Day 5 of Santa Monica

Athena ScalziOne of these days, I’ll finally go to the beach, but today was not that day. The UV index was at 10, and I didn’t feel like looking like a lobster, so I held off. I did, however, go to lunch at a Mexican restaurant called El Cholo with a different family friend from Hollywood.

The entrance to the restaurant was one of the most unique I’ve seen in the area, with an outdoor section right in front, underneath cloth coverings and string lights. The stone walls around the outdoor section were surrounded with greenery. 

The inside had white pillars and arches throughout, and tons of hanging plants all around.  

As per usual, they brought us out chips and salsa, so we snacked on those as we looked over the somewhat small menu. I wanted the crab enchiladas, but they came with a jalapeno cilantro pesto cream sauce on top, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle the heat of the jalapeno. The waitress assured me that it wasn’t spicy at all, but those are always famous last words.

Nonetheless, I took the risk, and I’m so happy I trusted the waitress because the sauce was delicious. I couldn’t even taste any jalapeno at all, but the cilantro really shined through. The crab enchiladas themselves were good, but wouldn’t have been even close to as good without the creamy pesto sauce. 

A yellow plate with Mexican rice, black beans with fresca cheese crumbled on top, and crab enchiladas covered in a green sauce, with avocado slices and a dollop of sour cream on top.

Normally, I never eat the rice and beans that comes on the side, just because I’m really not a fan of either in a general sense, but both the rice and black beans that came with this dish were superb! Especially if you got the rice mixed in the enchilada sauce. 

We passed on dessert, but with the check, the waitress brought us both a tiny little bag of pecan praline candies, which were super sweet and perfect little bites to end the meal. 

A small brown paper bag that has the El Cholo logo on it. Two pecan praline candies sit on top of the bag.

Best of all, the prices were good! I’ve been having a bit of sticker shock whilst I’ve been in LA, and I’m trying to adjust, but I really have been spending what feels like a ton on what seems like so little. Though, that is just kind of the world is right now, anyways. 

After lunch, I just rested at the house and wrote a post, then went to dinner. 

I headed back to Longitude, inside the Marriott, despite having a dozen other places on my list to try out, just because it was close, I like the hotel lobby atmosphere, and they have food I like. (Though, to be fair, there isn’t much food I don’t like.)

This time around, I wasn’t as hungry, so I just got the cheese and charcuterie board. 

A white rectangular plate with an assortment of meats and cheeses, as well as tiny pickles and baguette slices.

It came with two types of cheeses, one was brie, and I wasn’t positive what the other one was, but I think they said it was some type of drunken goat cheese. It certainly tasted funky like a goat cheese. Other than that, there were three kinds of meat, and again I literally had no idea what types they were except like the most basic salami one. One was strangely like a baloney. I wasn’t much a fan of the two unknown ones, but the salami was good. There was also whole grain mustard and fig spread, both of which I’m a fan. And of course, cornichons. Normally, I love pickles, but these little ones packed way too much of a punch for me, and I couldn’t eat more than one. 

I wasn’t hungry enough for any more food, so I just tried one of their craft cocktails (which are eighteen fucking dollars each). I got the cherry thyme cocktail. It was made with vodka, cherry-thyme syrup, lime, cucumber, and ginger beer. It mostly tasted like rubbing alcohol, but it had this cute little sprig of thyme in it! So that’s something. 

A tall glass filled with pinkish-reddish liquid. There is ice, a sprig of thyme, and a white paper straw in the glass.

I wanted to try something else, since the cherry thyme was a bit disappointing, so I got the watermelon smash. This one also had vodka, muddled watermelon, mint, and lime. It was vastly superior, and I really enjoyed the fresh watermelon pieces that accompanied it. 

A short glass filled with pink liquid, topped with three pieces of watermelon on a skewer.

I decided I couldn’t leave without trying their other dessert, the croissant banana bread pudding. It was underwhelming, to say the least. The lighting certainly isn’t doing it any favors, but it wasn’t that great. It was too dense, and I hated the strawberry sauce. Definitely get the slightly over-torched creme brulee instead. 

A white circular plate with two rectangular pieces of bread pudding on top, drizzled with chocolate and strawberry sauce, and a dusting of powdered sugar.

So, another pretty chill day. If you can’t tell by this point, basically all I do is eat. I don’t see landmarks, I don’t go to museums, I just want to try as much food as possible. Trying new restaurants, experiencing new foods and flavors, that’s the best part of traveling to me. That, and shopping, but I’m trying not to do that here. My food bill costs enough as it is, I don’t need to add my shopping addiction bill on top of that. 

It’s amazing I’m this close to the beach and still haven’t even walked on the sand, gotten in the ocean, or visited the pier. I know it’s a must, and I’m almost out of time, but I keep finding reasons not to go. Maybe I’ll just go walk there right now. 

