Weekend in Canada

Neither Jenn nor I had been to Toronto before that weekend we went up for the Pet Shop Boys / New Order Unity Tour, and we had such a nice time that I thought I’d separate this bit of travel writing from the memory-entangled concert experience.

Earlier this year, we visited the American side of Niagara Falls while we were in Buffalo for a dragon boat race. (Jenn’s a paddler. I’m team support.) Once we crossed into Canada, I was unprepared for the sheer sprawl of the Golden Horseshoe – I knew the names of these places like Mississauga and Hamilton for work-related reasons, but realizing they’re each huge on their own while also being part of Greater Toronto just kind of floored me.

Anyway, having never been there, we booked a hotel that was beyond Toronto’s center based on price and availability – there was a lot going on in town that weekend, it turns out – so when we reached North York around dinnertime and realized we’d be staying in one of the city’s largest and most well-established Asian population centers, we were excited. Findiing good food nearby would not be a problem. (Option paralysis, on the other hand…)

We found a dinner spot about a kilometer from our hotel, set out on foot…and stopped maybe a third of the way there because we found a place offering hand-pulled noodles. Then we learned of a dessert spot a couple blocks up, set out…and stopped two minutes later at the Upper East Food Club, a place with several little eateries all sharing the same indoor & outdoor seating spaces. (The last picture? Not from Friday night’s dessert. It’s Jenn’s bao from the next day’s lunch.)

Saturday morning I explored the area a bit more. First discovery: Our hotel was attached to a small shopping gallery with an escalator directly to the subway station below. Perfect. Second discovery: Our hotel was also attached to a magnificent branch of the public library.

I also found a few nifty parks close by, as well as a dessert place called the Cheese Garden (Why hel-LO there!) where I got a double fromage cheesecake sundae. It was a small piece of their double fromage cheesecake – a thin layer of cheese spongecake, a layer of regular baked cheesecake, and a layer of frozen mascarpone cream cheese on top – served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. I ate this while waiting for Upper East Food Club to open so I could get lunch for Jenn.

The public transportation was an excellent alternative to driving into the city center and trying to park anywhere near the concert venue: In addition to our show, Swedish rock band Ghost was playing the neighboring concert hall; the Toronto Blue Jays were in town; and the Toronto International Film Festival was going on. This all made for some fun people-watching on the late-night trains.

Sunday we checked out after breakfast and drove to Niagara Falls, where we spent a few hours on the Canada side with friends from Ohio who’d never been there. Here are some views from our Toronto hotel and the Canadian side of the falls.

Too Many Shadows / A Sudden Sense of Liberty

In the spring of 1986, I was a freshman in high school, and I never went on those end-of-year extracurricular weekend class trips to places like Philadelphia or Toronto or Washington, D.C. They just didn’t seem like my thing – they seemed like things the popular cool kids did.

But that year, the trip was to New York City, and I wanted to go the day they sent us home with the information packet. My parents were a little surprised, I think, but they supported me, and over the course of a weekend, I stood at the top of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, and inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I rode a boat past the Statue of Liberty because it was undergoing renovations at the time, I wandered around Chinatown with a couple friends for an hour or so, and I tried to stay awake in the top row of 42nd Street on Broadway. I loved everything about it.

Also: “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys was on the radio, and I had never heard anything like it.

At 15, I had developed some musical preferences, but nothing really niche. My first cassette was The Police’s Synchronicity, followed by Huey Lewis and the News’ Sports and Dennis DeYoung’s Desert Moon. Songs I taped off MTV by sitting a boom box in front of the television speaker included Men At Work’s “It’s A Mistake”, “Distant Early Warning” by Rush, and Genesis’ “That’s All.”

This “West End Girls” song, though? It got to me. The synths and electronic drums and Neil Tennant’s vocals that swung from low, half-spoken tones to oddly yearning near-cries – it was all completely unlike anything else I was hearing on the radio or MTV. It was weird and these guys looked strange but cool – I am 100% certain this is where my obsession noir-ish trenchcoats began – and I dug it all so very much. “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” came out a month or so later and cemented the deal for me, but I still got a general vibe from other kids of “Yeah, those guys are weird,” so my fandom was a quiet one.

