The class system in Canada likes to think it’s invisible. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not invisible; it’s insidious. I have realized that I will always be the child of immigrants* who never climbed out of the (lower?) middle class. My parents never bought a house. Part of that was my mother’s decision not to work outside the home. My father had a respectable white-collar job, but we rented among many two-income blue-collar households and those are the people who still understand and accept me. Those are my people.
Even people I’ve met as I’ve flirted with upper-middle class “respectability” somehow have never stuck. It’s like I have a certain smell clinging to me. I’ve never owned a house or a car. My family never had a cottage. It’s hard to be around people for whom life has always been pretty easy.
I’ve been reading old journals and realized that I’ve always worried about money, even when I seemed to have it. Nothing ever felt secure financially, and so I didn’t take unnecessary risks. I’m not that materialistic, and I’ve not really missed a lot of “things,” but it certainly makes conversation awkward or at least uninteresting with a lot of people.
It seems that classes act a bit like our immune system. They tend to try to fight off intruders. Every time I’ve bumped up against the ceiling of my “rightful place,” I’ve felt rebuffed. Sometimes actively, like when new friends just don’t call you to hang out. Or passively, when you just can’t afford another unpaid gig so you can break into your chosen profession.
We don’t talk about this very much. Among wealthy white liberals, there’s lots of guilt about race and about gender inequality. About LGBT rights. Even about refugees and other faraway injustice. But nobody talks about class. Even when it’s right under our noses.
*The irony is that if we’d stayed in Ireland we’d have been better off financially. My father’s family were and are solidly upper-middle class. I suspect this is true for quite a few immigrant families, who give up status at home for a chance at something “better” in Canada. When I worked as a welfare caseworker in the 1990s, I met a lot of new immigrant professionals (dentists, doctors, engineers) who were unemployed or working menial jobs while trying to have their qualifications evaluated. Many felt they’d been misled about opportunities here.
It’s that time of year again, for list-making and looking back. As per usual, I crammed a lot of new music into the last month of the year, and two of my top 10 releases for this list actually snuck in within the last week.
My top three records were pretty much cemented by September. Although Beach House surprised us with a second full album just months after Depression Cherry, nothing dislodged these songs from top spot for me. I’ll have to admit that it has a little bit to do with a girl. This record and Lower Dens‘ Escape from Evil were the stuff I was marinating in when I found out my heart was still working this summer. Although my romantic resurrection was quickly followed by some tiny heartbreak, these songs will always remind me of someone special and new. Also, after having waited since 2012 for new material from both bands, I was exceptionally happy with the results.
I was delighted with the new direction from Belfast’s Girls Names. While Arms Around a Vision doesn’t have the infectious groove of 2013’s The New Life, the songwriting is bolder and feels more personal. If you like jagged post-punk with echoes of Nick Cave and Ian Curtis, you owe yourself a listen.
Tribulation‘s The Children of the Night came out of nowhere very late to knock me out. Deliriously theatrical from start to finish, this will appeal to fans of early atmospheric horror films like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scary (though intelligible) vocals are a necessary counterpoint to some really melodic guitar work.
Grimes may be accused of going more commercial with her new record Art Angels, but really there is nobody else doing what she’s doing. I’m very happy to see her in full control of her considerable talents on this very versatile collection of songs.
Having discovered some of Tamaryn‘s older releases this year, I was a bit surprised by the direction Cranekiss takes. While her older material was more soulful and shoegazey (reminiscent of Mazzy Star), this new one is very upbeat and danceable in places. If you ever liked Curve, you’ll like this.
Droid are a metal band from Brampton, one of Toronto’s western exurbs. I’d seen them live a few times over the past year, and this EP, recorded almost two years ago, finally saw the light of day in 2015. The recording and mixing isn’t great, but it gives some sense of what this three-piece are capable of. Thrashy space rock, reminiscent of Voivod. They’re a tremendous band live, and I hope 2016 will see them playing more shows, and maybe putting out a full-length.