Have a great day!

-AMS 

A Personal History of Music, Day 24: “Calling All Angels,” by Jane Siberry

John Scalzi

Sometimes you connect with a musician for only one song or one album, but that connection, when it’s made, is a strong one. I feel that way about Jane Siberry; most of her oeuvre is not for me for various reasons, but then there’s When I Was a Boy, an album-length mediation on life and what surrounds it, before and after. It turns out that this was extremely my thing, or at the very least, Jane Siberry’s take on it was my thing, none more so than the song “Calling All Angels.”

I actually connected with “Calling All Angels” before the album it is on, because it was part of the soundtrack album for Until the End of the World, a science fiction film directed by Wim Wenders. The movie itself is a bit of a mess, but the soundtrack is magnificent; Wenders went to a bunch of musicians during the production of the film (it came out in 1991) and asked them to imagine where music would be in 1999. Uniformly the answer from these musicians was that would be in a dark and moody place (thus the later irony that, when 1999 actually hit, it was the realm of boy bands, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera). In this collection of dark moodiness, “Calling All Angels” was a contrast and counterpoint: It was moody, but that moodiness was ultimately hopeful. The song is better integrated in When I Was a Boy; that album was all of a piece.

I think it’s interesting when you have such a small window with an artist. Jane Siberry’s other work is excellent, it’s just not something I connect with or come back to in the same way that I came back to When I Was a Boy. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it is what it is. I’m glad we had that particular moment, and I treasure it.

— JS

Today’s Court Case

I have COVID and my brain is not in a place to write anything substantive about it right now. So I will say what I already noted on Twitter: This court will continue to take rights from Americans as soon as it can. If you’re an American and you don’t think that this will affect you or someone you love, you’re a fool.

More perhaps later when I have more brain for it. In the meantime, I’m disabling comments on this post because if I’m not in a mental place to write substantively on this topic, I’m also not in a place to ride herd over a comment thread.

— JS

Status Update, 6/24/22

I feel… meh. Mostly fuzzy and distracted and a little ache-y. I have congestion and a runny nose. I don’t feel horrible, but I certainly don’t feel good. I do retain my sense of smell and taste so far, so that’s a good thing. I think it’s accurate to say the thing I feel most at the moment is boredom and restlessness, since apparently COVID for me combines a desire to focus on things with a complete inability to focus. Sneaky COVID!

The good news, such as it is, is that I don’t feel any worse today than I did yesterday. It’s a perfectly reasonable plateau of meh, and I’m okay being here rather than, you know, feeling worse. My plan for the day is to do more of nothing, take some naps, have some ice cream and otherwise let my body to its recuperating things. I think it’s a good plan. I’ll let you know how it works out.

— JS

Day 4 of Santa Monica

Athena ScalziI had big plans for my fourth day in town, but upon waking up I decided I didn’t feel like leaving the bed. So I didn’t! And I went back to sleep. I ended up sleeping about thirteen hours. I had to keep convincing myself that I wasn’t wasting my day, because rest is important, and I’ve jam packed the past few days with so much stuff that it’s okay to take it easy.

I finally got up in the afternoon and got ready to go out to dinner with family friends. They told me they wanted to take me out to a fancy dinner while I was here, so I let them pick the place. And fancy it was!

They decided on taking me to a place called Hatchet Hall located in Culver City. Upon arriving, there was a large outdoor section with tables and chairs on gravel, and those big outdoor fire lamps that I’ve only ever seen in places like California and Arizona. The transition to the indoor part of the restaurant was practically seamless, as it was all open and you could see everything, including the bar.

The menu was a small piece of paper, but was laid out in an interesting fashion.

A tri-folded piece of white paper with several subsections of menu items. There are a few drawings of animals on the menu, including a bear in a raccoon cap, and pigs in dresses playing instruments. All the menu items have the price next to it.

I was then informed it was a small plates style restaurant, so we were going to get a lot of things and share them all. I was a huge fan of the idea, and I’m not picky, so I told them to pick everything.

We started with the honey dates that come in brown butter with date vinegar topped with sea salt. I did not get a picture, because I forgot that documenting was a thing, but they were the best dates I’ve ever had. Which is an odd thing to have a “best I’ve ever had” of, but it’s true. They were soft and sweet and the perfect little bites to start the meal off right.

The next platter that came was half a dozen oysters.

A bowl filled with ice. There are six oysters arranged symmetrically atop the ice, with two sauces in silver containers in the middle. One is filled with a red cocktail sauce, the other a dark vinaigrette. There is also a slice of lemon.

