“the peppermint engineer” – joanie sommers (1977)

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Christmas is here! And that means that holiday music is playing everywhere, and people are complaining about it.  Bah humbug!  Holiday music is great and as far as I’m concerned, the cornier the better.  I think the reason why people say they hate Christmas music is because they hear the same songs over and over and over again, and they take the music too seriously.  Holiday music is meant to be ridiculous and campy.   So what if you’ve heard that only John Lennon Christmas song or various a cappella version of “Last Christmas.”  Instead of just complaining, try exploring what else is out there.  And don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.

The holiday season is all about traditions.  Most of the people who celebrate during the holiday season have their own traditions, often with family.  I know I do.  But, I’ve got my own traditions that I like to participate in on my own.  Topping the list is seeing John Waters do his Christmas monologue, but I always look forward to Andy Cirzan’s annual holiday playlist.

Andy Cirzan is the VP of Jam Productions and, every year, compiles a curated compilation of campy Christmas classics.  For several decades, Cirzan has searched through record stores, flea markets, estate sales, and all kinds of places to bring you the weirdest and most obscure Christmas music out there.

In recent years, Cirzan debuts his compilation on WBEZ’s Sound Opinions and tells stories about that record, what litter information there may be, and how he came across it.  The compilation is then made free to download for the remainder of the year.

To listen to Cirzan’s compilations, you must have an open mind and not take the content too seriously.  It is all ridiculous but that is the fun of it.  Amidst all the oddities, Cirzan does find some interesting stuff that is legitimately great or becomes an ear worm.  Regardless on how ridiculous the compilation is, it has become one of my favorite holiday traditions.

This year, Cirzan unveiled his 30th annual compilation.  Called Rudolph Pouts…and Pouts Again, The Hits Vol. 1, it is a collection of some of Cirzan’s favorite songs from previous compilations spanning three decades.  I always enjoy listening to Cirzan talk about the music and each song brings me joy.  He does a really great job compiling these compilations and his passion shines through.

I have my personal favorites that I have heard over the years.  And while many of them are good or laughably entertaining, one that I think about more than any other is “The Peppermint Engineer” by Joanie Sommers.  Released in 1977, “The Peppermint Engineer” is a saccharine tune about an engineer driving a peppermint choo choo and the spirit of Christmas love.  With vocals that sound whimsical and childlike, the song is as ridiculous as it is entertaining.

So, quit being a holiday music Scrooge and try exploring the wonderful world of holiday music.  You mind something you might enjoy!

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“read, eat, sleep” – the books (2002)

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About this time four years ago, I picked up reading as a hobby.  I was not much of a reader growing up.  I read a few books here or there that looked interesting, but it was never something that would be referred to as a hobby.  Until I graduated college, I was pretty much about video and music.  Music is still great, but video games bore me now.

Anyway, back to the reading.  MY hobby of reading a ton of books is no secret to those who even remotely know me as an acquaintance. Having a book on me has become ubiquitous that reading has become more of an identity than a hobby.  I’m not even talking about one particular genre, series, or author.  I read all kinds of book on all kinds of subjects by all kinds of people.

I hit a major milestone last weekend.  I dropped a nearly vomit-inducing amount of money to be done with my student loans.  I had a spreadsheet tracking spending, student loan payouts, and estimates of when I would pay everything off based on a variety of different income levels and factors.  That shit was ridiculous and became an obsession.  I was tooling with its last week and then I paused.  I just stared into the distance for a few seconds thinking about life.  I decided this shit was dumb and I went for the nuclear option.  It took a few days, but I did eventually feel good about that decision.

After paying that off and becoming debt free, I started thinking about my life now versus my life four years ago.  Four years ago, I was flat broke, trying to get over a devastating breakup, and not regularly employed.  I didn’t really have any hobbies or friends as most of what I was used to was part of my old life with my ex-girlfriend.  All those things left with her, so I had to reassemble my life by finding new friends, hobbies, and interests that were interesting to me and allowed me to craft my own identity.

