Categories
Uncategorized

On Walter.

My grandfather, Walter Michael Michaelski, passed away Oct. 4. Yesterday, I had the honour of delivering his eulogy. Below is what I said, with less pauses for me to stop crying. 

 

Good afternoon. Thank you all so much for coming today.

I am honoured to be here, to stand in front of you and do my part to tell my Grandpa Wally’s story and to try and do justice to a man who, through force of will, occasional stubbornness and remarkable character, lived a life whose influence has shaped the lives of so many of the people in this room and beyond.

Walter Michael Michaelski was born on his family’s farm in the district of Keld, Manitoba, on the border of Riding Mountain National Park. His parents had immigrated from Ukraine during one of the many mass emigrations, scraping and fighting to build a life and support their family.

Life on the farm was hard – and following the death of his father, Wally moved to Dauphin, where he drove a cab before he started working for CN Rail.

In 1951, a year after he met her over a cup of coffee at the E-Lite diner, he married Jean Trohubiak, the love of his life.

From the birth of their five children, Angela, Bob, Pat, Marcie and Karen, and through to the end of his life, Grandpa would have an unflinching and dutiful partner, occasional foil and better angler by his side.

Following his retirement, Grandpa kept busy by opening a tool sharpening business, and working on and enjoying his cabin in Waterhen.

Many of my earliest memories of my Grandpa are from the garden, the boat and the dock at that cabin, including the time, shortly after I heard the crack of his .22, he emerged from the bushes holding the rabbit that had been eating his lettuces.

I remember the giant grin on his face as he held this poor bunny by the ears, and his laughter as I fled behind the shed to cry until dinnertime, when we ate the most delicious “boiled chicken” I had ever had in my whole life.

Most of my memories of Grandpa are of times like these – working in the garden, eating at the dinner table, getting offered alcohol at a shockingly young age because my Grandpa couldn’t stand the sight of a guest without a drink in their hand.

Of his wonderful, vibratto-filled voice belting out an old country song or Christmas carol, accompanied by himself, Uncle Bob or my Dad on the guitar. Of his huge smile and laugh as he regaled us with another joke or perfectly crafted phrase.

From Dauphin, to Waterhen, to High River, to Calgary, Grandpa was so often the life of the party, rivalled only by his own children in the capacity to host and to show folks a good time.

Every friend I ever brought to Grandma and Grandpa’s house would leave with a full belly, a host of new stories to remember and a blood alcohol content well beyond the legal limit if they weren’t watching when Wally filled their glass.

My Grandpa Wally was so many things – a husband, a father, a railroader, a hunter and angler and craftsman and Holder of So Many Opinions on absolutely everything – but to me, above all other things, the thing that defined my Grandpa was his love of storytelling.

I might be biased in this department since I’ve somehow made a career out of telling stories, but I bet there isn’t a person in this room who hasn’t experienced the distinct sensation of having been “Wallied”.

At any given moment, on any given day, Grandpa could launch into a tale that would, at its outset, appear innocuous. It would seem like he was simply adding his two cents to the conversation, providing and dispensing a dollop of perspective or wisdom on a specific subject, born out of a long and rich life full of experiences.

By story’s end, however, you would be a different person, not only because of the richness of detail, the carefully chosen turns of phrase and the sheer volume of words, but because of the story’s battering, relentless length.

By the time Wally was done telling one of these stories – which could be on any subject under discussion, or quite possibly on a subject seemingly totally unrelated to the discussion – you would feel – and be – appreciably older than you were at the outset.

For many of those that loved Wally, we had heard so many of these stories countless times. Grandpa’s incredible memory and attention to detail made his storytelling and recall perfect – a recitation of prose that was like the litany of the Catholic Church, or the works of Homer – and like most church sermons or live readings of The Iliad, they could get pretty repetitive.

I used to count the number of eye rolls from Grandma and the kids as a way to keep myself entertained while Grandpa retold the story of the time he finally caught a bigger pickerel than Grandma.

But Grandpa didn’t just use stories to get a laugh, or make a point, or burnish his credentials; he told stories as a way, when couldn’t necessarily say it directly, to show you that he saw you, that he understood you. He used his stories as a form of empathy.

For example – when I was 14, my parents separated. It was, as you can imagine, a difficult time for everyone – my Mom and Dad were trying to navigate a new world after more than 20 years together, and on top of that they had me at 14 to deal with – at the absolute peak of my self-regard. The only thing bigger than the hemline on my enormous baggy jeans was my ego.

The next time I saw my Grandpa after my parents split was at their home in High River, at a big family dinner, with my aunts and uncles, my cousins and my Grandma. As I went around the house, each person asked me how I was doing, how I was feeling.

I would tell them I was doing fine, that I felt okay, that things were good, when in my heart I knew that things were not good. That I was scared, and I was raw, and I was very, very angry.

As I made the rounds, I finally said hello to Grandpa, and he asked me how I was. I told him the same thing I told everyone else – that I was just fine, thanks – and asked him how his week was.

In response, my Grandpa, completely unprompted, launched into a 45 minute long story about his prostate.

In that 45 minutes of getting “Wallied”, I learned many things about the diagnosis and treatment of an enlarged prostate, and many, many more things about my Grandpa.

I learned about the effects of an enlarged prostate on his bedtime routine, on his drives to Brandon and Winnipeg for treatment and on the various wildlife he saw along the way.

I learned about PVP GreenLight technology, also known as the Photoselective Vaporization of the Prostate, a turn of phrase that my Grandpa seemed to relish in a way that some people over-pronounce their pasta order in Italian restaurant.

I’ll have the Spa-ghet-ti Bol-o-gnes-e, I’ll take the Pho-to Se-lec-tive Va-pori-za-tion of-a the Pro-state.

So I enter this chat 14 years old, peak Colin. Scared and miserable and angry. 45 minutes later, I leave the conversation changed.

Confused, yes – for sure, embarrassed, probably a little hungry and thirsty, slightly nauseated – but changed. Grandpa, in the telling of this story, had somehow broken the hold of the anxiety that had clamped over my heart, if only for a little while.

It would be easy to attribute this story to my Grandpa’s – shall we say energetic – interest in his own life, to a man trying to change the subject to something he was more comfortable with.

I mean, who consoles or relates to their 14 year old grandson with a story about their prostate? What was I to do with this information, and perhaps most baffling, why did it work?

It took me a long time – years, really – to figure it out.

In some ways, the gap between my Grandpa and I couldn’t have been larger. I was born in a time and a world so different than Walter Michaleski.

As a kid, I was in my parents’ basement, building myself my own computer, while as a kid Grandpa was out on the farm, working with animals.

When he was bent over in the sun planting seeds in his garden, I was hunched over a book in the shadiest spot I could find.

When he was impressing German POWs by one-handing axes into trees from 40 feet away, I was impressing girls by deglazing a pan with Viognier.

How does this man, who grew up so tough, with immigrant parents, with tragedy and hardship and challenges, who subsumed his aspirations for education and intellect to support his family, relate to this kid? To this whiny, sullen, 40-inch bottom jeans, spiky-haired little dink?