Flash forward a little more than a year to the summer of 1987, and man, there is this bizarre music video on MTV with people in foam costumes hitting each other and kooky dancing and it all feels so strange and artsy and whatever, but my god this song is incredible. And that is how I found “True Faith” by New Order. It rekindled everything that “West End Girls” had sparked and hardwired synthpop into my synaptic connections for good. Even so, I kept my love for the genre relatively quiet my last two years of high school – even my closest friends would look askance at my Please and Actually cassettes in the car – although I did see New Order at Blossom Music Center two years later in the summer of 1989 solely based on “True Faith.” (I had never bought the Substance 1987 album due to its higher cost as a double-cassette.)

In college, I went into full-on alternative music mode, with a heavy emphasis on synthpop, thanks to close friends who surrounded me with the likes of OMD, Xymox, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Alphaville, and Yaz. Many fun, sweaty hours spent bounce-pop-flailing around the dance floor of Bowling Green’s Uptown bar on Progressive Night.

The only chance I’d had to see the Pet Shop Boys live was in the summer of 2001. I was in my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter, and our paper’s entertainment writer offered me the passes to see the Wotapalava tour at Blossom. I jumped at it, but the tour never happened.

This summer, 20-plus years later (36 years after “West End Girls”), Jenn and I drove to Toronto for opening night of the the twice-delayed Unity Tour featuring the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and it was a pure joy of a show. Three hours of my favorite music and songs that go back decades in my brain – with a couple sets from DJ Paul Oakenfold in there, too – and I was on my feet the whole time. Multiple goosebump attacks to opening tones of certain songs; the sheer delight of the crowd chorus sing-alongs; even a couple tears-to-my-eyes moments. Some highlights from a show that was pretty much all highlights:

  • Jenn pushing me ahead and yelling “Go! GO!” as we rushed to our seats for the Pet Shop Boys opening song. As it happened, one of my closest friends from those BGSU Alternative Years was at the show, and we caught up with her during Oakenfold’s opening set – only to have to hurry to our seats when he wrapped up right on schedule. The opening sounds of “Suburbia” make me howl with joy and I am already flailing around when we get to our chairs.
  • “Opportunities” followed by “Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)” God, I love these guys.
  • “Domino Dancing” because 9 times out of 10 I hate crowd sing-alongs, but we hollered the chorus and Neil seemed to enjoy it.
  • “Always on My Mind” – I remember when this single was released and my dad said, “Hey: That’s a Willie Nelson song!” It’s always been one of my favorites.
  • “It’s A Sin” – Fuck, this was fun.
  • “West End Girls” – And There. It. Is. Damn.

From New Order’s set:

  • Fourteen songs total – and look at this home stretch: “Subculture”, “1963”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”, “True Faith”, “Blue Monday” (That triad right there was almost worth the price of admission.), “Temptation”, and as the only encore, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, with imagery of the late Ian Curtis and the phrase Forever Joy Division onscreen behind the band.

You know what else? Respecting the age of their mostly Generation X audience, the headliners were punctual. Oakenfold started his first set later than expected, but Pet Shop Boys were on at 7:30 and off at 9; New Order played from 9:30 to 11, just as scheduled. 180 minutes of dancing, time for some ibuprofen and bed, synthpop adrenaline thumping in my head.

WonderBus 2022

Jenn & I recently attended our first music festival: WonderBus 2022. We bought weekend tickets back in February when the nightly headliners were announced as Duran Duran, Lorde, and The Lumineers, because we haven’t seen any of them live, and each of us is a big enough fan of two of the three to justify going all-in.

Jenn surprised me with a T-shirt.

Short version: We had an amazing and exhausting time, and enjoyed some excellent live music.

Longer version: Read on.

We stayed about 15 minutes from the venue, and while we’d initially planned to rideshare to and from the hotel each day, we made a last-minute decision to pay for on-site parking. (This would turn out to be an excellent move.) Got to Columbus mid-Friday afternoon, grabbed an early-ish dinner, and got to The Lawn at CAS a little before 6pm, I think. Long line to get in: Jenn hopped out of the car and got a spot while I parked. 

Friday wasn’t a full festival day: There were only four bands scheduled, playing on alternating stages beginning at 7pm, so we didn’t bother with blankets or chairs. Sat on the grass and really enjoyed Daisy the Great, but then realized the area was filling in pretty early for Duran Duran and we didn’t want to lose our spot. This meant I had to settle for listening to Cannons from a distance instead of seeing them up close, but they sounded good.