Despite a massive payment that made me want to collapse, my life is so much better than it was before.  Even t my lowest, four years ago, I was determined to do things my way.  I didn’t take money from parents and I set out to find ways to enrich my life.  I wanted to take guitar classes, but I couldn’t afford them.  So, I volunteered at a music school and got classes through that.  I only had about or two friends, so I went and did stuff to meet more people and grow connections with them.  It was a lot of work.  Sometimes it felt forced, but I think that was more due to my intensity and tenacity. But, it was truly organic.

My hobby for reading developed during this time.  A polar vortex hit Chicago, so it was too cold to wander around outside.  I didn’t have a TV because I got rid of it prior to moving in my girlfriend at the time, but I had a laptop with Netflix. Though, even that was not interesting.  Watching Netflix, alone in the dark or with bright lights, just depressed.  I have a lot of difficulty turning off my brain, so I cannot really zone out while watching shows.  Watching television is such a passive experience anyway, so all it allowed me to do was sit and stew.  I did not know how to be alone with my thoughts in a healthy manner yet.

From recent interviews, I had seen that John Waters had a book about him hitch-hiking across the United States.  That sounded interesting, so I got my library card for the first time, which was nearly 5 years after moving here.  I am a little embarrassed by that.

Anyway, that book led to another one.  I was unemployed, and everything was cold and Netflix was boring.  Reading became a way to actively engage my brain and distract myself from my problems.  It didn’t solve things, but it really helped.

Since I was unemployed, I could read all day. I ended up making a game of it.  That is when I put together my first reading challenge.  The goal was to read one book a week every week for a whole year.  Fifty-two books in fifty-two weeks.  And I had some rules.  First, it had to be a book I had never read before.  I recognized early on there was a lot I was missing out on, so I wanted to challenge myself and try new things.  And last, once I read a book by an author, I couldn’t read another book by that author until the end of the challenge.  Again, to keep my reading fresh and new.

That first year, I ended reading 90 books over 52 weeks.  I read a few hours a week at home, daily during my work commute, and during lunch at work.  I used to be really bored by reading, but I was loving it now.  I even started a spreadsheet tracking new releases, when I expect to start a new book, which book is next, and how many books I had read during the year to date.  Nerdy, I know, but it became fun and I liked the structure, though I did have surprise books I would drop in spontaneously as a palette cleanser.

Brining this up today because I am putting together my year-end reading stats for 2018.  This is where I figure out how many books I read, total number of pages, and pick my superlatives such as my favorite book of the year.  I still have two weeks before the end of year, but I already have my year-end choices down and I know I’ll finish them before the ball drops in Times Square.

I’ve also been winding down the last two weeks after finishing a really busy period.  Another busy period is happening right after the new year.  So, I’m gonna take some time to rest and think about the things I accomplished over the last few years through my own tenacity, plus the support of friends and family.

The Books dropped their first studio album Thought For Food in 2002.  The second track, “Read, Eat, and Sleep” is basically my plan for the rest of the year.  It is a slow-tempo folk, electronica song that is almost entirely instrumental expect for a vocalist spelling out the song title.  Nothing too complex.  Just straight chill, which is exactly what I need.

This holiday season, take some time and relax.  DO what you love and with the people you love.  Think about what you have and if there is anything you can learn from your past or appreciate from your present.  I’m in a better place now, which I’m sure seemed hard to believe back then.  I have three more days of work and then I’m checking out.  Gonna read, eat, and sleep.

“good morning, baltimore” – nikki blonsky (2007)

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Last week, for my birthday, I traveled to Baltimore.  I know. It sounds like such an odd vacation destination.  I have never had, let alone anyone else, expressed the desire to visit the place.  It was never on my radar of places to go when there are so many other places to see first.  Baltimore was never high on list.