In that moment, in those 45 minutes, my Grandpa showed me how you do it. You see, my Grandpa started telling me that story not because he thought I would be incredibly interested in his prostate, but because it was about the time when he thought he had cancer.

It was the time in his life when he felt scared, and angry, when he didn’t know what was going to happen next. In every moment of that story, he was telling me that it was scary, that things were hard, but that, in the end, he made it. And that in the end, I would too.

It probably took me twenty years to realize why my Grandpa’s stories have always had this effect on me, why it always seemed so important to listen, to understand and to acknowledge this gift.

In his stories, he spoke not only about himself – he used those words to connect with others, to bridge the 60 years between Grandfather and Grandson, to find, in the sharing of stories, the sharing of oneself with the people you love.

So that’s what we’re going to do today. We are going to share Grandpa’s story, and in some small way remember him as a proud, passionate, complicated but ultimately caring man; a man who understood that his true wealth and his real investment lay in the people who surrounded him.

His job was on the railroad until he retired, but his life’s work was his family and his friends. To see so many of you here today, to know that in no small way he built what we have and what we are, gives me a great deal of comfort.

So, in closing, I have one request to all of you; if you can, don’t just take this day as a time for silent, solemn grief. If your instinct is to retreat inside yourself, or to feel that you’re spreading sadness by speaking of it, that is completely understandable.

But if you can, just today, tell your story about Walter and maybe fill someone else’s glass while you do it.

While Grandpa is gone, his legacy is secure in so many of us that carry on without him, so long as we remember and tell his stories to our own friends and our own families, to share our own stories, to connect and care for each other in whatever way we can.

Thank you.

 

Categories
Gaming

Three thoughts on D&D.

Last summer, I got an email from my friend Wil, asking me if I wanted to join him in playing the latest version of Dungeons and Dragons. Wil and I have known each other for a few years through my friends Russ and Liz. Wil lives in Minnesota, and he had an interesting proposition – he would lead a team of first-timers through the game as our Dungeon Master (DM), all via Skype and a service called Roll20.net, which basically acts as the virtual version of the mythical Table in Your Parents’ Basement that these games are supposed to be played on.

OLLIWAFFLE
Olli Jokinen loves his waffles.

I of course said yes, after years of wanting to play and not having the life skills to actually get it together. Because talking to people about my D&D character is about as exciting for non-players as me talking about my fantasy hockey team (his name is Ardbeg Uigeadail, he is named after a whiskey, and he is a Chaotic Good Paladin, thank you for asking. Also my team is called Olli’s Blue Waffles and I am fifth in my league) I’m not going to talk about what’s happening in the game, but there’s some interesting stuff that happens because of the game that is fascinating.

People who haven’t played D&D and think of it as some weird nerdy niche thing – you’re right. It is. But it’s pretty fun and it asks questions of you as a gamer that are challenging to answer (questions like “If I drink while playing via Skype, does that qualify as drinking alone” – the answer is yes it does, but only like 15% alone).

Here are some things that’s I’ve learned from playing D&D that I think are kinda cool.

D&D is The Godfather of modern gaming.

Ardbeg in his natural environment.
Ardbeg in his natural environment.

Growing up watching The Simpsons and basically every spoof movie made between 1986 and 1999, I had no idea how many references were to classic films like The Godfather and Citizen Kane. D&D plays much the same role in modern gaming, containing so many of the elements (variable damage, turn-based strategy, class-based character design) that make up the video games I love to play.

This is part of what makes the game so interesting – it’s a mitigated process through Wil, but our group is comprised of people who have different signifiers depending on what games and culture they have consumed prior to play. Many of us understand the basic language behind the game because we have effectively reverse-engineered it out of other games, but like any translation there are interpretations that are pulled out by the listener.

D&D will not drive you to Satanism, but it will drive you to homicidal thoughts (about your friends).

Let’s say one of your friends is playing a dwarf who has a couple of interesting character traits; for instance he seems to hate a number of other races (elves in particular) and he seeks to die an honorable death in combat. This leads to a number of complications:

  • Every single opportunity to charge headfirst into battle, he does so, complicating virtually everyone else’s strategy and plan of attack
  • His wife is playing an elf, which leads to at least one moment every night where the role playing looks less like medieval fantasy and more like a reality television version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This part of the game is fantastic, as the blend of role playing with your knowledge of your friends’ innate characteristics creates a hilariously fraught dynamic where people are constantly slipping masks on and off, trying to figure out if comments and actions are in-game or not. The constant fourth-wall breaking and the endless negotiation makes for an experience that is closer to a brainstorming session than a pure play experience.

Our party in action.
Our party in action.

D&D is designed to defy expectations while training you in flexibility.

The universal truth of a game predicated on dice rolls is that it is random. The chaos inherent in having to pray to the Random Number God every time you want to do something (with results ranging from – say – leaping across a surging stream, decapitating a goblin archer, to tripping over your own feet, landing facedown in the water and stabbing yourself with your own dagger while the goblins laugh at you) lends every interaction and roll with a sense of real risk and reward.

Consequently, decision-making begins to synthesize two occasionally binary concepts – the actions your character would take in-game, based on your character’s biography and inherent characteristics, and the tantalizing possibility of great success or failure. Because you are relying on randomness to determine outcomes, you have to be able to cope with whatever outcome is presented to you, and decide in the moment what your character should do. You are constantly off-balance, very rarely sure of the outcome, and because the game isn’t iterative – it tells a single narrative that is unbroken no matter what actions take place – you don’t have the luxury of a re-do.

This is the fun thing about the game – you get better at playing the game not by winning, but by better understanding the game’s inherent mechanics. The game is the most fun when characters (and the game’s Dungeon Master) are all adjusting on the fly. Winning this game is less about killing the goblins or collecting the loot, it’s about creating an unbroken string of actions that exist within the game’s narrative, allowing your party to simultaneously imagine and create, like seven people weaving a tapestry whose pattern isn’t dictated by any one of them.

In terms of what else I’ve learned, there’s lots. Being the DM for a game looks extraordinarily hard, but also really, really fun. Also, my character is allergic to arrows. It’s a great way to cement relationships with your friends, share experiences – and lots of laughs).

Regardless of all of that, I know for sure is that I’m looking forward to our next night, sitting by the glow of the screen, in the baleful gaze of the iMac’s webcam. Maybe I’ll have a glass of Ardbeg to celebrate.

Categories
Family

Preserving tradition by preserving.

I’m here to talk about pickles and family. Stay with me here, people.

At the end of September, my giant, crazy Ukrainian family gathered at my Uncle’s home in Springbank to celebrate my Grandpa’s 90th birthday. As we yelled overtop of one another for four successive hours in a true toast to Walter Michaleski’s love for talking and having things at a volume that destroys human hearing, I looked over at my grandparents and it was all smiles – tired smiles. Grandpa’s hearing hasn’t been great for years, and the complete cacophony my family generates makes it hard for him to stay in the conversation. He hurt his back earlier in the day and was hobbling from chair to chair, my Grandma in tow.