I had never had oysters before, and was having dubious feelings towards them. I like mussels well enough, but oysters are raw, which freaks me out a little. I knew that if I were going to have oysters, they might as well be from the coast and at a fancy restaurant, so I oughta give these a try.

And I actually liked them! I put cocktail sauce on the first one, and it was quite nice. I had been preparing myself for unpleasantness, but was glad that was not the case. For the second one, I tried the vinaigrette, and that was pretty good, too.

A blue plate with golden brown rolls. A scoop of butter topped with flaky salt is on the side.

Next up, I got to have one of these ultra-fluffy, perfectly golden brown rolls. Hopefully you can see the pinch of flaky salt atop the honey butter on the side, because that really took this to the next level. I’m a sucker for flaky salt… and honey… and butter.

A white plate with an assortment of leafy greens, with peach slices.

Following the rolls, we had this grilled peach, burrata, and prosciutto salad. I’m not saying my favorite fruit is peaches, my favorite meat is prosciutto, and my favorite cheese is burrata, but that is exactly what I’m saying, so you can imagine how much I loved this salad. The peaches were fresh and juicy, the burrata was soft and creamy, the leafy greens balanced out the richness of the prosciutto, ugh, it was amazing.

And don’t even get me STARTED on the next dish!

A black plate with sliced carrots, tons of green herbs, white yogurt sauce, and honeycomb.

Grilled carrots with a cumin yogurt sauce, topped with fresh cilantro and dill, accompanied by honeycomb?! I was stunned. It was too delicious for words. The brightness of the herbs with the creaminess of the yogurt, the honeycomb alongside the soft cooked carrots, it was incredible. Quite possibly my favorite dish of the night.

We did have one other dish before the appetizers came, but I forgot to take a picture of that one. It was the braised collard greens. I had never had collard greens before, and they were pretty good, though probably the thing I was least impressed with throughout the night.

A black plate with a hunk of salmon, a bed of greens and herbs resting next to it. A lemon sits at the top of the plate, slightly charred.

I was starting to get full, but the entrees were arriving. Here we have some King Salmon, with labneh and herbs. I haven’t had labneh since like 2016, so this was a welcome reunion. The salmon, underneath that crispy skin, was cooked more medium than I’m used to, but it wasn’t a bad thing, in fact it was delicious!

A white plate, with a heaping pile of grits and leafy greens, with pork belly resting on top, garnished with cilantro.

Underneath the giant garnish of cilantro, we have braised pork belly, with grits and cannellini beans. I don’t think I’ve ever had grits before this, but I quite liked them. My friend told me they’re a lot like oatmeal, you have to do something to them or else they’re extraordinarily bland and boring. As for pork belly, I had it once at a Jamaican restaurant, so having it again was nice. It was tender, the grits were creamy, and it was a savory medley.

Which was the perfect end before dessert.

Three desserts. One is a giant meringue with blueberries and strawberries, one is a small, circular panna cotta with sour cherries and crumble on top, the last is a bowl of peach cobbler with a perfect scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

We all decided to pick our own desserts and not share. Mine was the lil’ vanilla panna cotta on the right, with sour cherries and mulberry crumble. If I were a dessert, I feel like I’d be vanilla panna cotta. I did end up trying one bite of the giant meringue, specifically because it was so big and she needed help with it, and it was ridiculously good. Like make you reevaluate your whole life good. Of course, the panna cotta was excellent, too, as was everything that night.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and the meal was over. It was amazing, and I hope I get to go back someday. Preferably soon.

Some interesting things I noticed about this place was that none of the plates matched. Heck, even some of the chairs didn’t match. It was like they got everything from a thrift store and just had mismatched silverware and plates now. Not that that’s a problem at all, it was just unique.

Oh, also, my friends informed me that their menu changes with the seasons, to ensure everything is always in season and fresh. Man I love California.

If you had eaten here, what would you have picked? Which dish looked the best to you that I tried? Are you a fan of the small plates style? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

A Personal History of Music, Day 23: “On the Radio,” by Regina Spektor

John Scalzi

For this series I’m picking one song per artist to represent them and why they’ve mattered to me. Usually, this isn’t too difficult — sometimes it’s that one particular song that’s resonated for me, and other times there’s usually one song above several other equally worthy songs that I thing be represents what I like and admire about the artist. In the case of Regina Spektor, however, I had an excruciating time picking between two songs: “Fidelity” and “On the Radio.” Both songs resonate almost equally for me; both songs are on my Forever Playlist.

That’s because both songs, each from Spektor’s Begin to Hope album, really quite excellently nail what it feels like to surrender one’s self to love. “Fidelity” covers the effort it takes to make that surrender in the first place, to really let someone in, and by doing so, open one’s self to the terrifying everything that comes with love; “On the Radio,” goes into what opening one’s self actually entails. Of the two songs, “Fidelity” is the more complete and lyrically coherent song on the matter; it’s also arguably Ms. Spektor’s signature song.

