Monday, December 31, 2012

Twelve Things I Loved in 2012

Twelve Things I Loved in 2012
  1. Raul Malo. This list could start and end with Raul Malo and probably will (as my eye-rolling Facebook friends would attest). After being largely ignored on my CD rack for years, he came to the forefront of my attention one Saturday night in January when I saw him sing “live” on TV (live changes everything with Raul), and December had me at two of his holiday shows and buying tickets for a Mavericks concert in New York in early 2013. I am not alone in finding his big voice hypnotic, his big face adorable, and his big personality magnetic. Also, good songs. He unknowingly cheered me more than I can say, repeatedly. Thanks for that, Raul.
  2. Speaking of Facebook, Facebook. I undoubtedly spend too much time there, navel-gazing and oversharing, but I’m not going to apologize for that. Yeah, it’s flawed and annoying and doesn’t give a crap about your privacy, and I technically should have better things to do. But it’s also diverting and diverse, and “better things to do” hardly matters now that the internet exists: we all have better things to do. Twitter is wittier and clearly considers itself superior, but I don’t know those people and they sure don’t know me, funny as they are. Facebook seems less about creating an impressive internet persona than about sharing interests and other things about oneself with people who’ve expressed a desire to know – sorta friends anyway, not just followers. Or that’s how I treat it. But maybe I’m doing it wrong. Nonetheless, Facebook, I like ya.
  3. Getting together with a group of women friends for monthly private movie viewings at a tiny local theater (now sadly going out of business). We crowded into a little room and took turns picking movies (like “Rear Window,” “Strictly Ballroom,” and “His Gal Friday”), and we drank wine and stuffed ourselves with snacks while we watched. Like a book club but without the pressure to get the book read, it was something I looked forward to every month. And, consequently, I got to know several local ladies better and to spend individual time with most of them. (My little town does local ladies better than practically anywhere, I’m finding.) I shopped, dined, drank, road-tripped, and live-musicked with at least four new women in 2012, and I like to think that was a nice development for them too.
  4. Pulphead,” a book of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan that covers topics as diverse as Michael Jackson, his own brother’s electrocution, and caves in Kentucky, all with insight, wit, and uncommon understanding. I loved it. Ditto the essays of David Foster Wallace, which I’d not responded to the first time I tackled them a decade ago, but which amused and stirred me deeply this time around. Rediscovering DFW was one of those bittersweet occasions when I grieved for someone long dead, but not so long gone that I couldn’t regret not having appreciated him more when he was still here. I’ll just be glad that John Jeremiah Sullivan is still with us, still writing.
  5. My darling little nephew, who is four, talking, snuggly, and unintentionally hilarious. That he took immediately to the harmonica I gave him for Christmas, referring to it as “his instrument” and playing it with real gusto whenever he got near it, only added to his appeal. My teenaged nephew is, well, teenaged, but he hasn’t lost all the sweet to puberty yet, so I’m mighty fond of him still too.
  6. That I’ve got two years under my belt as a full-time freelancer and I’ve not lost the house yet. While it’s a little lonesome and lacking in traditional benefits like health coverage and paid vacations, you can’t beat self-employment’s hours, flexibility, or understanding management. I expect that things will get a little more challenging fiscally in 2013, but so far, so good. I just need to learn to budget.
  7. Podcasts, still. I listen to a bunch of them, ones about books and more books and pop culture and TV (too embarrassed to link this one), and I’ll probably find even more in 2013. I enjoy listening in on intelligent, informed discussions and it gives me something to talk with others about. Oddly, however, I’m not big on TED talks. Maybe in 2013.
  8. Yoga and riding my bike. I didn’t do as much of either as I should have, but I did enough that I got a little better at both. I even put a new rack and new grips on my bike, all by myself. I’m trying, people.
  9. The new deep, deep army green paint job my brother gave my house trim. Paired with small amounts of a yellowy beige, it really woke the place up, just as my friend Emily, my color consultant, said it would. I didn’t realize how yucky the original medium green was until it was replaced. It’s nice to live in a pretty house. Nice enough that I had to bump this list up to 12 to include it. Now, just to get Greg to finish it …
  10. My iPhone 5. This needs no explanation, but I’ll say that its speed and ease and hell-yes-I-can-do-that attitude make me regret the 2 years I spent with a buggy, pokey, battery-draining EVO. Its slogan should be, “Life’s too short. iPhone.”
  11. My pets. I lost a cat this year – Picket, who had been hyperthyroid and skinny and very, very loud for several years. But we’d muddled along with meds and constant feeding and probably less patience than I should have shown him (Shut. Up. Picket.) until he took a quick, sharp downturn in the fall. He was special to me for several reasons and is missed, but Clementine has become far friendlier as an only cat and is picking up his slack more than I’d have expected. My old mutt Ruby is still my best buddy though. She is literally my reason to get up and get moving every day. Otherwise puddles.
  12. The Magnetic Fields soothed my savage breast repeatedly too. I went to this show all by myself and met Stephin Merritt’s mother, which was a nice little perk for stepping outside my comfort zone. Also, Raul Malo. (Told ya he’d probably get the last word; he deserved it.) 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Wherein I Do a Brave Thing and Am Rewarded

