Look Around Leaves Are Brown and the Sky Is a

I’ve been craving the fall a lot lately. (The season, not the band, as much as “Free Range” is a seemingly permanent musical addition to my internal playlist.)

Perhaps it’s simply a response to the oppressive heat this summer, which feels as if it’s topped 100 more often than usual even though I know objectively that’s not actually true — I’m pretty sure that I’m just feeling it more this year because there’s no air conditioning, just small fans and an aging body that doesn’t deal well with heat — or maybe it’s simply my body sensing that the change in seasons is just around the corner and wanting to head towards it, like a homing pigeon speeding up on the final stretch. I don’t know the reason, only that I’m thinking about the fall fondly more and more often lately.

It’s a feeling helped by the fact that I’m continuing to wake up before 6 these days, but the sunrise is getting later and later; there is a curious thrill to waking up before the sun, one that does make me more and more excited for the mornings when it won’t get light until after seven o’clock. There’s a nostalgic magic for me about those mornings, as I remember the brief period when I walked to the local train station to get to school each morning, catching the 7:19 train in the dark with my breath showing. Those, somehow, were the days.

But now, I crave the fall for all the things I remember it bringing. Not just cooler weather, not just darker mornings (and darker evenings! I am surprisingly, ridiculously, excited for nights to get darker earlier again), but everything, it seems. I want the sweaters, the hot chocolate in the evening. I want the trees turning red and brown and the crunch of leaves underfoot as they fall from the trees. I’m ready for the rain and the weather turning shitty in general. I’m Scottish; shitty weather feels natural to me.

Maybe that’s the key to it all. I’m not used to good weather, and too much of it makes me nervous. No wonder I want the summer to end, and for things to get  “worse.” It’s in my genes.

But They Do

They fuck you up, your mum and dad, the poem goes. There are those for whom that feels immediately, distinctly true; for the rest of us, Larkin wrote the next line: “They may not mean to, but they do.” (For those who aren’t familiar with the poem, it’s called This Be The Verse, and you can read it here.)

I’ve been thinking about my upbringing lately, about my childhood and the things I learned then without realizing it. Consciously, I’ve always thought that I had a good, healthy childhood, a happy one that left me free from any immediate trauma or mental scarring. That’s likely true, but the older I get, the more I realize that it’s the not-so-immediate trauma and mental scarring that’s the problem; the stuff that got inside your head and shaped your view of the world and yourself without anyone — including you — even noticing.

Take, for example, my family’s general inability to openly express affection. I knew I was loved, it was never in doubt, but it was never really directly stated, and as a result, I had (and still have, to an extent) problems saying it clearly myself. I can’t remember for sure, but I think the first time I told my parents I loved them outside of being a little kid was when I was leaving to move to the US; I was in my mid-twenties. That feels too late, to me, now.

Or, for that matter, there’s the idea that you deal with any problem yourself, hiding it away as you solve it so that it’s not a burden. Objectively, I know that’s ridiculous and would argue against it for anyone else, but for me it feels, still, like the best option. Asking for help? Why, that might make others think less of me, and that would be a disaster…!

The irony being, of course, that both of these things cause trouble when they’re inside your head, insidiously pretending to be true, even as both whisper that believing them means you’re being less trouble, keeping your head down. I think of these now as lessons taught to me by my parents, unwittingly and unknowingly on all our parts, and am reminded of the next part of the Larkin poem: “They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”

Everybody Knows, Everybody Knows

Ironically, July 4 used to feel like the least independent day of all.

There became a tradition, towards the end of my marriage, where Independence Day would be spent leaving town and going to the coast; this wasn’t the summer break trip that it sounds like, and was instead born of necessity, thanks to a very nervous dog who hated fireworks and a spouse with little patience for a nervous dog freaking out. It was decided, therefore, to head to the coast for the day with the intent always to be that we’d be on the road when the fireworks were happening, so he’d miss them — or, perhaps, have other reasons to be nervous at the time, depending how heavy the traffic was.

The trips were almost always stressful, tense things. We would leave later than intended, or traffic would be bad, or some small, insignificant thing that would set the emotional tone for the day ahead; something that, in the grand scheme of things, was less than important would create a framework to explain away that day’s misanthropic attitude on her part towards the rest of the world. We’d drive for hours, barely talking but listening to her podcasts — anything that I wanted to hear would be under suspicion and have to pass muster, of course — and eventually arrive, allowing travel-sick dogs to escape the confines of the car and anxiously, gratefully feel the ground beneath their paws.