“On the Radio” is more scattershot — its first verse feel more like stream-of-consciousness lyrical warming up than anything else — but when it gets into gear in the second set of verses, it’s so devastatingly correct and beautiful about what it means to be in love with another person that is literally breathtaking to me:

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

This song is sixteen years old as of this writing, and I’ve heard it dozens if not hundreds of times, and rare is the time that I get out of this verse without tears. This is it; this is indeed how it works, and how wise of Ms. Spektor to recognize that fact.

And it’s a lot! You can understand why, in “Fidelity,” she’s reluctant to surrender into it at all, or why anyone who actually does understand that terrifying everything of love, can hesitate to give themselves over to it. You have to really want it and you have to accept responsibility for yourself in it. It’s certainly easier not to take it on. I don’t fault anyone who chooses not to.

But if you do, there are rewards. Are they worth it? That’s up to each person to decide. In my particular case, I can say: Absolutely, so far, and I’m working hard to make sure it stays so. I play “On the Radio” every now and again to remind myself of the feeling that saying yes to it all has gained me.

(Quick note: Regina Spektor’s newest album, Home, before and after, comes out tomorrow (6/24/22). What I’ve heard from it so far is very good. I’ll be getting it.)

— JS

Well, Poo

To begin: I’m fine. I’m double-vaxxed and double-boosted, and my symptoms so far have been those of a mild flu; and in point of fact I felt worse yesterday than I do today. Yesterday I wanted to sleep all day, and mostly did; I was in bed at 6:30pm and didn’t get back out of it (save for a ten-minute interval at about 10pm where I ravenously ate all the cheese in the house) until 9am this morning. Today I’m mildly achey but not overly tired. My brain has been useless for the last few days, which I should have taken as an early distant warning, but did not because sometimes one’s brain is just useless. My sense of taste and smell is perfectly functional, for which I am grateful. I’ve called my primary care physician’s office to report in and see if I should get Paxlovid; I imagine I’ll hear back soon. In the meantime, and again: I’m fine.

I find it mildly ironic that when I finally definitively have gotten COVID, it’s when I’ve been at home for weeks; I traveled all over the US between March and May and got through unscathed. My assumption at this point is I may have caught it when we were out and about on our anniversary, or when we went to see Lightyear. The moral of “never leave your house, ever” is not lost on me.

My immediate plan is to do nothing and to eat all the food in the house and see where things go from there. In the meantime, I would note that my prophecy that if I did ever catch COVID, my double-vaxxed-and-boosted ass would find it a mild inconvenience rather than a life-threatening issue, seems to be panning out pretty well. So, please, if you’ve not already been vaxxed and boosted, please do that. It’ll make a difference.

(Also, for those about to ask: Krissy’s fine and I’m staying away from her. Athena is in California and also perfectly fine. The pets are fine, too. Everyone’s fine! Don’t worry.)

— JS

Day 3 of Santa Monica

Athena ScalziI find it funny that my father and I are doing “Day X of ___” at the same time. At least his numbers match the actual day of the month.

Anyways, Day 3 of lovely Santa Monica! I started this day out right by going to Huckleberry Cafe for breakfast. I’m one of those people that loves breakfast foods more than anything, and loves the idea of getting breakfast at cute cafes, but has a hard time getting up for it. Usually I look for somewhere that don’t have a hard cutoff time for breakfast, or serve a “brunch” until 3pm or something along those lines. However, Huckleberry is one of those places that has cutoff for breakfast at eleven, and closes for the entire day at three, so if you want it, you have to get the fuck up.

And I’m so glad I did! Because this place was totally awesome. When you walk in, there’s a counter to order at, huge blackboard menus, and a display of the most amazing looking pastries.

A huge display of baked goods, with cookies, croissants, muffins, coffee cake, scones, shortbread, monkey bread, and many more!

I had a hard time deciding which to get. The girl working recommended me the coffee cake (all the way on the left), so I went with that. I also wanted to try one of their housemade iced chai lattes, but they were out of chai so I opted for an iced matcha latte instead. She asked me if I wanted sweetener in it, which was shocking to me because I didn’t know that they could even come unsweetened, since the ones I get from Starbucks has 28g of sugar in it. I said yes to the sweetener, and then asked for extra because I had a feeling their idea of sweet wouldn’t be enough for me (I was right, it was still pretty unsweet).

A slice of coffee cake on a white plate accompanied by a mason jar full of iced matcha latte.

I saved the coffee cake for after my slightly more nutritious breakfast, though, which was this “bagel breakfast”:

A bagel cut in half, each half topped with cream cheese, spinach, scrambled eggs, avocado, and cherry tomatoes.