The Dears are one of my favourite Canadian bands, and they continue an amazing streak of putting out consistently great records. I describe their sound as “music for underdogs played by underdogs” since they always seem criminally underappreciated. But I can truthfully say that a new listener could dig in anywhere and get a good sense of their quality.
Immortal Bird were a pretty random discovery, but I was blown away by the power of this Chicago metal group and their fierce frontwoman Rae Amitay. Not for the metalphobe/faint of heart, but it’s catharsis at 100 decibels.
Fuzz is one of Ty Segall’s many side projects. I went to see them live on a whim and ended up really enjoying the retro fuzzed out sound. There’s a very ’60s vibe to the guitars, the drumming, and even the way the vocals are mixed.
There are a bunch more that I simply didn’t have time to really listen to enough, so a few of those are listed (unranked) as Honourable Mentions.
A theme for the year might be my rediscovery of my love for live shows. I attended lots more this year than in the recent past, and when I could ignore the pretty girls and the beardy shitbags (and the people who can’t hold their booze), often found myself with happy tears wetting my cheeks. I mentioned in last year’s post how much music has meant to me lately, through some very difficult circumstances, and in a live setting my emotions are even closer to the surface than usual. I’m reminded of a ridiculous quote from one of my favourite films. In Bruce Robinson’s 1987 classic Withnail and I, Uncle Monty (played by Richard Griffiths) speaks of “weeping in butcher shops” and now I’m the guy who weeps at metal shows. So be it. Music brings me joy like almost nothing else does, even when things are otherwise pretty bleak. I hope it does the same for you.
In a few days, I’ll mark the third anniversary of my father’s passing. It’s an event that marked the beginning of a terrible time in my life, a time that’s still happening. I’m experiencing some sort of existential crisis. I’ve lost my way, and I don’t know what to do.
In October 2012, I had a full-time job, and strong family relationships with my father, my wife and my mother-in-law. It’s now October 2015 and my father is dead, my marriage is over, my mother-in-law doesn’t speak to me, and I haven’t held a full-time job in nearly three years. What the hell happened to my life?
I’d always been a career nomad, and the end of my contract in December 2012 was supposed to be the launch pad for a new career as a freelance “content strategist” and writer for hire. I was a little worried about the lack of structure and external deadlines, but I was excited nonetheless. But the first half of 2013 was almost all taken up with going through my Dad’s stuff, throwing things away, cleaning, dealing with lawyers and real estate agents, etc. I had no energy for starting a freelancing business. Luckily, I picked up some film festival gigs at TIFF and Hot Docs. They didn’t pay much but I thought they’d help me in the long run to find better work in the festival and film world.
Then early in 2014, my marriage suddenly fell apart. Just like that my entire family structure and any emotional support I had left disappeared. That entire year still feels like an open wound. Friends did what they could, but I was missing the kind of family support that would have made it less devastating.
I began 2015 in a hopeful state of mind, but it’s almost over and I’m still drifting aimlessly, going in circles, and becoming increasingly fearful about the future. None of my film contracts has led to a decent full-time job. I’m further away from my past as a content strategist/communications professional and that’s reflected in the deafening silence from the more than 250 companies I’ve applied to over the past 18 months. I feel surplus, unnecessary, both professionally and personally. I’m an extra human. And that’s the worst feeling in the world.
I’m paralyzed. I’ve been tentatively applying for jobs in other cities, even other countries, but Toronto has been my home for nearly 50 years. I’d have even less emotional support if I left my hometown. But I hate waiting for my luck to change, and staring fearfully at my dwindling bank balance.
I’ve become much more cynical. My idealism and faith in the bigger institutions of life has been tarnished forever, and yet I don’t want to become a bitter man. But even if I avoid bitterness, I’m filled with guilt and shame about the things that have happened to me. About my current inability to participate in the world and live like an adult. I’m not self-destructive, but my lifestyle is beginning to affect my health. Worst of all, I’ve lost much of my capacity to hope and to care, and this saddens and frightens me.
I’m more sensitive to disappointments in my relationships and small setbacks can knock me down for days. I’m more aware of how thin the line is between success and failure, of good luck and bad luck, of getting back on my feet or of falling into a deeper hole.