That post title makes it sound like heroics are coming. There are no heroics to be found here, today or probably ever. I'm not that type. No, the "brave" thing I did was purely a matter of moving outside my comfort zone: I mustered up my enthusiasm and topped it with a good shmear of maturity and self-possession (fortified with some bourbon), and took myself by myself to a concert that I really wanted to see and for which I could find no other takers.

It was The Magnetic Fields, a band with a major following and a concept album, 69 Love Songs, that was a critical and (relatively) popular success when it came out in 1999 and still is much respected and loved. I found out about them only a couple years ago while visiting the Silver Sparrow Designs blog, where Kristi (a wonderful silversmith) always has a playlist going. There I heard the haunting song "All My Little Words" for the first time, and my fandom began. The internet makes it so easy to immerse yourself in an enthusiasm, and before too long I owned several CDs and knew that Stephin Merritt, the founder and songwriter, is often called the lyricist of his generation, with a prolific output and multiple side projects going, including soundtracks, to keep up with his vast creativity. He's also a famous downer. I've watched hours of videos and have seen him smile exactly once. Interviews with Stephin Merritt look painful for all involved. He resembles no one more than Eeyore. Not surprisingly perhaps, the man writes loves songs that will break your heart, but he's also so funny. And clever. Wicked clever.

When I heard about the concert, it had been awhile since I'd gone on a Fields jag, so it was easy to tell myself I could skip the show when my usual concert partner wasn't overly interested. But earlier this week, I listened to their music while I worked and sought out concert videos on YouTube. From those, I got the impression that the band performs accoustically, with pared down arrangements of their songs, which only made me more interested, since I could often live without the synthesizers he frequently uses. The comments with the videos, about how great the live shows were, also intrigued me. Dang, I really wanted to see them now.

So around 6:00 pm the night of the show, I decided I was going. By myself. It was sold out (yay, Philly!), so I found a ticket on Craigs List, changed my clothes (didn't even have time for a shower), and set forth on my solo adventure. I'd been to the venue once before, and I figured if I got there early, I could stand along a rail and watch in singledom anonymity and comfort. Shortly after 7:00, on what was an unseasonably warm evening, I was about 10th in line to get in (behind two other people who'd come alone, which heartened me). When the doors opened at 8:00, I went straight to the bar, got a stiff drink, and then staked out my spot in a slightly elevated "fenced in" zone off to the side and back about 30 feet from the stage. I got a corner spot that projected out onto the floor (ie, not stuck along the wall), which was just perfect, and I was soon joined by a couple from DC and their teenaged daughter, who were seeing the band for what the man estimated as the 10th time. Also encouraging: mature people, bonafide nonhipsters, who were nearing a dozen shows. This could be good. I chatted with them a little as the crowd settled in and between songs by the opening act.

The place had really filled up by 9:30 or so, and right before the Magnetic Fields took the stage, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find a woman smiling at me. She said, "Are you a fan?" I said, "Yeah, that's why I'm here" (probably not as friendly as I should have, but it seemed like a dumb question), and she said, "I'm Stephin Merritt's mother!" Yowza. I imagine there were fans in this audience who would have immediately dropped to one knee and genuflected when confronted with his mom, such is the esteem in which Mr Merritt is held, but I was just surprised that she was talking to me. Which should clue you in on how great this spot was that I'd staked out. I'm certain that she was making friends so she could horn in on it, which I totally let her do, because Mother Mary does not get turned away. But first I introduced her to my DC neighbors, since I figured with their long-time fandom, they deserved to meet The Man's mother more than I did, and I was happy to share.