You can’t even see the bagel under all the toppings, but it was a plain bagel with cream cheese, spinach, avocado, scrambled eggs, and cherry tomatoes. It was fuckin’ fire. The eggs were cooked perfectly, the avocado was super fresh (I assume it has something to do with California avocados just being superior), and everything went really well together.

The bagel was $16.50, the iced matcha was $6, and I’m not sure how much the coffee cake was, but after a $5 tip my total was like $35 dollars so I guess it must’ve been close to $8? That sounds like too much, but it would make sense if they’re going to charge over five bucks for a mason jar worth of matcha.

Oh, there was a healthcare fee, too, so the place could provide benefits to the workers, but I don’t remember how much it was. Which was a brand new concept to me, as we have nothing like that in Ohio.

Moving on from cost (which I think can be important to mention when recommending or reviewing places), they also had a few grab-and-go items, like sandwiches and salads.

Several salads in containers stacked on top of each other. Some have avocado on top, some have peach slices on top, and some have crumbled cheese on top.

Definitely worth checking this place out if you’re a bit of bougie bruncher like myself.

After finishing eating, I walked down the street to the post office, because I wanted to see if they had any different stamps than the ones my hometown post office did. They did not. I also asked if they had any postcards and they said no. I was devastated. I wanted a postcard that said like “Los Angeles” or “California” or anything like that! How does a post office not have postcards?!

Moving on from my disappointment, I went next door to See’s Candies, a long standing favorite candy shop of my mother and grandmother’s, to get them gifts.

If you’ve never heard of it, See’s Candies is a California based chocolate shop that now has over 200 locations. However, none of those are located in Ohio, so it is only on rare occasion that my mom gets to have some (yes, she could just order them online, but that takes the special out of it). Usually it’s only when we venture to California, or happen to find some in an airport, that we have See’s Candies.

They’re cool! I recommend them, they have tasty candy. They have tons of different chocolates and variety boxes, and also some great hard candies!

Two glass jars filled with hard candy, one with peanut butter bites and one with lemon drops. Both have a black and white checkered label.

Both of these little jars were $10, and the box of chocolate (not pictured) was $26.50 for 28 pieces.

One thing I really like about them is any time you go to one of their stores, you get a free sample, and it’s always like one whole chocolate, not like a quarter piece or half a piece. My favorite thing from them is the lollipops, especially the butterscotch and the vanilla ones.

After See’s, I went across the street to Ulta, and had to tweet about the experience.

Totally upsetting, but I tried to move on from it.

I found out there was a stationery store called Paper Source down the street, so I hurried over there because I could not wait to see a whole store full of stationery! It was beautiful. I practically walked through heaven’s gates. The walls were lined with cards, there were rotating stands full of sticker sheets throughout the store, the entire back wall was a stamp station, and they even had plushies!

I promised myself I wouldn’t spend more than a hundred, and actually only ending up spending seventy!

I got two sticker sheets:

Two sticker sheets side by side, one featuring different types of ice cream and popsicles in varying shades of pinks and blues, the other of pineapples with faces, some smiling, some with sunglasses.

A box of mini notecards plus stickers (it came with twelve notecards total and three of the strips of stickers):

A white notecard with two bees and a hive alongside a similar looking notecard that says

This set of 12 cards (with envelopes):

Four alcoholic drink themed cards. The first is a pink card featuring a Manhattan accompanied by an orange, cherries, and a purple flower. The second is a dark green card featuring a vesper martini with lemons and yellow grapes. The third is a lighter pink card featuring an old fashioned accompanied by oranges and cherries. Finally, the fourth card is a teal color and features a cosmopolitan with oranges and limes. All the cards have the recipe for the making of the drinks at the bottom.

I love all of these so much, but if I had to pick a favorite it would probably be the Manhattan.

And finally, I got these vintage-style postcards that came in an awesome metal tin:

A rectangular metal tin that reads

There were nine designs and eighteen cards:

Nine post cards laid out on a table, overlapping one another. They all feature different types of cacti or succulent plants.

These are super cool, I’m probably going to mail nine out and keep the other nine just because I like the art so much.

After my exciting day of shopping for dry shampoo and postcards, I ended up having dinner at the place I originally wanted to go to the previous night that had stopped serving food by the time I got there (Longitude, inside the Marriott).

The lobby was like any Marriott, elegant and ornate, and the bar/restaurant was at the back of it. There was literally no one there, so I sat at the bar. I decided before arriving that I didn’t want to get an entrée, I wanted to get an appetizer, a soup or side, and a dessert. I wanted to be able to try a variety of things instead of just getting one dinner and that’s it.