I regret my earlier restlessness, even though I’m not sure I could have stopped feeling it. Now that I’ve lost almost everything, I miss the familiarity of that restlessness. I would rather feel that than the desperation I’ve been feeling lately.
When it comes to love, I’m still searching, but now I know what a damaged person looks like. He looks like me. And that’s not something I want to dump on someone new. But I’m not doing too well on my own, either. I don’t think I ever have.
To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m writing all of this. Or why I’d want to share it. Nobody wants other people to know how much of a mess they’re feeling. Except maybe I do. Because I think I still have a lot to offer, and I’m tired of feeling like I’m not needed or wanted by the world.
I’m not sure when I started it, but at some point in the last 12 months, I began an iTunes playlist called “My Comeback”. Music has always been very important to me, but I found that at my lowest points, I began to connect with music again in a powerful way. For maybe the first time since my 20s, lyrics jumped out at me again, and combined with the music, songs became comforting, nourishing, and inspiring.
This playlist will continue to evolve, but I wanted to share just a bit about how each of these songs helped me during the past year. Maybe some of them, or even my words about them, can help you, too.
Adventures in Solitude – The New Pornographers (from Challengers, 2007)
“We thought we’d lost you…welcome back”
This just popped up at random at some point in the summer of 2014 and maybe it was the title that initially grabbed me. I was having my own adventures in solitude for the first time in many years, and I identified with the lyric above. I also love that it’s written from the perspective of a friend, someone standing at a respectful distance but ready to embrace his wounded comrade back into a community of friendship.
“Got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows
Got nothing to lose but bitterness and patterns”
Spoon has been probably my favourite band since I first heard them way back in 1997. Britt Daniel just oozes cool, but even with his amazing gravelly voice and rock star swagger, it’s clear that he’s suffered his share of heartbreak. So it’s not surprising that there are two Spoon songs on this list.
“Got Nuffin” is the more upbeat of the two, a bouncy song with a propulsive Jim Eno beat about breaking free and looking forward. Daniel’s guitar work feels loose and almost improvised, adding to the sense of freedom.
“Do You” – Spoon (from They Want My Soul, 2014)
“Do you want to get understood?”
Here’s one about looking for the real thing. When you’re feeling burned after a long relationship, it’s easy to be fearful or cynical about love. But this is a lovely hopeful song about what I think is our deepest desire, to connect with another person and to feel fully known and yet still loved. I’m definitely not quite ready to open my heart this wide, but I want to get there, and this song is just a lovely hymn to not giving up.
“Shattered and Hollow” – First Aid Kit (from Stay Gold, 2014)
“I am in love and I am lost
but I’d rather be broken than empty
I’d rather be shattered than hollow”
These two sisters sing and play American country music like they were born in Nashville, but they’re actually from Sweden. Gorgeous harmonies and those first few lines just pierced my heart, but by the time the chorus kicks in with “we’re gonna get out of here, run from all our fears,” the name of the band made complete sense to me. During 2014, this song (and the entire record) was a salve for my wounds. It didn’t hurt that the album title indirectly (via S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders) references the very same Robert Frost poem that I cited when announcing the breakup of my marriage.
“Walk” – Foo Fighters (from Wasting Light, 2011)
“Learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?”
I’ve always loved Dave Grohl. One of the first stories I read about him was from a member of the riot grrrl band L7, who had enjoyed a sneaky shag with him after some concert. She just described him as an eminently decent guy, and I think as he’s aged, he’s only embellished that reputation in my eyes. He has a great sense of humour and seems to have very little rock star ego. Plus, he’s a huge music nerd, and is dedicated to telling stories about music that aren’t always about himself.