Thinking about this now, I’m surprised by the realization of how silent these trips were — or, really, how little conversation there would be, I mean. I knew at the time that this was bad, but I didn’t really realize how bad, I don’t think; just the amount of awkward silence there would be, between two married people on a trip together. We’d eat meals quietly, often because things were so tense, or else we’d simply run out of things to say after an afternoon of small talk. The signs that things weren’t in a good place all around, waiting for me to notice.

And then, there’d be the hours driving home, after the sun had set, with the dogs panting and gasping through nerves and me saying nothing as she got more and more frustrated because of the traffic, the late hour, the whatever of it all. I can remember how bad it all felt, how inescapable, a desire filling me each and every year for the day to just be over. The dull awareness of irony that what was meant to be a celebration of independence felt, every year, like just the opposite in every respect.

There’s A Page Back in History

I paused to reflect, recently, that I’m 45 years old. It wasn’t a surprise, of course — it’s been true for more than half a year by this point — but it’s something that I hadn’t really stopped to think about at any point before then; there was always something else happening, something getting in the way. Such is life.

But 45 is a curiously important age to me, purely because it’s the age Bill Drummond was when he wrote his book 45, a book that’s been a strange core text of my life since I first picked it up out of curiosity way back in the year 2000. As the title might suggest, it’s a book about being 45 years old, except it’s not, really — it’s a collection of essays written about his past and his present when he was that age, with the idea that his age when writing would inform the work and infuse it with a specific sense of what it meant for him to be that many years old.

(I picked it up, I confess, not because I was a Bill Drummond fan — I wasn’t at the time, this was the book that made that come true — but because the original release of the book was 7 inches square, like a 45RPM single and I liked the design aspect of it. I was shallow then, and I’m shallow still.)

As the world would have it, I had the chance to meet Bill Drummond months after reading the book and becoming fascinated and inspired by him; he was touring the UK as part of some art project and he came to do a talk at this art collective I was part of, at the time. I can remember how excited I was, but also how the 26-year-old me felt about meeting this 45-year-old man — he was actually 48 at the time, I think, but I might be misremembering.

He seemed older, but not old, I remember thinking, in a realization that only someone in their 20s can have. Oh, to have 20 years more experience but not be over the hill! It gave me this strange feeling of security, that I had more time to do what I wanted, whatever that would turn out to be. (I didn’t know yet; I still don’t, arguably.)

And now, here I am, older but not old, myself. It feels fitting, as if I’ve arrived. Although I’m sure I would have imagined myself with more hair at this age.

Is How I Feel Right Now

In these plague days, it’s occasionally shocking to me to realize how alien just last year feels already.

I don’t mean the small everyday things, as much as I miss those — even just the feeling of, I’ll just go to the corner store to pick up a Twix because I want to treat myself, as small and formerly insignificant as that is — but instead, how open to possibilities and potential 2019 felt when compared with today.

Last year, I was in Chicago, San Diego, New York, and São Paulo, Brazil. Each was a work trip, and some were more fun than others, sure — sorry, Chicago — but each felt like an adventure in and of themselves, with the world getting bigger as a result, especially in the case of the Brazil trip, which continually felt surreal and entirely outside my experience in all the best ways. Even just waking in the morning and wandering the alien streets, as the city around me woke up; there was something magical, unreal, about it.

Now, it feels unreal in a different way. Weeks into lockdown — I’ve genuinely lost track of how many weeks at this point, which might be a mercy? — who can imagine existing outside of their homes in anything other than an abstract manner? Socializing with strangers, exploring new locales, surely those are things that just happen in fiction, right…? We only talk to the people in our homes face-to-face without masks, and it’s always been that way.

I think back, with only a small bitterness, to how I felt after I returned from São Paulo, my head turned by the experience and the possibility of world travel; the excitement and enthusiasm I felt about getting out there and seeing new places again. Internally, I was making plans to get back to the UK for the first time in years and thinking beyond that: Where else could I go? Where else was waiting to surprise me like Brazil had?

The surprise, of course, was the coronavirus and the way it closed the entire planet off just as it was opening back up. It’s a cruel trick on the part of fate, but it’s nonetheless true: even thinking back just months feels like dispatches from a different time, a different world.

Sounds Familiar

I’ve been revisiting a lot of music I lived decades ago, recently. This is less an existential, midlife crisis experience than it is a practical one; for the first time in years, I have access to a CD player, and that makes it somehow easier to pick and choose forgotten albums or mixes filled with songs I haven’t remembered than when everything was, theoretically, available at the push of a button.