So I started with a pesto burrata crostini:

Three slices of a baguette arranged on a white plate, topped with pesto, burrata cheese, tiny leafy greens, and drizzled with balsamic glaze.

As someone who is a fan of pesto, burrata, and balsamic, this shit was fuckin’ bomb. The bread wasn’t too crunchy, the burrata was wonderfully soft, and the balsamic was the perfect topper to this dish. It was a little messy though.

I settled on the French onion soup after that:

A brown and white bowl on a white plate. The bowl is filled to the brim with soup, and a thick layer of white cheese covers the top.

The soup was good, but it was pretty much just regular French onion soup. There wasn’t anything special about the way that the Marriott place did it. Though I will say there was definitely a lot of cheese, which is a plus. ‘Twas a sizeable portion of soup.

As for dessert, they offered crème brûlée, so I obviously had to get that. If you didn’t know, I’m on the search for the greatest crème brûlée in the world. So if a place offers it, it is my duty to try it.

A white bowl of crème brûlée, the top torched to a dark crisp, with blackberries and sliced strawberries.

While this crème brûlée was good, it was certainly not the best in the world, so my search continues. While I did think the custard part was actually super good, the top was too torched for my liking. I’m more of a golden brown person, so the extra dark top was too burnt for me. Still very impressed with the custard portion, though.

So, yeah, that was my fun-filled day yesterday! All this walking around is definitely starting to take a toll, but it’s been great regardless.

What pastry would you have picked from Huckleberry? Do you like your matcha sweet? Have you ever been to a stationery store (and was it glorious)? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

A Personal History of Music, Day 22: “Something That You Said,” by The Bangles

John Scalzi

There’s a natural progression to the careers of most (successful) bands: The scrappy “new kid” phase, where the band is starting out and struggling, and maybe has a couple of songs passed around by their “first in,” fans; the “rising star” phase, where they get picked up by a major label, get their first Billboard hits and gold records; the “Imperial” phase, which is where the big hits that define their career happen; and then everything else. The “everything else” phase is not a bad thing, per se — you can make a lot of money touring in the “everything else” phase! — but from a creative and legacy point of view, it means that everything you do in that period has a tendency to be overlooked or an afterthought. This is why, at a concert from a band in the “everything else” phase of their career, the phrase “this is from our new album” is so frequently taken as the cue to hit the bathroom.

The Bangles had their imperial phase in the 80s, with hits like “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Manic Monday” and “Eternal Flame,” and then broke up at the end of the decade, sitting out most of the 90s before coming back with their sole first post-imperial studio album, Doll Revolution, in 2003. Doll Revolution went essentially nowhere on the charts; Wikipedia tells me that it got to number 23 on the US Independent Albums list. It’s too bad, because the album itself is pretty good (if, like so many albums of the CD era, overlong — it has 15 tracks where it should have ten or eleven at most). It also has, in my opinion, one of the finest singles the Bangles ever put out.

That would be “Something That You Said.” Sonically, it’s right in line with the band’s poppier output, and would not be out of place on Different Light or Everything, the band’s two biggest albums. Lyrically, on the other hand, I suspect it could have only been written outside of the band’s imperial era, after the individual members of the band had gotten a chance to step back from the treadmill of constant fame and were able to, you know, live different lives than those of being a rock star. The song is about being in a place and time in one’s own life where one has the perspective to actually appreciate love, and the effort it takes from both parties. It’s a grown-up pop song! Which is nice.

Not for nothing, the listed songwriters for the track include Charlotte Caffey, best known as a member of the Go-Gos and the writer or co-writer of most of that band’s big hits. The Go-Gos followed a very similar arc to the Bangles: Big in the 80s, sat out most of the 90s, popped out an album in the early 00s. That album included “Talking Myself Down,” a co-write with Susannah Hoffs, so perhaps “Something That You Said” is Caffey returning the favor. Whether it is or not, what is true enough is, like the members of the Bangles, Caffey did her own time away from the spotlight. I’m pretty sure it informed the songwriting.

Which was fine by me. I was 34 when this song came out, and lyrically and sonically, it hit a spot in my psyche that no other Bangles song had previously managed. I was ready for that song because of my own life experience at the time. Basically, the band and I had aged into each other just a little bit. I had liked the Bangles well enough before this song, but this song became and remains essential to me, and for years was my one “go-to” song from the band (in the fullness of time I have also become fond of their cover of “Going Down to Liverpool”). Should I ever manage to see the Bangles live, I will be the one cheering for this song the loudest. I don’t mind being an outlier in that crowd.

What does “Something That You Said” tell us about the nature of pop and songwriting — and, dare I say it, creativity in general? Mostly that no matter how or when an artist’s “imperial period” happens, they are likely to creative interesting, excellent and sometimes cherished work outside it; this in itself is a reason for fans and others to explore their work, and for artists to keep creating, whether “the market” cares if they do so or not. Those works can still matter to people, like this song matters for me.