Daisy the Great

Duran Duran? Holy shit. Look, I’m a full-on child of the ’80s, aging from 9 to 19 during that span, so this band is way up there in terms of musical acts that shaped my decade and – although I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time – helped fuel my love for new wave and synth-driven pop. They opened their set with “Wild Boys” – one of two songs I was really hoping for, along with “A View to A Kill” – and just ran from there, even including a couple fan-favorites that were new to me. (“Careless Memories” and “Hold Back the Rain.”) Simon’s voice is older – he did have one rough patch in that Bond title track, but recovered for the rest of the night – but still distinctive and wonderful. And Nick Rhodes continues to do wizard’s work with a keyboard. In my headcanon, Nick & Gary Numan hang out on weekends just synthesizing weirder and weirder awesome sounds together.

Duran Duran

We were back at the hotel within a half-hour of their closing number – “Rio” – and so glad we’d paid for that parking pass, because the rideshare area seemed like a real clusterfuck. Here’s the Duran Duran setlist.

Saturday we bought lawn chairs and a blanket and headed to Wonderbus a little bit earlier to catch some of the mid-to-late afternoon acts. We found a spot in the shade while The Knocks (I think) played, and when their set wrapped up, we moved up closer to see Cautious Clay, who’s from Cleveland. Super talented and enjoyable. In addition to singing, he played flute, guitar, alto sax, and tenor sax during his set.

Cautious Clay

The plan had been to leave our seats and go see Coin before returning to our spots for Lorde, but fans really started packing in early, so again, we just hung out and listened from where we were. We also moved ourselves back a bit so we weren’t in quite as tightly-packed an area.

Coin at sunset.

Lorde’s hour-long set was a little shorter than it was blocked for, but I’m a big fan of her first two albums in particular, so I thought we got a near-perfect 15-song selection. (And to be fair, Duran Duran also played a 15-song set, but they added a two-song encore.) I’ve often said that you could drop copies of Pure Heroine and Melodrama through a wormhole into my 1989-90 dorm room at Bowling Green State University and they’d sound unique while still fitting right in with the Xymox, Kate Bush, Erasure, Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins and related alternative pop soundtrack to my freshman year.

In Columbus, I got to hear nine songs from those first two albums, including my favorite Lorde tune, “The Louvre,” along with others I can’t get enough of like “Homemade Dynamite” and “Ribs.” Nestled in the middle of it all was a jewel of a cover of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” followed by a wrenching “Liability.” And while her Solar Power album hasn’t connected with me as strongly as the first two, she played songs from it which I enjoy, closing out the night with a great rendition of the title track.

Lorde singing “Cruel Summer”

Lorde was really in good vocal form – supported by excellent backup singers and musicians – and seemed to be enjoying herself. And as a fellow member of the Andy McCluskey School of This Is How I Dance and I Don’t Care What You Think, I thank Lorde for being one of us. I missed out on her Melodrama tour, and am incredibly glad I was there for this. Here’s her Wonderbus setlist.

Jenn & I knew we were in for a long Sunday because it was going to be hotter (90F) and muggier, and we had a “can’t miss” 3:20 performance on the list. We just relaxed at the hotel and had an early lunch and then more chill time before going to the festival.

First act: The Vindys. They were a late addition to the festival that had us excited: As a Northeast Ohio act, they get a lot of airplay on our local indie stations and have a reputation for kick-ass live shows. Turns out it’s well-deserved – simply everything about their set rocked. It was hot as fuck out there and everyone was pouring sweat onstage and off, and the Vindys held back exactly zero. Jackie Popovec is a stellar front, lead guitarist John Anthony blisters charismatically, and rhythm guitar Rick Deak – I mean, look, I don’t have the musical journalist chops to detail it, but they’re fantastic. Doesn’t hurt in my book that they have a horn section and I’m a total sucker for rock sax – Garret Kuchmaner was playing this gig and just killed it. Also they covered Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and did it more than justice. Go listen to them and see them and have a fucking great time.