However, I went to Baltimore.  At the Baltimore Museum of Art, there was an exhibition on the art of John Waters called “Indecent Exposure.” I wanted to see that, and I was not sure if it was going to tour.  I like to travel for my birthday and, out of curiosity, checked on airfare prices.  They were less than $100 and even then, I was still hemming and hawing about going to Baltimore.  Couldn’t I use that money for some place more exciting?  When a friend offered to travel with me, I decided to go.  And having done that, I never need to go again.

The exhibition was fantastic.  It featured portraits, statues, and chromogenic prints related to Waters’ own work, inspirations, and general fascinations.  It was subversive, and quite sincere in its execution.  It was everything I wanted and more.  I cannot recommend it more highly if comes to a museum near you.  Though, I cannot say the same for the rest of Baltimore.

My friend Amelia and I walked around a lot of places, saw different neighborhoods, and had a pretty comprehensive exploration of Baltimore.  And, frankly, Baltimore is really awful. This, of course, should not have surprised me.  Waters, in his films, has commented on the trashiness of Baltimore with fond recollection.  The seedy and trashy aspects of Baltimore inspired his outlook and cemented his unique vision as an auteur.  And he is sincere about it.  There is no irony in his work.  He loves Baltimore and all of its trashiness.

I just could not say the same for myself and neither could Amelia.  Walking from place to place, there was just a lot of trash, dilapidated buildings, and an aesthetic that neither of us could pinpoint. We were solicited for drugs on our way to Edgar Allen Poe’s grave and we, mistakenly, walked right through the worst neighborhood in the city.  Now, I may hear responses like “But, Bradley, all cities are dirty and filled with trash.  But there are nice areas too.”  I know that.  I live in a city much larger than Baltimore and one with a bigger reputation for crime and violence (although incorrectly attributed).  I know what cities are like. And Amelia and I did venture out to the nicer neighborhoods as well, but Baltimore is still awful.

Here are two of my favorite anecdotes from touring the city.  After we leave the Baltimore Museum of Art, Amelia and I walk two miles to the Green Mount Cemetery to find the graves of John Wilkes Booth and Elijah Bond, the creator of the Ouija Board.  We walk through a neighborhood that was obviously lower class and a bit rundown, but we were fine with it.  We live in Chicago and are used to these things.  We get to the cemetery and tour the grounds which are beautiful and stunning and filled with foxes.

When we leave, Amelia does not want to walk again so I ordered a Lyft.  As soon as we get into the car, the driver says “What the hell are you doing out here?  Do you live here?” We explained that were just visiting as tourists and he says “What the hell were you touring? What is there to see here?” We told him about the cemetery and other aspects of our trip.  He then tells us we were one street away from being in the most violent neighborhood in the city and was legitimately afraid for us.  He said he almost cancelled the order before picking us up.

My other favorite anecdote was at the gate to board the plane to get back to Chicago.  A woman in her early 20s was ahead of Amelia and I, and she turned around and said she recognized us from the flight to Baltimore two days earlier.  Turns out we had the exact same round-trip flight.  We asked what she was in town for and she told us she came to interview for a job.  I followed-up asking her what she thought of the city.  She grimaced, looked down a quick second, and then said, “If they offer me the job, I am going to decline.” Baltimore is so awful that a young woman trying to jump start her career would not move there.

I’m sure Baltimore can be charming and has a lot to love about it.  People willingly live there, so it cannot be all that bad.  I’m just saying I have no desire to ever return for any reason whatsoever.

Waters’ most successful film was Hairspray.  Released in 1988, it is an ode to the teen dance shows that aired in Baltimore when Waters was a kid.  Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenage girl, who pursues local stardom as a dancer on one of these shows.  The film tackles the issue of racial segregation as Tracy fights to have these dance programs desegregate and becomes a local hero.

In 2002, a musical based on the film debuted and went to win the Tony Award for “Best Musical” in 2003.  A film adaptation of the musical was released in 2007 starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Nikki Blonsky as Tracy.  The musical would then air in 2016 for a live on-air adaptation.