— JS

Day 2 of Santa Monica

The first thing I did for my second day in Santa Monica was get a pedicure. I figured if I was going to be wearing sandals everywhere, I should make my toenails purple! So I just popped by the closest nail salon I could find, and while the pedicure itself was totally fine and whatnot, I was very intrigued by the decor choices.

A large poster of a flying child hiding behind a flying penguin in a blue baseball cap and yellow shoes, fighting a flying goat man with wings under a moonlit sky.

I could not look away from this unique poster. I had no idea what was going on in it, or why the nail salon would choose to promote whatever it is. They had an entire glass case of merch of this strange penguin, as well.

A glass display case full of caps and backpacks that feature the penguin in the baseball cap.

Athena ScalziWhoever this penguin is, I guess his name is Norky? It was very strange, but hey everyone has their special interests. [ed. note: I have found the Norky Web page — JS] The lady that ran the place said she’s owned the salon for 23 years. That’s literally as long as I’ve been alive! So that was definitely an interesting experience.

After my pedicure, I popped next door to an art supply shop called Blick. I’m no artist, but I wanted to see if they had any neat stickers. Unfortunately, their sticker selection was slim, but it was definitely a cool shop regardless and I had very friendly service.

Then, I walked up the street to a frozen yogurt shop called Yoga-urt. I half expected it to be a yoga studio combined with a frozen yogurt shop, but it was just a normal fro-yo place.

Three blackboard menus against a pink wall. They list all the different flavors of fro-yo you can get.

Upon seeing the menu, I was impressed with how many choices there were. There were so many that sounded good, how could I possibly pick from all these flavors?! And then I realized that all those flavors listed are rotating flavors. They actually only had about five available. And none of the five they had were flavors I had been considering trying out.

Alas, I picked the pistachio, as I am a big fan of pistachio ice cream and figured the fro-yo version would be pretty good as well.

A waffle cone with a serving of swirly pistachio frozen yogurt.

The waffle cone was probably the best I’ve ever had. It was perfectly crunchy and sweet, and didn’t get soggy throughout the entire duration of me eating the fro-yo!

They did have toppings, too, but I just prefer plain usually.

A toppings station featuring blueberries, strawberries, gummy bears, chocolate chips, mochi, and brownie pieces.

Once I completed my fro-yo, I stopped by the market next door for a few more groceries and picked up this can of watermelon water.

A white can of watermelon water. Black letters read

(Don’t worry about my arm. It’s just poison ivy, I’m fine.)

This stuff was super good, it literally tasted like I was biting into a real slice of watermelon. Like if you just squeezed a watermelon into a can, this is exactly what it would be. I had never heard of watermelon water before, but I’m glad I impulse bought it. I definitely recommend it (you can actually order it on Amazon, too).

I also bought this glass bottle of chocolate milk because I am a chocolate milk FIEND, especially when it comes in fancy packaging.

A large, unlabeled glass bottle of chocolate milk.

This chocolate milk was pretty good, definitely not like astounding. But chocolate milk is almost always good, anyway.

Later that night, I wanted a late-night snack, so I looked up places that served food late. I found a place called Longitude, and headed out. Upon arriving, I realized it was inside a Marriott. I can’t believe I hadn’t realized when I looked it up that it was in a hotel. I debated on going in, since I wasn’t a guest of the hotel, but I had walked almost twenty minutes so I figured I might as well try it out.

Once I sat down inside, I was told the kitchen closed five minutes ago. The waiter offered to put in an order for me anyways, but I am not a fan of fucking over kitchen staff, so I said thanks but no thanks. The waiter then told me their online hours were wrong. I was a little miffed (not at him obviously).

I was still hungry, so I walked a little further to a place called Jameson’s Pub. Once I got there, the waitress informed me the kitchen was closing in two minutes. I swear these places keep saying online that their kitchens are open later! I’m not meaning to inconvenience people! I did actually place an order this time, though, at the waitress’s insistence, and got this pesto mac and cheese.

A small cast iron skillet of cavatappi with pine nuts on top.

Honestly, it was pretty mediocre. Which was disappointing because pesto mac and cheese sounded so good in that moment, so having some that was just okay was kind of a bummer. Also, there was a live music performance, which is so not my thing (too loud). Oh well, they can’t all be winners.

All in all, it was a pretty good day, and I got to try some cool new stuff! And the weather was perfect again! I am really starting to love it here.

Also, thank you to everyone on the last post that recommended places! I now have an extensive list of places to check out.