The Vindys

Meg Myers was supposed to play, but she had to cancel – which was disappointing, but she was also going to overlap The Vindys, so we avoided that conflict. The next band we wanted to see was Beach Bunny: Jenn and I both dig the early-to-mid ’90s alt-energy of founder/frontperson Lili Trifilio (think Juliana Hatfield, Kristin Hersh, or Tanya Donnelly). We stayed in the stagefront crowd for a few songs, but then headed back to listen from our seats in the shade. Stayed there for James Bay – Jenn’s more familiar with his music than I am, but I recognized two of his more-played songs – and then moved up for The Lumineers. Local Natives played the neighboring stage in between, but at that point, Jenn & I were mostly just hanging out and talking.

Beach Bunny

The Lumineers put on a good show. I only recognized their hits, but their full band was entertaining. (Did you know there are only two Lumineers? We did not. Jenn and I were under impression they were a big Talking Heads-type group. In retrospect, we have no idea where this perception came from. They do tour with a sizable complement of talented musicians. Anyway.)

The newest of moons (on Sunday).

Overall: Fine weekend, and a great experience. As far as the festival grounds and organization and that kind of thing? Mostly well-organized – that long line to get in was only on Friday, and I’d guess it was due to it being opening night and a surge of Duran Duran fans – with the exception of the rideshare loop, which maybe shouldn’t have been in the middle of the pedestrian path to the parking lot. Not sure how I’d handle it, though. 

I liked the layout of the grounds and the food selection, and that the festival’s goals include promoting mental health conversations and raising funds for organizations supporting mental health. Fun seeing the different audiences for each day’s headliners, and while you certainly could get yourself down in some shoulder-to-shoulder crowds for the big acts, it was also easy enough to hang back comfortably and still enjoy the music.

By Sunday night, I felt a little like I’d been at a convention like Gen Con or Star Wars Celebration – maybe having gotten a bit more rest, but also with more dancing. A lot of fun and at the same time energizing and exhausting.

Also we stopped at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn on the way home, so here is a picture of Ohio in cheese form. (No, I didn’t buy it.)

What Happened in Vegas (Spoiler: It was COVID.)

Back in February, Jenn and I booked a vacation. We wanted someplace warm and new to both of us, so we chose Las Vegas. We’re not big partiers or gamblers, but we like trying local foods and exploring unfamiliar cities and national parks (we got some excellent local recommendations for these) and in a worst-case scenario, we figured just relaxing by a pool would be peachy.

So a couple Sundays ago, we flew out of Cleveland, through Denver, and landed in Vegas during a dust storm (fun!) in the afternoon. That evening we walked across the street to Tacos El Gordo, and then opted for a last-minute show of RuPaul’s Drag Race Live – which was amazing and hilarious and wonderful. The next day we spent some time walking around the Fremont street area, taking stuff in and eating pizza and gelato, and then going back to our hotel for some afternoon pool time and dinner. Tuesday we rented a car and had a fantastic time driving and hiking at Red Rock Canyon.

And then Jenn woke up Wednesday feeling gross. We thought maybe the dry air plus unfamiliar pollen plus dust meant it was just an allergy attack, but we had a COVID test with us, so she took it – and it came up undeniably positive. So while she began feeling worse and we both started getting really anxious (while we’re fully vaxxed and boosted, we’re both high-risk for complications, and one of us not named Jenn is over 50), we found ourselves heading off to what became six days in total quarantine a couple thousand miles from home.

Those first few days in particular were frightening and overwhelming: Jenn got much sicker than I did, and all we wanted was to be home and safe and comfortable again, and those things felt terribly distant and unreachable. Neither of us needed hospitalization, but when you’re sick and the corner of the universe where you really belong feels impossibly lost, it’s just physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. It was awful, and in a million years, I couldn’t have handled it on my own.

We spent those six days in another resort with a motel wing specifically for situations like ours, but I need to make it clear: This was in no way a welcomed vacation extension. Although we were there voluntarily, we couldn’t go much beyond the sidewalk in front of our door under penalty of being involuntarily checked out of the place. So yeah – two rooms, one small couch, a coffee table, and minimal basic cable TV available. The staff who took care of delivering food and water and necessities were kind, understanding, and patient. It was still stressful and boring, and time lengthened at incomprehensibly slow speeds while we were getting better. We did a little laundry in the sink and bathtub, and ordered cold medicines and tissues and Slurpees and Oreos when we felt a little more OK.

I walked several times a day, clocking thousands and thousands of steps over the same 10 or 12 five-foot pavement squares, and developing a very real-world perspective on movement and combat actions in Dungeons & Dragons. While walking, I listened to an audio production of The Fellowship of the Ring and looked at the distant mountains. I doodled a few RPG maps and ideas.