The Green Green Grass of Home. Happy 90th, Grandpa.

A video posted by Colin Brandt (@colinbrandt) on

Grandma, eyes crinkling as she smiled, holding her first great-granddaughter, bouncing her in her lap. Always seated, always tired. I listened to her story of having to take three breaks to walk through the mall to get to the grocery store, remembering seeing her in there two weeks before as she rushed our conversation, looking drained.

A couple of weeks later, she was rushed to hospital with an upper GI bleed brought on by complications with her blend of blood thinners. Turns out she’d been feeling crappy for months, and while she convalesced in the hospital with new meds and a blood transfusion, she’s much better.

Meanwhile in Dauphin, my Grandpa Al’s partner for more than 25 years has passed away, leaving him to reorganize and reorient a life with his closest family member a four-hour drive away.

I am incredibly lucky to have three of my grandparents still here, and a pair of them living five minutes from my home. I feel guilty about not seeing them all the time, not picking up the phone, not putting pen to paper to send them a letter. There’s always a great excuse about being busy, but busy is about choosing what you spend your time doing.

What I’ve been spending my time doing instead of calling Grandma

This summer and fall, I ended up spending a lot of time doing things that my grandparents do. Nic and I planted our first community gardens at the Parkdale Community Association and at an elderly neighbour’s place. I inexplicably built things like tool racks out of wood and screws. We harvested our bounty and picked up a giant canner at a yard sale so we could preserve everything. We have a bin full of potatoes in our parking garage, dirt and vermiculite still clinging hard to their skins.

2014-08-18 20.45.30-2
The first beets, picked fresh from our little garden.

I’m baking something at least once a week in our little kitchen – focaccia, loaves of bread spiralled with slow-roasted tomatoes that we grew in our garden, dinner rolls, buttermilk biscuits, cookies that ended up less like Cookies by George and more like Jawbreakers by Willy Wonka. We bought a chest freezer off Kijiji and stuck it in the office, where it hums away gently next to the susurrant purr of the external hard drive.

I (okay, we – virtually all of these activities are Nic-included, thank god, since she has actual life skills) spend a lot of time doing this stuff. It takes a lot of work and a lot of meetings (at least for the goddamned community garden) and I’m often finding my thoughts turning to my grandparents. I’m thinking about my Grandpa Wally and his neatly aligned rows of beans or his acumen for carpentry. I’m thinking of Grandma Jean and her “bake-’till-done, knead-it-until-it-feels-right” intuition with flour, eggs, water and yeast. I’m thinking of Al, all the way back in Dauphin, with a big house and a big yard full of produce.

I’m living in a condo across from a bike path in a big city, and I’m trying to recreate some kind of prairie diorama – a hipster-toba – that combines the place and community I love now with a sense of where I (or more specifically, my family) have been. I’ve been thinking a lot about the “why” behind that. Why do I want to know how to can? To make ribs the way my grandpa does? To eat food I’ve grown myself?

I am a bad Ukrainian, because I am not Ukrainian

For the past few years (basically since my divorce) I’ve been spending a huge amount of time thinking about – and acting on – a desire to be closer to my family and my city. I don’t think it should be a surprise that when my marriage fell apart I leaned pretty hard on my parents and extended family, who were there with kind words, late-night text messages and bad jokes about which farm animal my ex most closely resembled. It made me want to spend time with these people, but it also made me think a lot about why we do that – why we help our blood, why we make the time – with meals, a kind ear and (at least in my family) gently-used wine fridges.

Growing your own food, baking your own bread, canning your own stuff – all of these things my grandparents did for years had nothing to do with “authenticity” or “environmentalism” or any high-minded ideals. They did it because they were frugal. And they were frugal because they had to be – in a way that I simply can’t imagine. I’ve never had to make a choice between having to hunt for my meat or my family not having meat. The hardest decision in my average grocery shopping day is deciding whether I want to drive halfway across town to get the coffee beans I really like or being lazy and slumping to the local Co-op for a bag of Kicking Horse.

Spiced carrots are seriously tasty.
Spiced carrots are seriously tasty.

I live in a world of plenty where I can buy the artisan loaf and get the spicy pickled carrots to have on my charcuterie plate with the cheeses from halfway across the world. I have a family that treats food as something that approaches the sanctity of religion, but I’m thinking that the founding books of that church have a lot more to do with a lowly stable in Bethlehem than St. Peter’s Basilica. Getting back to the roots of prairie food is about more than just eating well – it’s about connecting to the things my family have been doing for generations and respecting what and how they put these things on the table.

My friends know that I wave the Ukrainian banner pretty hard for a third-generation Canadian. I use it as an excuse, mostly – for being stubborn, for being too loud, for hating Russians for no discernible reason. None of that makes any sense. I’m as much Belgian as I am Ukrainian. I can say about 14 non-curse words in Ukrainian and can’t read a sentence in Cryllic. I feel basically no connection with the country of Ukraine and yet here I am calling myself PerogyPower in video games.

Connecting to place and to family

Now I’m dating a girl who is also (kinda) half-Ukrainian and we are learning these things together (though Nic is a way better vegetable gardener than I am). I don’t think I’m so much a proud Ukrainian as I am a proud prairie kid. I’m proud of my family travelling here, for cutting out Manitoba scrubland to make way for farms, for living in places without plumbing and electricity, for building a life here so their kids could have it better, so my parents could have it better, so I can have it so good that I get pissy about not being able to get flat-leaf Italian parsley at the Safeway so bad that I grow it myself.

I’m not learning to can or garden or bake bread because it’s fun (though it really is) or particularly cheap (it really isn’t). I think I’m doing it because it connects me to that place and those people that have given me so much. I hope that once day I can do the same thing for another generation of sort-of-Ukrainian, mostly-just-prairie kids – right after I get off the phone with my Grandma. I have to learn how to make nalesnyky properly before Christmas.

Nic and Mom with their beet leaf holubtsi - and yes, the beet leaves are from the garden.
Nic and Mom with their beet leaf holubtsi – and yes, the beet leaves are from the garden.

 

Categories
Calgary Music Relationships Uncategorized Writing

Endings and beginnings.

When you sit down and do the thing where you try and summarize your year in the Internet Wilderness, it becomes painfully obvious that all of that ’embrace the inevitability of change’ stuff is as clichéd as it is correct. Life consists of a cavalcade of curveballs that you fight off desperately, trying to get ahead in the count, hoping for one easy pitch that you can put over the fence.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that there are no easy pitches.

When I was a kid, I was scared a lot. I was sensitive and awkward around other kids and never felt like I belonged. I looked at my parents and was in awe of how in control they seemed – so confident, so sure of themselves, who they were, what was right and what they should do.

This year I turned the age my father was when I was born. When I look back now at the albums of photos from those days I don’t see a man holding a child who is the master of all he surveys, the unconquerable hero of my youth – I see a guy holding a kid, looking extremely happy and a little tired.

IMG
Aww, yeah, that’s Gangsta Carpeting, right there.