I bought Wasting Light when it came out after having pretty much ignored Foo Fighters after 1999’s There Is Nothing Left To Lose. This song came back to me last year as I began to try to figure out what to do next. I’ve quoted the chorus above but the part that really pumps me up is when he just sings “I never wanna die, I never wanna die.” There are definitely times when I felt exactly the opposite. We’re all going to die, sure. But that feeling of embracing life, of loving it again, that’s what I want to feel, and this song connects me with that. It’s almost the soundtrack to the old cliche, “Baby steps…”
“Everlong” – Foo Fighters (from The Colour and the Shape, 1997)
“And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when”
And here’s an old one from Mr. Grohl. I think I read something recently about this song being about that feeling you get when you fall in love again after thinking it will never happen. First love is unique but second love is a gift you cherish even more because you never thought it would arrive. It also means trusting after being hurt, and so there’s more vulnerability and more at risk, which makes it even more tender. When he sings “promise not to stop when I say when,” I’m incredibly moved. It’s like he’s trying to get over the fear of losing something again before he’s even really felt it.
“I” – Kendrick Lamar (from To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015)
“Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart
On my sleeve, let the runway start
You know the miserable do love company
What do you want from me and my scars?
Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence
How many times my potential was anonymous?
How many times the city making me promises?
So I promise this…
I love myself…”
Using a perfect Isley Brothers sample, Kendrick Lamar drops his guard to share this anthem to loving yourself. Lamar’s from Compton, a place where there’s not a lot of hope, or opportunity, or self-esteem. Seeing him perform this live on SNL was electrifying and still brings me a huge dose of joy (despite his scary dope eyes!).
“This Ladder is Ours” – The Joy Formidable (from Wolf’s Law, 2013)
“Let’s sit and talk and slow things down
Just be our old selves again, finally
This is where everybody turns out right in the end
Can you play a part?”
I love powerful women with guitars, and Ritzi Bryan from Welsh trio The Joy Formidable is a tiny powerhouse. But here in this song, she also reveals her tender side. Written to a friend who was going through a rough time, it’s a great ode to friendship and having someone there to help you persevere. It’s also got this band’s trademark mixture of epic riffs and Ritzi’s undoubtedly feminine appeal. The video is also a pretty good representation of what it felt like to be me last year, sandblasted by tragedy but still standing.
“Struck Dumb” – The Futureheads (from The Chaos, 2010)
“Misery is a little line of a little dash
It’s a subtraction sign
Happiness is a little cross so if you’re feeling lost
Use it to add it up
All of us are genius
There’s more than enough to go between us
Every day you create everything in every way
Laziness can go and play with ignorance on the motorway
All of us are genius
There’s more than enough to go between us
For crying out loud
Stop furrowing your brow
Stop living in the clouds
Go and make your mother proud”
The Futureheads hit it big back in 2004 with their angular postpunk and chiming harmonies, most notably on a cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.” Then people kind of forgot about them, which is a huge shame, because 2010’s The Chaos is ripe for rediscovery. It’s full of great hooks and upbeat themes, and for me, it’s played a big role in keeping me hopeful during a dark time.
“Struck Dumb” is like a 3 minute pep talk wrapped in an incredibly danceable pop song. It’s hard not to quote all of the lyrics because they’re all things you want to hear when you’re down. Though this isn’t really a love song, it moved me more as a creative rallying cry, like a way to smash writer’s block. And of course, I always want to make my mother proud.
“I Can Do That” – The Futureheads (from The Chaos, 2010)
“I’ve been waiting six months for a sign that this is not a farce
I’m sick of having to read between the lines
I wrote a hundred letters without expecting a reply
I’ve made more phone calls than a wealthy guy”
And this one really helped me as I struggled (and continue to struggle) with chronic under-employment and lack of career direction. The band is from Sunderland, in the north of England, where the economy is generally bad and jobs are scarce. Many people listening to this song would be familiar with the dark cloud that forms over you when you’ve been fruitlessly looking for work for a long time. The very title of this song is something that would pop into my head often when I looked at a job ad (or even when hearing about someone else’s job) and I like to use it as a motivational tool rather than an expression of envy or bitterness.