Part of it is, I think, the odd nostalgia of sitting there physically surrounded by the opportunity; leafing through the various CDs and being consistently surprised by what’s there for the picking. I’m reminded of living in Scotland before I switched continents, with a room essentially full of CDs and CD cases — god, I loved them, the artwork, the whole thing; I’d buy CDs for their design alone sometime — and being almost paralyzed by the opportunity and potential of what to listen to next, but knowing that something would catch my eye, hold in my ear.

I’d go through periods of buying particular things, or particular types of music. I have a whole host of Blue Note compilations for two simple reasons: my local record store was selling them cheaply, and I was looking for one specific version of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How.” (Oh, those pre-iTunes days when you had to search to find the right song!) So many of those albums didn’t have the song, but brought a whole host of new favorites instead; that kind of accidental discovery was a joy of the period.

When I moved to the US, I kept the CDs but got rid of the cases, packing them into those folders with all the sleeves. (Yes, it felt like a loss, but a necessary one; I couldn’t handle so much luggage.) With the anal attitude of the me I was then, I tried to pack them together by genre, or at least feel, putting albums and mixes together by mood. It’s a choice then that’s been paying off now, sitting on the floor beside the CD player decades later and saying, “Fuck, who remembers The Soft Bulletin?”

The Fruits of Your Labor

Every now and then, I remember that there’s no San Diego Comic-Con this year, and I get newly sad all over again.

I mean, it only makes sense — even if organizers and the state of California had made the utterly nonsensical decision to go ahead with the show for some ridiculous reason, I don’t think I would have actually attended, because, well, global pandemic and all — but, still. I write “I don’t think” intentionally, because before the show was actually cancelled, I found myself thinking, please just properly cancel it, if you go ahead, I know that far too much of me will still want to go even though it’d be far too dangerous. I know my dumb, dumb limits.

It’s not just that I’ve been going to SDCC for more than a decade now, although that matters, somehow. It’s part of my year, every year, when I map it out in my head — there’s a week long break that’s not actually a break, but actually a stressful, enjoyable, surreal work-filled experience, in the middle of the year every single year that I look forward to. A week unlike any other, for better or worse, when it feels like things get turned up to maximum and it’s just go go go. I love that.

I love the San Diego trip every year — the weather, the break from routine, the seeing familiar faces that I only get to see once or twice a year but adore nonetheless. There’s a very specific, hectic, frenetic rhythm to the trip, the way that the boredom of the traveling transfers into a palpable anticipation and tension as the actual show nears, and then pow, it’s happening and it just stays happening for five days. I love that rhythm, as unhealthy as it is. It’s become tradition, or more, by now.

San Diego Comic-Con is also personally important in ways that are near impossible to explain; professionally, it’s easy — I’ve made connections, friends, there that are important and necessary. But there are memories and moments from multiple trips that have nothing to do with work that matter just as much, if not more so; the epiphanies I’ve had, feelings I’ve felt, during those shows that have changed and shaped my life moving forward. The show matters to me, on some strange, real level.

And so, no San Diego this year. Next year, who knows…? But until it returns, until I return, I’ll miss it and, every now and then, miss it and think about what it means to me.

The Fine Art of Not Knowing What You Want

You know what I miss? Browsing.

Way back before all this started, I was a fond browser; I likely irritated all manner of store owners because of it, but there’s a very particular joy in heading into a bookstore, a record store, a comic store, wherever, with no plan or agenda — not even, really, any real intent to actually buy something — and just wandering around to see what’s available, almost willing yourself to be surprised. I’ve found countless favorite things that way, stories or songs that nowadays feel integral to my personal history even though I found them by accident.

It started when I was in art school, I think, decades ago. I’d arrive at the weekend with only vague plans, and amongst those would be grocery shopping. For the majority of my time in Aberdeen, both studying and later teaching, I’d live some distance away from the town center with all the stores, so even just heading to pick up milk, bread and almost inevitably frozen breaded chicken breast — I was a creature of habit — would be an undertaking; I quickly resolved that, if I was going to spend an hour or so getting there, then I’d make the most of being in the center of town as I could.

In practice, that meant spending a lot of time browsing in the bookstores and the record shops. I’d spend hours in there every weekend, checking racks for new releases or looking for old favorites. I spent so much time in these places — and, to a lesser extent, the comic stores in town, but they almost aggressively pushed browsers away, preferring those who knew what they wanted and knew where to find it — that I can remember the layout of each store even now, a quarter century after I’d last visited, and likely after the stores have gone out of business.