I’m only guessing, but I’ll bet that he was probably fighting those curveballs off just as hard as I was.

This year has had some great stuff happen along with some pretty crappy stuff, but lord knows it was a hell of a lot better than the last one. I just want to say thank you to my family and friends who (again) gave me so much love and support. You rock, rock.

This new year is going to be very, very different from the last one, which was exponentially different than the year before. I’m starting to notice a theme, here – that the inevitability of change is something I should probably learn to embrace rather than resist.

Speaking of changes, I have decided I should probably set some goals like I did a couple years ago. Since I am completely fuelled by fear and shame, a little public accountability goes a long way for me. I did, like, two of the three in 2012, which is an order of magnitude better than I usually do at goal setting. So, without further ado:

Goalpocalypse 2013

Get Divorced.

The weirdest part about starting my new job is having to explain to people that I am getting divorced. I get a lot of “Oh, but you’re so young!”, which I guess is a good thing, but kind of leaves me at a loss as to how to respond further. So far my “Why, yes, I did manage to already have one relationship explosion before I was 30, and yes it is pretty pathetic that people have had bowel movements that took longer than the amount of time it took my wife to leave me – thank you for your observation!” technique has had mixed results in terms of making people like me in the new environment. I think I’m just going to stick with using sarcastic deadpan that about 25% of people know is a joke. 

This should be pretty obvious to anyone who has had to listen to me rant for the last year and a half. It’s been a tough time and it is getting better, but a little bit of closure will go a long way.

I have a wonderful, patient girlfriend who has listened to me talk – and talk – about this person who was so much a part of my life for so long and now haunts the corners of my days less and less as time goes on. My formally ending that chapter in my life, I’m hoping I can help move that much further away from that time and place and person I was and more the person I want to be now.

Get creative.

On New Year’s Eve this year, I did something I haven’t done in a very long time and picked up a guitar in front of another human being for an extended period of time for a little impromptu jam session. The other two guys who were playing were exponentially better than I was, and there was no question I had a sufficient degree of liquid courage on board, but I subsumed my worry about judgement and failure and just played. I was fairly crap, but no one shouted me down or made me feel like I should just leave the room. So I played a bit, I learned a lot and the first thing I did when I got home was blow the dust off my guitar and played a bit of what I had been taught to help me retain it for the next time I play with those guys. 

I really want there to be a next time.

One of the reasons I have spent so little time writing on here in the last year had a lot to do with trying to be more conscious of the record I leave online. I’m technically supposed to be one of those web-savvy people that understands the reach and power of the web, so I thought it might be a great idea to just tap the brakes on the free-association nonsense on my blog and focus on my professional writing for a while. It was fine, but there’s no question that it exercises a different muscle than the kind of work I like to post here.

Ultimately, I look around at my friends and family and I see a lot of people who may or may not read the words I write, and they may not like the songs I play around them, but they will show up and they will support. Some of the best times last year was seeing my friends Adam and Tom play in their band The Special Edisons and seeing all of those folks come to see something cool that their boyfriend/son/buddy is doing is a cool feeling. I need to stop worrying about being terrible or judged and remind myself that pretty much everyone that is still here in my life is a pretty cool person.

Get serious.

This is probably the one that’s going to be the hardest, but I’ve decided – in no small part because of the things above – that it’s time for me to start building the kind of life I want, and not just live.

My divorce has put me in a tough position financially and emotionally, and while I have made a lot of progress over the last year in terms of getting into a better space, I still have a long way to go. This is going to involve a more considerable lifestyle change and a renewed focus on setting goals to help me get to a much more stable place – one where I end this year with no debt and the foundations for owning my own place, preferably in a part of the city that I both want to live in and can afford to do so.

I’m really excited about this year and what it’s going to bring.

At the bare minimum, at least I’ll have the chance to meet Strombo and hug Peter Mansbridge.

Categories
Music

Top ten albums of 2013.

He everyone! Hope you like the new digs. I decided to complete something on my long-gestating list of things to do and close up Republic of One in favour of colinbrandt.ca. I’ll be posting a lot more often in the next little while, and will be formally shuttering Republic of One beginning Jan. 1.

I’ll get into why I decided to finally launch this site in my next post, but my self-enforced time in the internet wilderness is drawing to a close. I want to quickly say thanks to everyone who has stuck around/nagged me about writing more and updating my interwebs.

It’s been damn near a year since my last post – so I’m just going to pick up where I left off. Top ten is below, in roughly descending order. Onward!

City and Colour – The Hurry and the Harm

City and ColourAs much as I am the lord and master of the Sad Sack Weepy Singer-Songwriter Fan Club, I’ve been really digging the direction of this band. Crunchier guitars and a the move to a less acoustic sound gives Dallas Green a lot more room to write songs that are less weepy, showing a wider range of tone and even a couple of funny lines.

Seeing Green and the band perform live at this year’s X-Fest was a surprise – I’ve seen him play at a bunch of festivals over the years, but this was the first time I saw him with a band and sound that could actually fill that kind of space.

Tracks like “Thirst”, “The Lonely Life” and “Commentators” help balance out the more traditional keening-voice-acoustic-guitar-spare-production tracks like “Take Care”.

 

Mikal Cronin – MCII

Mikal CroninMCII came to me via my buddy Tom, who is my go-to-resource for guitar rock and probably should be yours as well. Tom! Buddy! Start writing your stuff down – it is annoying to have to take notes when you’re talking!

This year has been a great one for rock songs that seem like they’re kind of shambling messes but actually resolve into something much tighter than you first thought. “Am I Wrong” – has an awesome shimmer in the guitar sound that makes me want to drink four beers and barbecue hamburgers.

“Peace of Mind” has all these moments where the instruments come in at just about the right time, giving everything this languid, garagey pace that makes you want to just lean back, kick your feet up and feel the breeze on your face. Probably the definitive summer record for me this year.

Oh, and Tom’s in a band with my other buddy Adam. You should check them out and come to their show on Dec. 27.

 

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

Boards of CanadaThis year I got to go to Scotland for my Stepdad’s 70th birthday, and I now completely understand how Boards of Canada came to sound the way they do. This album has a sort of pervasive radioactive dread that makes me think of something unspeakable rising out of a loch.

“Reach for the Dead” has a genuine vibe of menace – it sounds like the soundtrack to the version of Drive that had less silent mooning and more curb-stomps in elevators, but somehow takes place outdoors on a barren, windswept and ancient coastline.

Listening to this album makes you feel like a huge badass – like maybe you’re the thing that just came out of the loch – and you’re hungry.

 

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko CaseI feel a little bad putting Neko’s latest this far back in the list, but I just grabbed it a couple of weeks ago and I’m still sinking my teeth in. I can pretty much guarantee this album will be marching up in my attention and playlists as we get closer to the end of the year, because I absolutely can’t resist this album.

I have a theory that the best possible conditions to hear Neko Case is after midnight in an old country bar that’s nearly emptied out. There’s definitely some tracks on this album that fit that expectation (“Night Still Comes” is waltzy and torchy in the vein of “Star Witness” and “The Pharoahs”).