Time crawled and we got better enough to fly home, and we both resumed work the next day. Five days later, I’m feeling mostly physically normal, but still kind of messed up by the whole experience. It crushes me to look around at people and realize how preventable all this was, if people weren’t selfish. When we booked our trip back in February, masks were still required on airplanes. Now they’re not. We masked up anyway, but we were in the minority.

And look – the pandemic is still going on, just like it was when we went to Walt Disney World in May 2021 (social distancing and masks in place), and when we went to NYC several times (masks and vaccinations required in most public indoor places), and when Jenn flew commercially for work recently (again, when masking was required). And in all that time, we never got COVID.

Correlation does not equal causation, but it’s a fact that masking and vaccinations and other safety measures work, and I’m really pissed off at everyone who fought and whined against compassion and science and common-sense actions that would have prevented ::gestures broadly at everything::.

I’m incredibly grateful to be home and mostly back to normal and yes, it all could have been much, much worse, but this whole thing messed me up kind of unexpectedly, and writing about it is helping me deal with it.

40 Years, One Page

Aaron Archer and I have been bouncing art (him) and words (me) and storytelling (both of us!) and ideas back and forth since middle school – almost four decades ago.

In December 2019, we met up for a long afternoon lunch, bringing bags of books and notes and drawings, and Aaron told me about an Ohio-themed comic anthology he was working on a piece for. He was inspired by the old Marvel comics guides that featured single-page dossier-type profiles on characters or places or events. Being from Canton, Aaron wanted to do something based on the idea that the sword-shaped grounds of the McKinley Monument are, in fact, an actual gargantuan weapon magicked and forged and secreted beneath the grounds.

“Think you’d want to write something like that?” he asked.

That evening and the next day, I spent a handful of hours enthusiastically reading and writing and banging out a first draft, and I had a blast doing it. And Aaron said it was just what he’d been hoping for. (Which look – the guy knows a thing or three about shaping a story, so even though we’re basically brothers and I knew pretty well what he was going after, hearing that I’d delivered what he wanted made me feel really good.) I made a few edits on my own re-reads, and he sent it off.

Below is our page from “Along A Burning River: Stories from Ohio,” published by Singularity Studios in mid-2020.

Thanks, Aaron: Here’s to the first thing we finally collaborated on and completed together.

RPGs and Me: A Realization

In late March, I went to Gary Con XIV in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where I enjoyed about 25 hours of tabletop role-playing games over four days. I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), Dungeons & Dragons (fifth edition), Marvel Super Heroes, Achtung! Cthulhu, Traveller, and my friend Alex‘s homebrew game set in the bronze-age fantasy world of Azor.

It was a lot of table time.

During the drive home, I had a realization: I find playing RPGs creatively fulfilling. (This is a “Well, duh” moment for anyone who knows me, because it doesn’t take much to get me rolling about how RPGs are a form of collaborative storytelling, and about their value in weaving together different perspectives and all of that.) But this time, the thought crystallized into something very personal:

I find role-playing games creatively fulfilling and I am allowed to recognize that playing time as creative productivity.

Why the emphasis? Because over the past few years in particular, I haven’t felt like I’ve been creating enough. I’m fortunate to have been writing professionally now for more than 25 years – but wording for work is different than wording for fun, and I have regularly felt like I haven’t done enough of the latter.

I’ve tackled small projects like the in-progress curation of my dad’s photos from South Korea, or a one-page comic team-up with my friend Aaron, or a recollection of working at Walt Disney World in the 1990s. But often, I finish up my work day and the last thing I want to do is sit down and wrestle more words into submission.

But you know, for all the times I’ve thought, “Dang, I didn’t write anything this week outside of work,” I could just as easily say, “After work this week I spent eight hours immersing myself in characterization, considering roles and plans and motivations of protagonists and foes, weighing story possibilities and outcomes, selecting plot directions, and – ultimately – making art with my friends.”

The stories we tell at our tables – both physical and (these days) virtual – are the result of everyone’s effort, everyone’s imagination, everyone’s skill and creativity and passion and ideas. We put ourselves into them and make something fun and worthwhile that we enjoy in the moment and can look back on and smile.

So, yeah: I can definitely count that as creatively productive time well spent.