“1,000 Pounds” – Superchunk (from Come Pick Me Up, 1999)
“You finally pulled back when the world pulled your hair
At your age, life moves so fast
Twelve years old, skinny legs built to come in last
But you came through, you came through
When nobody expected you to
You came through, you came through
With all those narrowed eyes upon you
You came through, you came through”
This took me back to my early adolescence. I wasn’t really bullied much, but I was a nerdy, skinny little kid who wasn’t the most popular guy in his class. But I did have a toughness, a resilience that people respected. Lately, I’ve had to get back in touch with that core of strength that has helped me get through lots of bad times. I’ve faced lots of tragedies, lots of lean periods, and I can get through this. I love that there might be someone looking on and cheering for me the way Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan is rooting for the skinny-legged kid he’s singing to here. Maybe it’s himself. So yeah, maybe it’s a weird image, but somehow I’m cheering myself on.
She was a fairly recent acquaintance, someone I’d met through work. Although she was outwardly reserved, I’d hoped we were kindred spirits under the surface, but it turned out I was wrong. We’d met for coffee and I’d asked her for help dealing with a difficult situation with another work colleague. And that’s when she said it.
It turns out my issue with the other work colleague probably has something to do with my oversharing, too. “It’s not professional,” I can picture her saying, perhaps wagging a finger.
Over the past year, I can think of at least six people who’ve been unhappy with my level of personal disclosure online. Strangely enough, every single one of those people is from an English or Scottish background.
I’m Irish. In my childhood home, arguments were normal. One of my dearest memories of my parents is of me storming off to my room in the middle of an argument, and them gently knocking a few minutes later. They didn’t let me run away from my feelings. We sorted stuff out, sometimes messily, but in the present.
We’re often told not to “bottle up” our emotions, that it might lead to “explosions” of feeling, or maybe violence. But I think I have a better metaphor. Sinkholes are formed when water accumulates under a land surface and the soil underneath erodes, leading to a sudden collapse.
A sinkhole is a good representation of what happened to my marriage, I think.
I’ve always needed an outlet for my emotions. I don’t consider myself an extravert, so often I’ve dealt with things by writing about them. When personal online publishing became a reality in the late 1990s, the issue of oversharing became inevitable, although not many people would have foreseen it at the time. As someone who began keeping a homepage in those days, and then starting a personal blog, I’m bound to be stuck in my idealistic, perhaps naive, way of thinking. We didn’t do it for “hits” or traffic. We did it to find connection, to make some friends who might understand us, even though we didn’t live near each other.
Fourteen years ago this week, I attended my very first SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas. The personal weblog I’d started the previous year, the one you’re reading this on right now, had led to the establishment of a few tentative friendships. As I got off the plane in Austin, I was nervous. Would these people like me in real life? Would we be the same people we portrayed ourselves as online? It was a real concern. Imagine my relief when people I’d only known as text on a screen came up to me and hugged me. We’d found our “tribe,” we’d say, and years later, many of those people are still very dear to me.
So when my life began to come apart last year, I turned to a group of people who are spread out all over the world. I don’t see many of them often, we don’t even speak on the phone very much. This is the new reality of connection. I shared my life struggles with these people, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, wherever else my real friends might be. Sure, lots of other people can see what I’m writing. I’m not ashamed. I wear my heart on my sleeve whenever possible, and I’m freer because of it.
I may lose people who don’t like that. I won’t say friends because how could they be friends if they’re embarrassed by me? I may lose potential jobs or work opportunities because of that. To that, I’d offer that my online presence was formed in the years before “social media” was something for my resume, when it was a way for me and millions of others to find our voices and use them. When the web was more about personalities and less about commerce. I’m not using a bullhorn to talk about myself, but I won’t be shushed, either.
In an age when the notion of “privacy” is under attack, I overshare. My government and several other governments, along with most of the world’s largest corporations, know so much about me already. What I buy, what I read, how I vote, where I go, what websites I visit, what I search for. Why not show them and the rest of the world the real me? I’m so much more than my data points. I’m a glorious ball of contradictions, stumbling through this life making mistakes and finding joy and enduring pain and loving and being loved, being misunderstood and ignored, and maybe hated, too.