What she does on the other tracks are what’s interesting about this album. “Calling Cards” might be one of the most beautiful songs Case has ever written, with a great story of romance, distance and creation, and the next track “City Swan” has a great rollicking sound that you just know is going to be awesome live.

 

Kanye West – Yeezus

Kanye WestMan, this album is tough. When I first got it, I kept cycling forward through it, trying to find a way to hook in; all I heard on first pass was the completely insane levels of misogyny and the moments where he just seems like he is going to completely lose his mind.

Every song has this instinct to push you away – too abrasive, too jarring, too paranoid – but there’s always something else that is pulling you back in just as much, if not more. The constant push-pull tension of this album is part of why it’s exhausting, but also incredibly good.

First, the sound of this record is just incredible. The first four tracks of the album are a complete master class in West’s technical proficiency, taking on the industrial sounds with sudden breaks and a pace that resembles a Ferrari tearing around a corner, barely holding onto the road, tires screaming.

Second, Kanye is funny. For a guy who seems wholly incapable of taking a joke, there’s a ton of self-satire on this album. “I Am a God” is the most obvious, with its jokes about his pink-ass polos and the already immortal  “In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissant”.

The rage that fuels so much of West’s lyrics on this album can swamp the irony, but tracks like “New Slaves” reference the terrible cosmic joke of still encountering racism even though he has all the credibility, power and money he saw as his escape is the darkest Richard Pryor joke ever written.

 

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

Daft PunkBuying a turntable and listening to this album on LP seemed like the authentic choice, which is preposterous and pedantic but totally appropriate, as this album is basically preposterous and pedantic. In a good way?

This album has been discussed and reviewed to death, so I’ll be brief, but basically this album sounds incredible, but it’s a complete roller coaster of good to bad throughout.

The straightforward pop tracks like “Lose yourself to Dance” and “Get Lucky” are of course amazing, and some of the midtempo and oddball tracks like “Instant Crush”, “Giorgio by Moroder” and “Doin’ it Right” are awesome and clever, but a few tracks land with such a thud you can’t help but feel bad at their francophone earnestness.

Putting the Paul Williams-featuring “Touch” between the two Pharrell tracks is like slotting an episode of Two and a Half Men between two episodes of Mad Men and expecting no one to notice the difference.

The irony of this album is that if it had been sequenced a little better I probably would love it more, which is saying something since I still groan my way through “Touch” and “Within” to listen to the whole record.

 

CHVRCHES – The Bones of What you Believe

CHVRCHESI discovered this album in probably the most ridiculously back-asswards way imaginable. I first heard it in a totally cool Edinburgh record shop and thought I was some kind of crate-digging visionary.

I thought to myself you are that smug hipster guy who brings something back from Europe that everyone starts to like in, like, three years. Then I get home and  discover that CHVRCHES is a complete buzz band that’s all over the internet. Once again, I remain completely unremarkable.

Never mind all of that, though – “The Mother we Share” is a monster – the sort of track that you choreograph dance moves to in your kitchen while making lasagna. “Gun” has an incredibly catchy hook and a chorus you want to sing in an imaginary unironic karaoke night.

The whole album is just a synthpocalypse of endless awesome.

 

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

PhoenixMonths later, I still can’t believe this album didn’t really knock anyone out. I understand that relative to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Bankrupt! might seem a little less accessible, but we’re talking about Phoenix, here.

While this album kind of suffers with the everything-is-at-the-exact-same-volume-in-the-mix issue that seems to be a staple of modern production, these are still amazing tracks with a wall-to-wall consistency that is unbeatable.

“SOS in Belair” has incredible guitar sounds and makes a great deal of noise – it can sound enormous, but the tightness of the band reigns the songs in and creates these moments of just perfect songcraft that make you shake your head. “Drakkar Noir” and “Bourgeois” run this way as well; “Trying to be Cool” just hardly has to try at all (though the behind-the-scenes making-of video for the track below shows just how crazy methodical this band really is).

 

Haim – Days are Gone

HaimMan, this album just contains multitudes. I know that this band gets a lot of Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks comparisons, but that doesn’t really cover all the influences. There’s a lot of Wilson Phillips here, with dashes of Mariah Carey, late-90’s hip-hop and a bit of Crowded House too.

The wit that runs through their songwriting extends well beyond the lyrics; the way “The Wire” song shrugs its way though the fallibility of the storyteller is a perfect compliment to the lyrics. “Running If You Call My Name” has sense of longing and uncertainty that matches the great vocal work. The strong rhythm section of “Don’t Save Me” propels the song through spare guitar lines.

This is a band that sounds fully-formed – I’m already so excited to see what this band is going to do next. That’s the sign of a really great album, when you start getting jacked before they are even finished touring on the current one.

Also, this incredibly funny video features some epic man-crying:

 

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Everything about this album was a genuine surprise. I’ve always liked them, but didn’t anticipate such a strong album from a band that I always associated with what happens if you grow up listening to Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints a lot. I’ve always assumed that they were kind of a known quantity.

Instead the band incorporates their debut and follow-up albums into a number of new sounds and some of the strongest writing I heard this year.

“Unbelievers” has a great bobbing-head beat for a track about being on the outside looking in, but having a great partner to do it with. “Everlasting Arms” is a charming track with a great rhythm and care to attention, but the most amazing piece was seeing them live at the Jubilee, when they turned “Diane Young” into a sweaty dance-off spectacular that had the crowd losing their minds – in the freaking Jube.

You can see that their progression up to this album was and I’m so excited to see what they do next.

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Music

My favourite albums of 2012.

So by all accounts 2012 had its share of delights, both actual and sarcastic. Rather than dwell on the stuff that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry softly to myself, I thought I’d do something a little different this year.

Part of my 3 things for Calgary initative this year was to engage in the local arts and cluture scene, and I’ll be talking about that in my next post, but to start, we’re going with top ten albums of 2012. I might be the last human on the planet who still loves to listen to an album from start-to-finish, and as tempting as it is to do it just on songs, I’m sticking with albums. Okay, Colin, stop rambling, here we go.

10. Grimes – Visions

With the sort of distant, keening vocals that helped ground Sleigh Bells’ Treats – one of my favourite albums of 2010 – Claire Boucher layers 8 million synthesizers and genres over one another and creates something that’s part pop, part IDM, ALL COP. It kinda makes me want to hold a rave in an American Apparel.

One of the biggest disappointments of this year’s Sled Island was her dropping off the headlining gig for at Olympic Plaza. I hope I’ll get a chance to see her before she flames out from too much party rockin’ or whatever.

9. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack remains one of the my favourite people to listen to when I’m getting ready to go out. I love the way that he respects and understands the roots of American music. When he turns on the jets on tracks like “Sixteen Saltines“, I usually do a half-assed jump-kick off the bed and bust out Omega-Level Air Guitar. Some of the tracks on the new album take a little longer to unpack than his more-straightforward White Stripes stuff, but it pays off after multiple listens.

