago, they lead pro-choice campaigns, they drink too much whiskey every Friday night, they argue with their friends on the merits of the "because she's a woman" argument for Hillary Clinton, they enjoy wearing makeup and heels sometimes, but not always (the “feminists can’t be pretty” argument is not worth any space anymore), and – guess what – they can change their musical taste. And style. Why did I even have to write that paragraph?

So what if their new style includes a smoother voice, a higher register, more melisma, fewer crunchy guitars? Is it any less important? Especially when it sits among all of their other material?

I present to you: The Dixie Chicks.

I cry pretty much every time I see the Chicks perform, even if only on screen. This article finally explained why. When I was 20, they were saying everything about independence, freedom, escape, love, friendship, and social justice that I was feeling. That only magnified as they navigated their post-Home backlash. There is at once nothing and everything pretty in their music. They’re mad and funny at the same time. They never back down, even when using the sweetest sounds. “But that's the thing,” says Powers. “In 2016, and in fact perhaps always, the spirit of the Magic Mike movies — of women claiming pleasure and personal power — is arguably more key to the significance of the Dixie Chicks than the spirit of Nashville tradition. Onstage Wednesday evening, the trio expanded upon the idea of the ultimate girls' night out, deepening its meanings by connecting this sense of female joy with purposefulness and social justice.” 

So the next time you malign a woman singer for “going pop,” let it go. Maybe she just felt like it.

Modern Dance's Interdisciplinary Marriage

I received this ad in my inbox today.

Clicking through takes you to the preview of the ballet meant to accompany an exhibit of Lawren Harris’s works at the AGO this coming fall.

It’s probably going to be good. Ballet is its foundational language; the shapes and lines are long, rounded, not interrupted the way they are in modern dance. Legs are turned out and necks are extended, the piano a gush of chords. There’s only one thing that could suggest the piece is modern: the costume.

When I first see the nude suit in dance, I think a) it must be modern, or b) they ran out of money before they got to the costumes. Upon seeing the budget, choreographers hustle to write a blurb on their creative process, saying something like “costumes would distract from the raw emotion of this piece,” or “I want viewers to feel my naked soul while they watch” and we all say ahhh and nod like we really can feel their souls but don’t especially want to see them naked and are mostly confused because we thought this was a ballet with tutus.

The National Ballet claims “choreographic associate” Robert Binet “will create an immersive ballet capturing the dynamic forms and emotional themes of Harris’ work, evoking isolation, transcendence and mysticism.” Okay. That’s nice. I can connect those themes, the way the dancers are moving, and the music. I understand that in the marriage of visual art and dance, abstraction is necessary, as it is at a level anyway to view Group of Seven material. I will probably even go to check it out.

I sort of would like costumes, though.

I ended up spending the day thinking about nude costumes in dance, wondering why they keep reappearing. They’re frequently employed in realizations of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The pagan ritual around the eruption of spring, and ensuing sacrificial dance tells me there was probably no other choice than the nude costume; dressing up to get closer to the earth seems inefficient. While the original costumes were rather elaborate and there have been lots of costume reinterpretations, including ones of actually nude dancers, the nude dress or bodysuit is a default.

Rite of Spring is a turning point for dance and music; arguably, modern dance springs from this moment and becomes a site of rebellion, letting choreographers lurch, jerk, and hurry, hurry, stop (my favourite descriptor for the genre) against the restrictive rules of ballet. More importantly, dancers don’t have to look the part of ballet, eschewing frilly tutus for skin-coloured spandex.

Don’t believe me? Watch a few clips of So You Think You Can Dance modern excerpts.

Not only are the dancers in dull costumes, they also look worried. All the time. Maybe they fear never getting to wear colour again.

Last year, I went to see Chroma, staged by the National Ballet. Part of a longer night of varied pieces, Chroma left me breathless. It’s a contemporary ballet, with a different take on nakedness.

I still think about it all the time. I’d actually travel somewhere to see it again because it was one of the few powerful performances that hovers like a demon waiting to snatch me away. I realized today that maybe one of the reasons these pieces generate the reactions they do – Rite of Spring famously incited riots in the Paris audience when it premiered – is because of their intimate relationship with another art form. For Stravinsky and the creators of Chroma, our focus is really on the music, but we don’t know that because we’re so visually oriented. You think you’re reacting to the stark whites or shiny muscles emerging from bland suits, but you’re actually getting stabbed in the ears over and over by sounds that should have a visual descriptor because they’re so tangible.

Chroma choreographer Wayne McGregor talks about the music in his discussion of the piece, but also talks about the concept – nothingness upon which the dancers “provide relief from this sense of white.” Maybe he also had a tight budget. In this case, I doubt it.

And he calls the music “acerbic” and “violent,” a contrast to the empty space of the set. Costumes would amount to sensory overload; instead the intimacy of the dancers draws you in, makes you want more, offers warmth against a disruptive background.

Maybe that’s the enduring appeal of pieces like Chroma and Rite of Spring; intimacy comes in other forms like this one that always makes me cry:

I’ll be curious to see where it comes from at the AGO.


The Best Albums of 2016. So Far.

Even though everyone seems to be kicking the bucket this year, there are surprisingly several musicians on Earth still releasing albums. Ever the backward-looker, I’m happy that there’s been enough awesomeness this year that I’m willing to listen to something the month – sometimes even the week! – it comes out. Here is my list so far.

5. Teen, Love Yes
I have never experienced disappointment like the kind that happened when I saw Teen in concert in April. Not their fault – they’re awesome and rocked the place. I was hoping for a little more authority I guess, since I’d been listening to this album through some health difficulties and it was pure fun and escapism. What got me the most initially was “All About Us,” for its super synthy pop texture, but I eventually gravitated to the feminist message of songs like “Free Time.”
Side note: I LOVE the way they dress. It’s pretty much like how they look in this video.

4. Field Music, Commontime
I don’t have much to say about this except my man plays it a lot when I go over there. The summer soundtrack of 2016? We never even talk about it. But any album that starts with a bassline like this is tops in my book.

3. Hedwig Mollestad Trio, Black Stabat Mater
I’ll confess to only hearing this live in concert, in Oslo. Oh, what a tiresome and expensive way to consume music! Poor me. But these girls shook the rafters there and they are the female equivalent of Rush! I can’t imagine anything better, other than sharing a bottle of wine with Geddy Lee on my shitty balcony.

2. Case/lang/Veirs, Case/lang/Veirs
This is a slow-growing one. “Imagine singing with k d!” says my guy. “Imagine singing with Neko!” I say back. “Who is Laura Veirs?” we ask. Who cares. There is definitely something magical about three-part harmony. Add in Case’s fucked-up phrase structure and weirdo lyrics and lang’s honey-dripping seducto gloriousness, and who cares what you were supposed to do today. Don’t give up on first listen; it might seem snoozy, but it’s not at all.

1. Julie Ruin, Hit Reset
My new goal in life is to touch Kathleen Hanna. I would probably finally have that breakdown I’ve been planning for a few years now. I was in the same room as her last week: that’s the first step. I almost cried. She’s got the authority I was looking for in the Teen girls, and remains the gal we can look up to. So awesome for someone who’s almost 50 and still rocking out like she was 20. One of the Sound Opinions guys doesn’t like her voice. ?? It makes me want to marry her.

I actually wrote this piece and enabled the comments because I want recommendations on what to listen to. Thoughts? For example, have you heard any of the albums from Roxette, Paul Simon, Tegan and Sara, Sturgill Simpson? Red Hot Chili Peppers? Voivod? RICK ASTLEY?