Wish I could tell you that I made sparking conversation with her and we traded emails, but that's not really how it went. We chatted for a few minutes before they started to play and then around some songs, mostly me asking her questions like "Has his voice been like that ever since puberty?" (he has a remarkably deep baritone), when what I really wanted to ask was "Why did you spell Stephin with an i?" and "So what makes him smile?" Just having her beside me -- Stephin Merritt's mom! -- made the show feel much more personal, like I had a stake in it. After a few songs, I said truly insipid things like "He's sooo clever!" and "You must be so proud!", but what mother tires of hearing that, so I guess that's okay, especially since I was sincere -- his is clever and she should be proud. After the show she was happy to pose with me for a photo and I wished her well. I also told her that I had not seen a Philadelphia audience behave so well during a concert in a long time (it was actually quiet during the songs, which never happens anymore; most concertgoers act like they're in their own living rooms and talk or sing along too loudly). I was hoping she'd pass that on to her son.


Alex Merritt and I

The concert itself was just a delight. Five musicians on five acoustic instruments -- piano, ukelele, guitar, cello, and what I was told was a mouth organ (this was Stephin's; it was sort of like a tabletop accordian that he could also blow into through a tube; weird but wonderful, like the Fields themselves). I liked everything they played, even songs I was completely unfamiliar with. And the songs that were already favorites they knocked out of the park, mostly because they did them with minimal fanfare and maximal impact. Stephin's performance of one of their most popular songs, "The Book of Love" (Peter Gabriel covered it), left me misty-eyed, and when I turned to look at his mother, she had crossed her hands over her heart in emotion. (My insightful comment to her at that point: "Just wow.") The night before Philly, they played in Hudson, New York, and several videos from that show have been posted on YouTube, so I can see that the two shows were very similar. This song was a nice moment in both Hudson and Philly (Stephin doesn't sing it on the 69 Loves Songs version). I'm hoping a few more faves make it to You Tube, like "Grand Canyon," perhaps the saddest love song in the fewest words that I know. Here's a version of it from an older concert.

See, doesn't he look like Eeyore?

So, to sum: I decided to go see live music alone for the first time ever, and because I was in a good spot (only because I planned it that way since I went alone), I got to have an encounter with the mother of a figure I admire. Alex Merritt was with the band, and because I was standing with her, I felt a bit like I was too. It made the experience that much more vivid and enjoyable for me. Moral of the story: Once in a while, do something that scares you a little but that intrigues you even more. It could pay off.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Something I Love Now

Let me start with this: I am not a good blogger. I barely ever post, and when I do it's long-winded and not the sort of quick, fun read that's heavy on pictures that most people are looking for. Though I tried to turn this into a blog centered on my jewelry and creative pursuits because I got involved with one of Lori Anderson's Bead Soup parties right after I started it, that hasn't really panned out, in part because I go great stretches without making jewelry (and then I hate photographing it) but largely because I never intended it to be centered on jewelry, which I enjoy making but which is not really who I am, especially now.

I started this blog because I had had a rough time for several months and I needed to talk through some things. In 2010, I'd hurt my back, my job had ended, and someone I had been very close with for a long time died suddenly. Largely due to these stressors, my romantic relationship was also in tatters, but I did not talk about that here even though that certainly was something else I was struggling with. That relationship came to an end -- a painful but not crippling end -- early last fall, and I've been on my own since then. For a long time I just didn't feel like sharing anything here and considered just closing the blog. But by December I was feeling much better, enjoying the freedom I had to do and experience what I felt like doing and experiencing, and that led to my last post, about 10 things I'd loved in 2011. It felt great to put that list together and to end the year on what felt like an upswing, and I still feel like I'm on an upswing.

One of the ways I know this -- that things are getting better -- is that I have a new celebrity crush. Especially at my age (nearing 50), having a big, heart-swelling crush on a famous person is completely ridiculous -- there's no arguing that. But such crushes have gotten me through times of loneliness, boredom, and light depression my whole life (they started with Ryan O'Neal when I was about 10, gak), so they're old friends and not unwelcome. They take me by surprise; it's not like I'm hunting for someone to waste time and energy on who doesn't know I exist. I'll just see a movie (usually) or something and be completely taken with a fellow who stays under my skin for months if not years. It's something to do, something to think about, in lean times. You just can't let it get away from you.