Here in Portland now, I still like to browse Powell’s, occasionally check in on Jackpot Records or somewhere similar. The curiosity, the joy of discovery, is still very much there. Except, of course, right now, it’s not — and I feel that, more and more with each day. I miss that space, that freedom to find unexpected things; I’ve started literally dreaming about it. Some day soon, I hope, I’ll have a chance to feel it again.

Trying To Find A Radio

Every now and then, I remember that I co-wrote a successful column for my university newspaper for two years, and think to myself, “how did that happen?”

The answer, realistically, came from the fact that they had open submissions and were desperate for new material, but more than two decades later, it still seems unlike me to have submitted anything in the first place, and I genuinely can’t remember how I managed to convince Andy, my best friend at the time, to do it, either. Maybe we should just chalk it up to the confidence of youth.

I was underselling it before; it wasn’t just a column — we had that, sure (“Gubbins,” it was called, which was either Andy’s suggestion or the editor’s), but we also had a comic strip wholeheartedly ripped off of the Kyle Baker and Evan Dorkin collaboration from the early 90s where they reviewed shows together, a series of fake horoscopes, and a regular How-To guide to dancing like your favorite Britpop icons. We were astonishingly productive on a biweekly basis for two 20-year-old art students.

And, perhaps most surprising of all, it was a success, to the point of people recognizing us when we were out, which was an entirely surreal experience, and the byproduct of putting our likenesses in the comic strip in the first place. (Suffice to say, it was a small enough city we were all in for this to happen.) It was an odd brush with almost-fame that flattered our egos enough to be enjoyable, but was small enough to keep from being unpleasant.

We did all of this for two years, our second and third years in art school. By the end of the second year, we were pretty burned out and devoid of material, as well as all too aware that we should probably buckle down and be serious about course work in our final year, so stopping seemed like a good idea. I’m pretty sure our shtick was getting old by that point for other people, too.

I wonder, sometimes, how this all set me up for what I do for a living now; it was the first time I wrote about pop culture publicly, and in what I considered my own voice at the time. It was the first time I dealt with deadlines and audience response and… well, everything that my job is now, it feels like. Perhaps it was my secret origin.

Season’s Greetings

For the name of this post to make sense, I guess you have to know that crying in Scotland is called greeting. (I feel as if I should spell it “greetin’,” because that last g is never pronounced.) Which is to say: This is as much about sadness as anything else. How festive.

Every Christmas, I feel like I should write something about the death of my father. And every Christmas, I realize that I don’t know what to say, beyond, “It happened, and it broke my heart.”

It’s colored every Christmas since it happened in 2007, for obvious reasons. One of those reasons is that it happened on Christmas Eve, capping off a month of staying by his bedside and having what will hopefully be the most emotionally turbulent holiday season of my life; I have extremely vivid memories of staying overnight at the hospital in his room, half-watching a nativity play on television quietly next to his comatose body, not knowing what emotion I was feeling at the time.

It was decided by my family not to actually tell my nieces and nephews that their grandfather was dead until the day after Christmas, so as to not ruin the day for them. A kindness, definitely, but one that made everything surreal and difficult for the two days we were trying to be jolly and seasonal for them before the truth came out. Even more surreal and difficult when giving them gifts that came from their grandfather, and pretending he was still in hospital. Everything was grief and pretending to feel joy.

For the first few years afterwards, Christmas was a muted holiday on Christmas Eve, at the very least. I’d try — and often manage! — to get into the season earlier in the month, because I’ve always loved Christmas and all the trappings, all the lights and the music and the schmaltz and the everything, but come December 24, my mood would get colder and darker. How could I celebrate, after all?

That’s faded now, thankfully. Over the last few years, my feelings about the holiday have changed for a number of reasons — not permanently, always shifting, it felt like — as reality intruded and got in the way of what I’d want the season to be. (There were a couple of years where I barely got a Christmas at all, because of who I was with the circumstances of that; I look back on that now in disbelief, at what I allowed to be okay.)

Now, this year, I feel this has been the Christmas that I’ve longed for for years, despite the delayed start to the season because of the Brazil trip, and despite getting sick this morning. Yesterday was a good day, relaxing and in the company of people who love me, and whom I love; today will be the same. Really, it’s the only present I could need from the whole thing: Joy to the world, joy from the world, joy of being in this particular world right now. Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate.