2011 annual report: evolution

Some time around the spring of this year I suffered what I guess would be considered burnout. I don’t talk on this blog about where I work or what I do, but basically for the previous 2.5 years I’d been going non-stop, working 75+ hours every week, in the office nearly every weekend, etc. and it began to wear me down. I never hated my job — in fact over the vast majority of that time I loved my job, and still do — but I think all those hours and time pressure just got the better of me. Of course, I couldn’t see that until after it happened, when I was living like I had an empty battery. Everything seemed dull for a few months.

But then, in the summer, it was like someone jump-started me. Some changes at work and some conversations with friends helped give me some perspective, and reminded me that evolutions aren’t always a nice, straight line. It’s usually lots of forward, a little back, and then lots of forward again. So I definitely felt some significant ‘back’ in the early part of the year. Still, it’s not like I got fired or held the hand of a dying relative or underwent gender reassignment surgery or dug my village out from a mudslide or anything, so when I’m talking about ‘significant’ you have to put that in the context of a very safe, comfortable, lucky existence. Just so we’re all clear.

Now then…what actually happened this year? Well, certainly lots of good stuff, despite how it sounded with all my whining up there. We had a great visit from one of my brothers, and he returned with his most excellent wife for an encore. We hosted two dinners for our friends CBGB and MLK, and celebrated GB’s birthday with a surprise birthday party at his sister’s that lasted into the wee hours. We also celebrated from afar when the West Memphis 3 — whose case we’d been following for years — were released from prison. And, most importantly, Nellie and I celebrated Valentine’s Day (which I have renamed Best Friend Day) quietly at home, and our 8th wedding anniversary with a return visit to perennial favourite Canoe.

There were a few bad things too, like Dick Winters dying (since watching Band of Brothers I’ve somehow felt like he was an old friend or something) and the tragic suicide outside our window, as well as kidney stones and the worst cold I’ve ever had (it kept me from flying home to see my family…seriously, there was pus coming out of my eye) but that’s all pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Though kidney stones seemed fairly major when I was writhing in pain on my living room floor waiting for a baby alien to come screaming out.

One of the biggest things for us is always the traveling. This year there were a few great short trips, like New York in the winter, Nova Scotia in the summer, camping and cottaging and even getting an early jump on an eventual Spain trip courtesy of the host at our local wine bar. But most of our vacation time was saved up for our awesome three-week excursion to Australia.

We took part in some recurring Toronto events like Hot Docs and TIFF (after which we no longer fear being in the last box) and a boat cruise around the Toronto islands like the one we did last year, as well as some special events like amazing Pixies and Godspeed You! Black Emperor concerts, and a play about Mark Rothko. We also witnessed a national event which was probably felt most deeply here in Toronto: the death of Jack Layton, which I’ll always remember as more of an uplifting event than a depressing one, thanks to Mr. Layton’s final messages to Canadians and the outpouring of emotion in Toronto’s public spaces.

We tried scads of new restaurants and bars, including La Bettola, Paese, Lady Marmalade, Starfish, Against The Grain, TOCA, Lucien, Capocaccia, Ruby Watchco and the new version of Smokeless Joe on College Street.

One other thing that felt like an evolution this year was how my interests continued to shift from music to wine. I guess that’s not really an evolution so much as a transition — both are forms of art — but just be a doll and help me support my primary thesis, would you? So while my movie consumption — I watched 69 new ones this year — was comparable to last year’s total (71), and I read 10 books (to last year’s 9), I only bought 7 albums. By comparison, last year I bought 19, while in prior years I would routinely buy north of 30. Granted, I still have 14 albums (!) on my ‘must listen to these before the end of 2011’ list, but that’s still a significant downward trend in musical obsession.

So, obviously, the new obsession is wine. And beer too, I suppose. On top of the trip we took to the Margaret River while in Australia, we made three trips to the Niagara wine region. I even felt the need to defend Ontario wine in a post earlier this year. In the last few months we took part in a tasting put on by the Small Winemakers Collection and participated in a food-pairing contest between 13th Street Winery and Mill Street Brewery, naturally dubbed “Street Fight”. The beer connection continued with a sampling get-together put on by my friend Mike and the Session 99 craft beer festival. However, I did have to say goodbye to last year’s endeavour Project FiftyBrew and the original Smokeless Joe in a tear-filled evening.

Me, I’m happy with an evolution from an obsession with music to an obsession with wine. I’m not sure my bank account is pleased about it, but my bank account can suck it. I’ve learned to generally be pleased with any kind of evolution at all.

Happy new year, everybody.

Best movies of 2011

As of today — and keep in mind that we haven’t yet watched A Separation, The Interrupters, Le Havre, The Muppets, The Guard, Knuckle, Moneyball, 50/50, Coriolanus, Midnight In Paris, Take Shelter, The Descendants, The Trip, Certified Copy, Rango, If a Tree Falls, The Ides Of March, Margin Call, Meek’s Cutoff, Beginners, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tree Of Life, Warrior, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Young Adult or Shame — these are what I considered the best movies of 2011, in alphabetical order.

  • Attack The Block
  • Drive
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
  • Hot Coffee
  • Into The Abyss
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • Snowtown
  • Submarine
  • Win Win

We’re still plowing through movies at a serious clip during the upcoming long weekend, so that list might change by the time I go back to work next week. But for now, that’s it.

And geez, apart from the last two (which could still be easily described as dark comedies) is that ever a dark list of films.

Best songs of 2011

This is what made my best-of-2011 playlist. Please see previous post for ‘these are all the things I haven’t listened to yet’ qualifier.

  • …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead . “Summer Of All Dead Souls”
  • …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead . “Weight Of The Sun”
  • Bomb The Music Industry! . “Campaign For A Better Next Weekend”
  • Bon Iver . “Perth”
  • Bon Iver . “Beth/Rest”
  • Braids . “Lemonade”
  • Cannon Bros . “Out Of Here”
  • Crocodiles . “Hearts Of Love”
  • Dum Dum Girls . “Everybody’s Out”
  • Elbow . “With Love”
  • Explosions In The Sky . “Last Known Surroundings”
  • Feist . “Undiscovered First”
  • Feist . “Graveyard”
  • Fucked Up . “Queen Of Hearts”
  • Mates Of State . “Palomino”
  • Middle Brother . “Blood And Guts”
  • Okkervil River . “Rider”
  • PJ Harvey . “Let England Shake”
  • Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers . “Stick It To The Woman”
  • Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers . “Erotolopsy”
  • St. Vincent . “Year Of The Tiger”
  • True Widow . “Wither”
  • Wavves . “I Wanna Meet Dave Grohl”
  • Weeknd . “High For This”
  • Wilco . “Born Alone”

Whoa, what now? Wilco? But I hate Wilco! Well, yes, that’s true. But I liked that song.

Favourite albums of 2011

Note that I’m calling this post ‘favourite albums’ rather than ‘best albums’. I’m not sure I’m listening to enough music these days to say that this would represent the best of what’s out there in my opinion.

  • …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead . Tao Of The Dead
  • Bon Iver . Bon Iver
  • Elbow . Build A Rocket, Boys!
  • Explosions In The Sky . Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
  • Fucked Up . David Comes To Life
  • Mogwai . Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will
  • Rural Alberta Advantage . Departing

That’s right, I couldn’t even get to a top ten. I listened to plenty more than this, believe me, but not many made enough of an impression that I added them to my personal collection. Granted, I haven’t yet had time to scrutinize the latest from The Black Keys, Cannon Bros, The Decemberists, Bry Webb, Low, Moonface, Sloan, The War On Drugs, Yeasayer, Yuck, Zola Jesus, Girls, The Kills, Radiohead, Real Estate, Sarah Jaffe or Tom Waits. So this list may very well change in a couple of months.

"This is too much madness to explain in one text!"

Our year-end movie tear continues, and over the last couple of nights we’ve watched two of my favourites so far:

Attack The Block (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was unlike anything else I’ve seen this year. Ostensibly a silly alien-invasion movie, but made much more interesting by the fact that it’s set in a south London council estate. It took my ears about ten minutes to adjust to where I could understand a damn thing they said, but once I did it was actually quite funny. Think Shaun Of The Dead with kids in a council flat rather than mid-30s suburban slackers (especially since Nick Frost is also in this one).

Submarine (imdb | rotten tomatoes) was about as far from Attack The Block as you could get. I must have watched a hundred coming-of-age / high-school-romance / parents-are-weird films in my life, but few as clever as this. Lots of Wes Anderson influence, though with the weird ramped down a little bit in favour of truly likeable characters. The actors were all great, including a barely-recognizable Paddy Considine, but especially leads Craig Roberts (our protagonist) and Yasmin Paige (with whom teenager-me would probably have been madly in love).

"Oh, hey, nerdiest old dude I know, you wanna come cook crystal?"

Something else we’ve been watching a lot of (in addition to all those movies) is Breaking Bad. We’d watched the first season some time ago, but then took a long break before blazing through seasons 2, 3 and 4 in the last couple of months. It really is, with the possible exception of Mad Men, the best show on TV right now. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul deserve the hell out of their Emmys. Don’t make the same mistake I did by ignoring it for years. Go. Watch.

"I'm gonna peace you in the side of the fuckin' head if you don't give us the dog."

After having been negligent in the movie-watching department for the last several months, we’ve been on a tear the past week:

  • The Lincoln Lawyer wasn’t quite as rubbish as the preview suggested, but it wasn’t anything to write home about either. Strong supporting cast though.
  • Red State was disappointing. It just never seemed to get anywhere with what it was trying to say, despite having scads of material to work with given its Sex/Religion/Politics themes. A miss for Kevin Smith.
  • Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol was surprisingly impressive. From the second it began it never let up with all the action, gadgetry and crazy ass stunts you’d imagine. See it in IMAX if you have the option. Paula Patton: new girlfriend du jour. Oh, and a six-minute Batman preview!
  • The American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was excellent. David Fincher made the story even darker, Trent Reznor’s score was all technology and foreboding, Daniel Craig played Blomqvist more like a real reporter and (ironically) less like James Bond, and Rooney Mara might have even been a better Lisbeth Salander than Noomi Rapace. Definitely worth seeing.
  • The Debt was one we hadn’t heard much about but decided to see based on the cast. Not mind-blowing, but a solid enough movie about spycraft and revenge.
  • Your Highness was one of the shittiest movies I’ve seen in yonks. What in the blazing Hibernian Jesus has happened to David Gordon Green?!?
  • Last Night (surely the most common movie title ever) was something Nellie watched and I kind of paid attention to for all the Keira Knightley. It didn’t seem terrible, but I’ve already forgotten pretty much the whole movie except how great it (the cast, the shots, New York) looked.
  • If you’ve seen the preview for Our Idiot Brother you’ve seen most of the funniest parts, but it was still amusing enough. Paul Rudd’s Paul Rudd, and the supporting cast is good, but it choked a little on its own adorableness. Interesting trivia: director Jesse Peretz was the original bass player for The Lemonheads. OK, well, interesting to me anyway.

An artistic composition

A couple of years ago, on our first visit to the Niagara wine region, we added ourselves to the mailing list at what would eventually become one of our favourite wineries — Thirty Bench. What we didn’t know is that doing so would add us to the mailing list of something called the Small Winemakers Collection. I ignored the emails they sent at first, because we were really still learning about wine.

Of course, we’re still learning, but now know our favourites well enough that we’re interested in branching out to what we may not have tried yet. And so, a couple of weeks ago Nellie and I finally took them up on one of their offers. They held a tasting at their offices featuring 14 producers from around the world, and we signed ourselves up.

We got there a little early, so the place was quite empty at first, but soon filled to bursting. We made our way around the tables ahead of the bulk of the crowd, sampling Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and finally Shiraz from multiple countries. Around the time that we hit the Shiraz, a gentleman stepped up to us and said, “Here, try my wine.” He introduced himself as Norm Doole, co-owner of Dowie Doole winery in Australia’s McLaren Vale region. We chatted about what took him to McLaren Vale (he’s from Canada), about our recent adventures in Australia, and so on. As it turns out, his Shiraz might have been the best wine we tried all night, so we ordered a case (and a case of Appleby Lane Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand) and set out to find some dinner.

As it turns out, the tasting took place a stone’s throw from Ruby WatchCo, which we’ve been meaning to try for ages. We walked in sans reservations; sadly they had no free table, but did offer us space at the bar —  rapidly becoming our preferred perch anyway. The fun of Ruby WatchCo is that you don’t have much choice about the menu…they set out a prix fixe each week and you eat what they give you. What I noticed right away is that they had a great selection of Ontario wine, and by the glass to boot, so we started there. The starter was a HUGE shared salad with shredded duck; the main was a large plate of slow-roasted lamb (Nellie’s comment: “It tastes…cute!”) that almost made me weep. I don’t exactly remember dessert. I do remember a large portion of cheese showing up, which we nibbled at but mostly took home. I also remember meeting and chatting with the couple sitting next to us at the bar; apparently it’s easier for introverts to make friends while drinking wine and breaking bread on bar stools. I should have started at age 12.

Anyway, that started me/us on a streak of trying new places for the next week or so. Last Wednesday I had a work dinner at Opus in Yorkville, a place I’d walked past (and hung out near) for years but not tried. I’m not entirely sure I’d go back without it being on a vendor’s dime either…the food was excellent and the service impeccable, but the wine list was both prodigious and pricey, and I’m not sure I could go back without ordering a bottle at least as good as the two 2007 Cakebread Cab Sauvs we cracked that night. Lots of old Forest Hill money at that place, so I felt a tidge out of place, but the staff wasn’t at all uppity, which made it nice. Anyway, good ‘event’ spot to keep in mind.

Then, on Friday, we decided to visit the reincarnation of an old friend. Smokeless Joe had been one of our favourite beer joints for years, but it closed back in June and moved up to College street, and we weren’t sure how this new version would stack up to the original. The physical space is certainly different — above ground, room to move, no optical-illusion-sloped-wall-with-marble — but some of the staff have made the move, the tap list has grown significantly (about 16, I think — I had a Black Oak Nutcracker, a Unibroue Maudite and a Hockley Valley Dark) and a lot of the food is the same. Even if I never order the peanut soup, I like to smell it while sitting at the bar. And yes, we sat at the bar again, just like we did at old Joe’s; there we met a guy named Owen who was clearly a regular and knew our friend Kaylea (who we met whilst tending the Joe bar) and with whom I have more than a few Twitter friends in common. Small world. Anyway, we don’t get up to College much, but at least if we do we know there’s a place where we can get a decent pint.

Oh yeah: last night we hung out with CBGB and took them their wine (we split our Small Winemakers’ haul with them) and ordered Thai from a place we’ve never tried before, but I don’t think that counts.