Also, “Freedom at 21” is just an awesome track to play when you want to walk down the street with your headphones in. You are 36% more of a badass by virtue of this song. That’s a guarantee.

8. Wintersleep – Hello Hum

After their last album New Interitors, I was a little bit bummed about the state of Wintersleep. Welcome to the Night Sky was such an incredible album – a collection of mood and sound that probably got heavier end-to-end play than any album I’ve owned in the last 5 years. New Inheritors seemed to signal a change in the band, away from the massive sound and soaring harmonies that make this band absolutely perfect for car sing-a-longs and into something darker, more distorted and synthetic.

Never mind – Hello Hum takes the new sounds, synths and rougher edges and incorporates it into the wider sound of Wintersleep; the results are gorgeous. Wintersleep are one of these bands that can take a song and stretch it out live until you hear and feel each instrument, and Hello Hum delivers a similar experience inside each song. This time, the tone and vibe is far more upbeat than in the preceding albums – instead of a brooding texture, the songs have titles like “Nothing is Anything (Without You)“, with massive soaring guitars and choruses that feel like cuts off Achtung Baby. It’s music to fall in love to, for sure.

7. Die Antwoord – Ten$ion

Trying to describe this group starts reading like some kind of menu item at the Hipster Cafe. “Today’s special is a pair of rap-rave Afrikaans, seasoned in the Zef movement, with sides of g-funk and post-internet commentaries on race.” When I first heard about this group, I rolled my eyes so hard I thought I might have detached my retina.

Then I heard “I Fink U Freeky” and I rescinded everything. This is one of those acts that not everyone’s going to love, and if you listen to their lyrics too much you’re going to start feeling a little bit embarrassed, but their voice and sound is so original that I can’t resist them.

 

6. Cat Power – Sun

Chan Marshall is a notorious neurotic and her reputation for perfectionism coupled with some of the saddest songs ever recorded has become such a trope that she’s even parodying herself on Funny or Die. Whatever might be happening with Chan right now, the same sense of humour that let her yell at kids on the internet for a laugh has permeated her new album.

We’re still talking about Cat Power, here, and this is by no means a comedy album, but with skittering electronic samples and beats backing many of her tracks coupled with a lyrical change that makes her far less a victim of circumstance and heartache and much more in charge, Sun is a fantastic name for the album. The whole thing warms you like a cat in a sunbeam, wrapping you in a dreamy layer of sound, with Marshall routinely layering multiple vocal tracks atop one another in interesting textural ways.

I only came to Sun in the last 3 weeks of the year, and I’m so glad I found it. It’s been the soundtrack of the holidays this year and felt like a great Christmas gift.

5. Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion

Al Spx is the lead singer of this band, and if you were a Trinidadian-Canadian who grew up in Toronto listening to American deep south gospel music, The Cure and had an absolute cannon of a voice, you’d probably make Cold Specks, too. I think this band is going to blow up in the next year. Her sound – which she jokingly refers to as “Doom Soul” – is the kind of thing that can hit people from a number of different directions and find the thing that hooks you. For me, it’s the way the album hangs her voice out into space, giving her enough room to really deliver the power of each note.

I saw her perform in the brand-new Festival Hall, and it was easily one of the top five shows I saw this year. She performed a couple of tracks a capella, and it was all I could do not to break down right there.

 

4. Bahamas – Barchords

Another amazing live show, Afie Jurvanen’s band and latest album is one of the most likeable things I’ve heard in a while. Feist’s guitarist on her last few tours, Bahamas has her knack for crafting melody, but has a way of creating a sense of space and warmth that was notably missing from Metals. This is definitely an album built for quiet Sunday afternoons in the kitchen, with your cat asleep on the couch and a pot of soup on the stove.

Compared to a lot of the other stuff on this list, this is definitely an unchallenging listen; I’m quite comfortable putting this album on when my parents come over for dinner. There’s nothing here that’s going to melt your face off, but it’s rare to hear an album that’s constructed essentially perfectly – where each song is a perfect accompaniment to the previous and each note seems part of a unified statement of musicianship. Plus, the music’s just fucking beautiful.

3. Twin Shadow – Confess

Twin Shadow’s first album was great, but the followup just killed it. I’m undoubtedly susceptible to 80’s-pastiche synth rock (wait ’till you hear my #1 pick) but George Lewis Jr. created a Vietnam in this album. Just like how Vietnam has absorbed the best of each of its would-be conquerors over hundreds of years and ended up with a distinct and proud culture and nation that produces saté beef served on french baguettes, Twin Shadow lets the last 30 years of music wash over them and pulls the best from each decade. Peter Gabriel, New Wave, Arcade Fire-circa Funeral, Morrissey, Prince, TV On The Radio, Joy Division, Dangerous-era Michael Jackson – it’s all there, layering and colliding within each track. The results are at times unbearably tense and passionate – the kinds of songs that you can’t decide whether to dance or cry to.

This album has been heavy, heavy rotation in the last two months for me, and there’s no question it’s my choice for best breakup album of the year. Lewis has written a bunch of songs that really swing through all the emotions that come with an old-school relationship apocalypse – with heartache, love, anger, sadness, paralyzing numbness, elation and resigned self-destruction playing pretty heavy roles in most of the tracks. He’s the kind of guy that can take a hook that is an obvious play on “Take my Breath Away” and turn it into one of the most danceable tunes I heard this year.

 

2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Remember when we had them all on the run
and the night we saw midnight sun
Remember saying things like “we’ll sleep when we’re dead”
and thinking this feeling was never gonna end
Remember that night you were already in bed
said “fuck it” got up to drink with me instead

There isn’t too much more to say about this album that other people haven’t said better. Ian Cohen’s review on Pitchfork sums up this album just about perfectly: “Celebration Rock treats every day like the last day of school, raising a glass to the past, living in the moment and going into the future feeling fucking invincible.”

This is music not just to pump you up, but to help you remember the moments when you felt you could do anything, be anything – a life where limits didn’t matter, when time seemed infinite and at the same time unbelievably precious. This album sounds like two guys stuffing their drums with fireworks and soaking their guitar in kerosene – the album feels on fire, alive and visceral – and if you don’t feel the same way listening to it, I’m not sure I want to be your friend.

1. Diamond Rings – Free Dimensional

John O’Regan’s story is fascinating – a post-punk rocker with the D’Urbervilles, he gets Crohn’s disease, nearly dies and is reborn as a glittering glam-rock pop star. Ultimately, Diamond Rings tries to do something similar to Lady Gaga (elements of DIY personal construction, an attitude of letting your freak flag fly) but John O completely charms me in a way that Gaga’s “art in artifice” act does not. The fact that he’s a tall, awkward weirdo who clearly wrestles with conventional gender norms and understands the meaning of performance also helps.

And the music – this is a guy who clearly tried to moonwalk in his parents’ unfinished basement, who understands that music is meant to be moved to and move you at the same time, who shows a wry sense of humor that is so rare in a world of plaid shirts and beards. He writes adorable, earnest songs about falling in love and being yourself like he’s a living Degrassi High. Listening to him reminds me that no matter what the circumstances of my life might be, there are people in the world who are going to like and love me for exactly who I am right now.