This is only my second crush of the internet age (fortunately), which makes it crazy easy to obsess about a famous person. I'm laying this on a little thick. I'm not actually obsessing, but I am very preoccupied and frittering away a lot of time on YouTube and elsewhere. Since I'm self-employed, I've had to set limits on myself, such as no YouTube until 3:00 pm, no watching the same video more than twice in a row, no registering and posting in a fan forum (that way madness lies), and the like. This is part of that "not letting it get away from you" thing I mentioned.

Since I know you must be insanely curious by now about who this mystery man is, I'll spill the beans: Raul Malo, the singer. He was the once and future frontman of the 90s band The Mavericks and has what I have come to believe in the past month is the best voice in contemporary music. (Yeah, I said it, Buble fans. And this is not my opinion exclusively; he is widely heralded as THE voice in modern music.) Now I'd been aware of Malo and the Mavericks for close to 20 years and have even owned some CDs (which I lost in a breakup), but somehow I'd managed to miss being exposed to the full knee-melting power of his voice until very recently. I will blame this on the radio station I usually listen to, which, a playlist search has shown me, plays very few of his songs and then very far between, so I was not getting the full experience of his capabilities. That is now being rectified.

Want to hear how we met? In early January, I was home alone on a Saturday evening, as I often am (there are far worse things, trust me), and I tuned in to a Buddy Holly tribute show on PBS that was celebrating Holly's 75th birthday with a bunch of musicians performing Holly's songs to an audience that included his wife. The show's called Listen to Me, and I highly recommend it if you get the chance to see it. Anywho, I'm watching and playing with my phone and reading the paper, as usual, when Raul Malo is introduced to sing the love song "True Love Ways," never one of my favorite Holly songs. I glanced up and my first thought was, "No way that's Raul Malo; it looks like Pavarotti," for indeed the fellow has considerable -- considerable -- girth and not much hair anymore (as compared with, say, this look). But he started to sing this song that I do not love and by the time he hit the phrase "by and by" at the 16-second mark of this video, I had laid aside the phone and paper and was paying close attention. Yowza, what a crooner. Later in the show, he was introduced again to perform the title song, "Listen to Me," a song I already did love, and this large man wearing a little guitar just knocked my socks off with his tender, heartfelt rendition of this 2-minute ditty. Really, see for yourself. He creams it. By the time he and his big voice led off the final number, "That'll be the Day," I was wondering why they even bothered with Chris Isaak and Lyle Lovett and all the rest and didn't just let Raul do all the songs. He was far and away the best. Big voice, big presence, beautiful smile.

A couple of weeks later, I was checking my Tivo and saw this concert and watched it again, rewinding and replaying Raul's songs exclusively. By the end of that evening, I was smitten, which led to some internet searching and YouTube watching and the not-at-all-surprising discovery that the man has had the same effect on approximately a jillion women, who call themselves Malo Mamas and flock to his concerts in droves. (This funny video covers the phenomenon with animated characters, and this excellent blog post reports on it firsthand with humor and helplessness; I strongly urge you to click over and read it.) Ah, glad it wasn't just me. I've ascertained from the videos and interviews and even his own blog that he is funny, self-effacing, passionate, and extremely hard-working, cranking out records and touring, touring, touring. (In fact, I just missed several shows in this area, which pains me, let me tell you, but he'll be coming somewhere around here with the reconstituted Mavericks in 2012, and I'm. So. There.) Frankly, given the guy's talents, demeanor, politics, and other things that matter to me, he's probably the most worthwhile crush I've ever had in nearly 40 years of crushing. Often described by music writers as "a national treasure," he's not one that's likely to embarrass me ("as others have" is of course implied here).

There's much more I could say about this man who I don't know at all, such as how I find him more attractive in his current large state than in his (probably briefly) thin state early in the Mavericks' run, that it annoys me that so many of his promotional photos cut off the top of his head because he's been losing his hair for a while (in a most adorable fashion), and that I'm finding it hard to believe I will every find another voice more appealing than I do his, so I'm not even going to try. But I'll stop at that for now.

Well, except for this: because it's Valentine's Day when I put this post up, here is a love song that I just can't get over. This song was on the Mavericks CD I used to own, and I'd forgotten all about it. But when I found it recently, it struck me to the core. Because even though my love life is not happening right now and does not have a great track record, I'm a real believer in love, a sucker for the "thrill" described in this song, and I'm looking forward to experiencing it again. Until then, I have Raul, his twinkling eyes, and his remarkable voice to think about. Please -- watch, enjoy. It's my valentine for you. (And if you like this song, there are a bunch more versions of it on YouTube. Seek and ye shall find.)