Waters’ original film was surprising since it was released with a “PG” rating when most of his earlier works were “X.”  Since then, through the musical adaptations, it has become his most famous work, this lasting ode to 1960s Baltimore.

“Good Morning, Baltimore” is the musical’s opening number.  Performed by Nikki Blonsky in the 2007 film adaptation, Tracy sings about all the things she experiences in the city on her way to school.  It celebrates the dirt, grime, and trash of Baltimore with Tracy even hitching a ride with the garbage man and getting flashed by creep, Waters’ cameo in the film.  The song is a recognition of the Baltimore’s flavor, the same one that inspired him but repelled me.  I guess I have to appreciate the city’s character if it influenced John. It worked for him, but not for me.  I’ll just visit the city through his films from now on.

“creative depression” – julie doiron (1997)

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Since shortly after Labor Day weekend, I had spent most of my free time focused on a creative project that kept my mentally. Intellectually, and physically engaged throughout most of my free time.  I somewhat sequestered myself in my down time to work on it. Sure, I saw friends on occasion, but I did not go out of my way to make plans.  Instead, I just focused on the project.

When working on a major project, you go through a lot of ups and downs.  Moments of doubt and confusion are separated by feelings of pride and accomplishment, oftentimes experiencing a whole range of emotions within a few minutes. Going through a cycle of emotions like that is exhausting, but I powered through it to reach my goal.

I made sure to track progress and benchmarks while working on the project.  Whenever I started a new phase, I was not feeling exactly positive though the feelings were not negative. At the beginning of each phase, it was just me doubting myself about the next steps and if I could creatively achieve what I what I wanted. I was also concerned about originality and my voice, wondering if I had anything fresh or unique to say.

By the end of each phase, I felt really good. Of course, a significant portion of feeling that was completing the phase.  However, I had also felt great about the quality of the work.  I felt I was able to convey my original feelings as well as find a new perspective and voice. It felt great.

I finished a major milestone with my project over the weekend and I experienced a feeling I was not prepared for. Unlike when I completed smaller phases before, I did not feel positive when reaching my first significant milestone in the project.  I was full of doubt and unsure of what to do next.  Though I close out earlier portions of the project feeling accomplish and positive, I did not feel the quality was good and I was left thinking “is that it?”

Over the weekend, I had a lot of free time on my hands.  That was something I had to get used to. I caught up on some television that I had missed over the last few months and even played some video games, which had been a super rare activity for me even prior to starting the project.  The weather was nasty, and I just felt bored by everything. I did some perform some self-care by cooking healthy meals, going to the gym, and seeing friends.

Reaching this major milestone of my project was significant.  What it means is that I have done everything I can do now at this time.  I have to wait a few months before beginning the next phase and working towards the completion of the project. I should feel great about being so productive, but I just felt down all weekend.

I talked with a few friends about it over the weekend and they told me it was post-creative depression. The idea that, when completing a major creative project that took up a lot of time and head space, you’re left feeling empty and unsure.  You’re left with all this downtime that was previously occupied with something significant in your life that required instance and focused thought and attention.

I am told it is normal to feel this way and that it ok to sit with those feelings.  A close friend said they felt the same way after every art opening, they curate.  And I’m told the most intense the work put into the project, the harder it feels when it is done.  I know I’ll be alright.   I will be fine.  Perhaps taking this as an opportunity to rest and relax is exactly what I need.  I know I have earned this time.

In 1997, Julie Doiron released her second studio album Loneliest in the Morning on Sub Pop.  The album is a somber indie rock hidden gem. On the second side of the album is “Creative Depression, a song about not feeling ok, the reason behind it, but knowing that things will be fine eventually.

That song sums up my mood right now.  I’ll be ok.  Winter is here, and this is the perfect time to rest, relax, and reflect.  And I have been neglecting those things lately because I was so busy.  I’ll welcome the peace in a few days.  I look forward to tackling the final stage of the project after the new year.