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Thank you.

I’d normally start writing a new entry by making some smartass comment about not really having an excuse, and admonishing myself to write more, but to be quite honest I haven’t exactly been in the mood to write another breezy piece about how great the Parkdale Farmer’s Market is (though it is great, check that shit out). I’ve had some pretty serious stuff happen in my life over the last few months and while it hasn’t taken the joy out of writing for me, it’s made it spectacularly hard to concentrate on anything beyond my immediate circumstances. Questions like “where will I be sleeping tonight”, “will I die alone surrounded by cats, and am I really upset about the idea of them eating my corpse”, and “what is the appropriate emotional reaction to having your life explode in front of you” tend to overwhelm and shut down the part of me that likes to be creative.

I’m three days out from my first attempt at being alone since I was 21. When I look back on that person, it doesn’t seem conceivable that I’m the same guy. The world – my world – was so different then. People, we did not have Facebook the last time I was single! Twitter was but a glimmer in the Fail Whale’s eye! I thought I might make an excellent Prime Minister!

On surgery and recovery

Day one, post-op. Moist handcloths and gowns with no back side were very popular with the kids that summer.
Day one, post-op. Moist handcloths and gowns with no back side were very popular with the kids that summer.

This summer, I had my appendix removed the day I returned from a trip to Spain. Long story short, my surgery was referred to by my resident as a horror show, which was a delight to hear, but I kind of believed him since the pain was so bad that my lungs collapsed. Not being able to take a full breath for four days was a bummer, and my mobility was so crap that I couldn’t walk more than 100 feet down the hospital corridor with my buddy the IV stand before I had to turn around. The pain was tolerable with enough morphine, but I was eager as hell to get out of the hospital and when I finally was released, I didn’t really care if I was ready or not, I just wanted to get out of there.

I took some time, I rested and recuperated. For a few days, I had trouble doing simple stuff without lying down on the couch and sleeping for a while. I had a literal hole in me where my drain had been; the incision scar and swelling made it look like I had a miniature sideways butt right at my waistband below my belly button. I had to wear swimming trunks exclusively because anything with an inelastic waistband felt like barbed wire.

In a week, I was back at work, definitely not 100%, but to my surprise I didn’t come back to a massive pile of accumulated assignments and overdue projects. I came back to a clean desk, with major initiatives I had spearheaded moving forward without me – my team had kept the ball rolling and made sure nothing fell off the edge of my desk or got missed. I had never experienced anything like this before in my working life – a team of people who had been there and supported me through a really nasty thing, doing it because they genuinely cared and wanted to make sure I got better.

On tortured analogies

I can’t help but feel the parallels with what I’m experiencing now. I feel like I’ve been through something extremely painful that reduced me to survival mode. All of my energy and effort has been focused on my relationship and in trying to keep it going. I’ve been feeling alone and scared as hell and unable to breathe, except it’s been going on not for four days but for a year.

Now, the surgery is over. Whatever has happened to my heart, whatever damage I might have incurred, it’s happened, and now I’m in the recovery stage. Things still hurt – there’s nothing like the joys of anxiety to remind you of what it feels like to never sleep again – and some days it feels like I should probably just stay home, slide under the covers and watch Freaks and Geeks for 10 consecutive hours until I can start drinking with a manageable level of shame. Either way, I know things are bound to improve from here, if only because they couldn’t get a whole heck of a lot worse.

On love and gratitude

But throughout this process, I’ve discovered how ridiculous it’s been to feel alone. Since I started to break the news to people, I feel this enormous surge of relief, of not having to hide behind my pride and act like everything is OK. I’m filled – absolutely to the brim – with love and support from friends and family. Just like when I got out of the hospital and back to work, I’ve found that people’s genuine care – their capacity to just be there for you, even if they don’t know what more to say than “wow…uh, that fucking sucks, dude” has been the single most important thing to help me heal. The blast of text messages, emails, phone calls, Facebook stuff – it’s forcing me out of my shell, keeping me social and interacting with others, and helping me remember and rethink about what it is to be just me – just Colin – not “Colin and Inesia”. It turns out those two entities may be pretty different things.

Sometimes, when he looks at me, I can tell he's just really curious about what my spinal cord tastes like.
Sometimes when he looks at me, I can tell he’s just really curious about what my spinal cord tastes like.

Four months from my surgery and recovery, I feel healthy. My lungs can fill with air, I can play basketball terribly again. My drain incision healed up and the swelling went down, and now my scar looks like someone drew a line in felt tip pen delineating the precise halfway mark between my belly button and my junk, which has led me to consider some very, very bad ideas for tattoos (please try, and fail, to get the image of a “you must be this tall to ride” sign out of your head – I know I have).

I know that I’m going to get there again, too. I know I’ll be okay, that I won’t actually die alone, gnawed on by Meak or his future brethren. Virtually everyone that reads this blog and many, many others have put in time in the last while to help hold me up, to keep me moving and to remind me that there will be an end to this – a moment where I can return to the land of the fully living, to return the favour a hundred times over.

So, thank you, thank you all so much for everything you’ve done, for your support and love. You have done more than you know to help me start to heal. I love you all so much.

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Uncategorized

Diamond Rings.

Directly from the Diamond Rings website:

Although he learned piano, guitar, and saxophone at a young age, John O (as his friends call him) was more into playing dress-up with his cousin Lisa while dreaming of a life beyond the Toronto suburbs where he was born. Of course, being the only kid on the block that wanted to pair a ballerina tutu from the tickle trunk with hockey gloves didn’t always make things easy. As he explains, “when I was in high school I never really identified with that macho jock attitude but because I played on the basketball team I couldn’t hang with the goths and punks either. Let’s just say I spent alot of time alone trying to figure myself out.”

Shall we revise?

Although he learned jazz dance and guitar at a young age, Colin B was more into playing dress-up with his cousin Missy while dreaming of a life beyond the Calgary suburbs where he was born. Of course, being the only kid on the block that wanted to pair a black turtleneck with a  football helmet didn’t always make things easy. As he explains, “when I was in high school I never really identified with that macho jock attitude but because I played on the football team I couldn’t hang with the goths and choir either. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time alone trying to figure myself out.”

Is there any wonder I identify with this guy. And not just because I can actually sing in his range for once.

Go here to listen, please. He is amazing. 

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Uncategorized

The last men’s club.*

I’m a gamer. I’ve been one my entire life; hell, before I finally badgered my parents into getting me the classic grey-and-black Nintendo Entertainment System, I used to play Intellivison at my babysitter’s house (portmanteaus/weird dial controller 4 LIFE). I love card games, board games, sports – I love it all.

Intellivision
That’s that OG shit, right here.

As a kid who routinely felt powerless and confused by the wider world, gaming gave me the ability to control my own destiny – to match wits against a series of problems, and beat them – had a huge appeal. It still does.

Gaming is undergoing a sea change right now. For the last five years, the gaming industry’s revenues outstripped Hollywood and the music industry, and at a growth rate of more than 9% annually, is expected to eclipse their combined revenue within 10 years. With big money has come an increased emphasis on games as art, as the industry has expanded into increasingly baroque subcategories.

There are indie games, games as art, games as storytelling vehicles, music games, casual games, massively multiplayer online role playing games, augmented reality gaming – we are effectively at the moment when games have reached a tipping point where you are less likely to meet someone who doesn’t game as you are to meet someone who does. It seems like there’s something out there for everyone. Except there isn’t.

The single greatest thing about games is that they are immersive in a way that goes beyond any other medium. In order to successfully play a game, you must become something other than yourself – a sword wielding hero, a player on an NHL team in a lockout season, a temple-robbing adventurer, a jewel-shifting-whatever-the-fucker.

Games are just the best thing ever

For every hurr-durr Call of Duty or retread of last year’s virtually identical sports game, we are getting games that combine jaw-dropping art direction with social psychology, games that teach you how to pop and lock, first-person shooters with more multilayered cultural references and deadpan humor than Arrested Development and underwater dystopias that act as one of the most nuanced criticisms of Objectivism since Adorno and Horkheimer.

The funniest thing I heard this year wasn’t a stand-up routine, or a comedy on TV or at the movies – it was a game where I played a silent female protagonist solving a first-person puzzle game involving teleportation and malevolent AIs. The most beautiful western I saw last year wasn’t True Grit, it was a game where I played a cowboy looking to be reunited with his family, made by the same sociopaths who brought you Grand Theft Auto. The most pants-shittingly-scared I have ever been wasn’t during a horror movie, it was as an engineer fighting reconstituted undead on a planet-cracking mining ship orbiting a strange alien world.

I honestly feel really, really bad for people who don’t want to grab a controller and just try this stuff. They are missing out on some of the best culture we are producing right now.

The best gaming moments are the ones where you can appreciate the art of what the game is doing, and made even better if you can share it with others. That sharing can include cooperation or competition – I’m not asking the world to get rid of face-shootin’ any time soon – I like shootin’ the occasional face – but the best moments are when you go “holy shit, did you just see that?”.

The best video game moment of my life was sitting in a friends’ basement with 10 other people, playing a cheap plastic guitar while my friends “played” the bass, drums and sang along. I looked over and realized that our singer was being joined by a chorus of everyone else in the room, and for a brief moment it felt like we were a real band with real fans. That’s an indelible experience, something that connected me with the people I love in a way that even watching a rock concert would have never brought me.

There’s a catch – there’s always a catch

But like virtually every mass-media cultural product that came before it, games started off as a product created and consumed by men. For the first 30 years of gaming, tastes and products were determined by gaming’s creators – young men who were often acting out their own sense of powerlessness by creating worlds that they felt comfortable in. From its inception, the idea of “girl gamers” has been seen as either:

The traditional depiction of ladies in vidya gaymez.
The traditional depiction of ladies in vidya gaymez.

While gaming seems delighted to take ladies’ money, each one of these models keeps women on the outside of what is considered to be – at least for a certain subsection of the culture – the elite, or 1337 side of gaming. “Elite” in this case being a part of T3H H4RDC0R3Z – those people who treat gaming as a lifestyle, not just something they do in lieu of watching reruns of Breaking Bad. This group is remarkable in that they see themselves as elite – despite the evidence to the contrary – and band together online to preserve their exclusivity, walling off their world from noobs and outsiders, routinely using hate speech and incredibly puerile insults to protect what they see as the mass culture’s incursion on their territory.

I really, really hate these guys.

Games are changing. Shit, culture is changing, and these guys are fighting it tooth and nail. Read any article about women in gaming – be it an executive for a major multinational gaming company, girls who play or write about games for a living, or individuals who are critiquing gaming from a feminist perspective – and you’ll see message boards filled with personal attacks, critiques of the subjects’ appearance, threats of rape and murder and worse. These people – and their “FUCKING FAGGOT” contemporaries in the world of online gaming – do more to set games back as a form of art than the worst Doom-playin’ school shooter.

So, what’s next?

I can’t think of many games that could pass the Bechdel Test, but thankfully things are starting to move in the right direction. Conversations have begun about the role of gender in gaming, with multimillion-selling games like Mass Effect including not only the option of a (frankly, much better-written and acted) female protagonist, but the inclusion of same-sex relationship options for both gender. While the system is still overwhelmingly biased in favor of male characters, there’s at least an acknowledgement that hey, sometimes it’s fun to play as a girl, the same way it’s really fun to pretend you’re a fucking space marine. Seriously, I want to be a lady space marine when I grow up.

My friend Allison thinks that this change – and the subsequent reaction to it – is the outcome of the continued push to create a more representative culture; one that better reflects the world we actually live in. This is necessarily at the expense of the ubiquitous while male, and as women keep pushing for their rightful place in the culture, the people who already feel like they are disconnected and disempowered in other way are reacting to what they perceive as yet another safe place they are having disrupted by outside forces. Quite frankly, I’m delighted. I’m tired of being me, sometimes – that’s why I play games, for Chrissakes. I hope this bullshit is just the death rattle of that hardcore culture.

Allison
Allison McNeely – she’s a laydaaaay. Oh! Also my friend. Those are her two defining characteristics.

More and more, I’m seeing women – coworkers, friends, acquaintances, you name it – who are playing the same games as these guys. They are taking the fight to them , in their own way, and doing it while having fun. When I ask them why they like the game they play, they might comment on the gameplay, or the writing, or the people they play with, not because they are trying to prove a point. In fact, they usually give the same answer I do.

If the hardcore people have a problem with reality, that’s understandable. If they were anything like me, it was usually that reality that drove them to play video games in the first place. But you don’t take the hard bumps you get in the real world and act them out on the people who want to join you in your imaginary one. You recognize and have empathy with them, you include them in your narrative and you grow your tent; if you lose a little control along the way, that’s okay. Besides, I can’t hit the high notes in Rock Band and I need someone to be my Steve Perry.

 *A huge thanks to Allison McNeely, web editor of the universe, for giving me this title and helping me walk through this topic that I honestly feel wholly underqualified to discuss.

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Telling the truth.

I know this is awkward and I feel ashamed having to do this en masse, but I need to be honest with myself and with everyone about what I need in my life and it is probably better to do this in front of everyone and just get it out of the way.

There’s a secret I’ve been hiding from most of you for a few years, and not revealing it has become increasingly difficult. I don’t think I can pretend any longer and while it may have a real impact on my relationships with friends and family, it’s too important to ignore.

I know this may be hard for some of you to understand, and I don’t blame you. It’s something that many people don’t want to talk about even in this modern day and age, but I feel like I should be brave and tell the truth, even if it hurts.

Sweaty nerds come optional.

I want to try Dungeons and Dragons.

Old school table-top style, with people creating their own characters and acting in-character for the duration of the game. Dungeon Masters, multisided dies, orcs, acid pits, the whole shebang.

I might be the only one I know, and if that’s the case, at least I told the truth. But if anyone wants to try it with me, message me. I promise we will be discreet.