Also also, I know I didn’t include a cat picture in my previous post, and that’s because I wasn’t sure how the owner would feel about it, but then I realized I had already posted a pic of her on Twitter, so here you go! Her name is Lily and she is the sweetest cat I’ve ever met and I love her so much.

An extremely fluffy gray cat laying on its back, big green eyes looking at the camera.

Have a great day!

-AMS

A Personal History of Music, Day 21: “Day After Day,” by The Pretenders

John Scalzi

I suspect most people, if you asked them, could tell you who they thought was the coolest person in whatever genre of music they liked the most, or maybe who was the coolest person in all of music. “The Coolest Person” was not necessarily one’s favorite musician, although there was usually a high correlation between the two, but it was certainly the person who, when you saw them in videos or in concert or being interviewed on MTV or whatever, you thought, “damn, they’re so cool, it must be awesome to be them.”

For me, that was Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. The Pretenders were not my favorite band growing up — although I did like them a whole lot — but, bluntly, most of the bands I did like growing up weren’t all that cool. I loved Journey, but any pretense of cool they might have ever had went out the window with that infamous “Separate Ways” video, and the other AOR bands of the era I enjoyed were saddled with the edge of ridiculousness that is fun in retrospect but did not exude cool at the time. I also liked Depeche Mode and a lot of their British synth-based contemporaries, but they were all too mopey to be cool. Other stuff I was listening to at the time – Billy Joel! Vangelis! Men at Work! — were almost aggressively anti-cool. Which was fine by me; I was not then nor am I now, anything close to cool, and one should not expend a lot of time worrying about whether the things one likes are cool or not, one should just like them.

But I knew what cool was — or thought I did — and Chrissie Hynde was it: Smart, attitude-filled and not here to take your shit, whoever you were, and the leader of a band that would rock your face off and maybe beat you up in the parking lot later if you needed an ass-kicking. Is this who Chrissie Hynde actually is? Got me, I don’t know her, and if I had to guess I would suspect on a day-to-day basis she’s probably just trying to get through life like the rest of us (you may recall I said similar things about Shirley Manson of Garbage, who also exudes cool, although a couple of decades later). In public, however? A fuckin’ star.

Who also not-entirely-coincidentally made some of the greatest rock of the late 70s and early 80s! The first two Pretenders album, largely written/co-written by Hynde, are a masterclass of guitar rock that no one else has sounded like before or since. Then, after half the band died of drug overdoses and a bunch of other wild shit happened, Hynde picked up the pieces and wrote the band’s biggest album ever. She’s a badass.

Any number of Pretenders songs could go be picked to exemplify Hynde’s coolness; the one I’ve picked is “Day After Day,” which I think has all the elements that go into that band’s great songs in almost-perfect balance: James Honeyman-Scott’s ringing guitars, Martin Chambers’ relentless drums with Pete Farndon’s bass keeping time, and, way up in the sky, Chrissie Hynde, and a voice that will never be confused with anyone else’s, singing about loneliness. There are more popular songs in the band’s canon, but I would argue, not better songs.

Chrissie Hynde is still out there, still spitting attitude and still being cool. I could never be that cool; I don’t aspire to that level of cool. It would be a lot of work for me, especially at this late date. But I like that she is cool, and when I think of what it is to be cool in the world of music, she’s still who I think of.

— JS

Day 1 of Santa Monica

Athena ScalziLast week, a family friend asked if I was busy at the end of the month. I said no and was then asked if I could possibly cat sit… 2,000 miles away. I quickly accepted the chance to hang out in LA for a week, and yesterday I boarded a 7am direct flight to LAX.

Every time I fly to Cali, I always arrive in the afternoon or evening, so arriving at 8:30am was a little unusual. Though sitting for 4.5 hours straight in a middle seat was not amazing, I would say it was better than stressing about making a connection, having a layover, having to go through the boarding and unboarding process twice, yada yada. Plus, I managed to read one whole book on the flight!

I read Verity, by Colleen Hoover, and while this post is not a review or anything, I will say I really enjoyed it. I definitely recommend checking it out if you like thrillers, and I’d recommend it even if you don’t because thrillers are certainly not my usual genre but I loved this one!

Anyways, my friend that picked me up from the airport took me to a local coffee shop called Gnarwhal Coffee Co.

The store front of the coffee shop, with glass doors and a blue sign that reads

This corner coffee shop was so cool. It was small, but had a sort of clean/sleek minimalistic look to it. It felt very modern, and the iced chai latte I got was banging.

After that, I arrived at the lovely home I’m staying in, met the cat, and settled in. Then, I walked to a market nearby and got a few groceries for the week. On my walk back, I noticed a bread shop, and realized I forgot to pick up a loaf at the store, so I decided to get one from the bakery, Jyan Isaac Bread. I wanted the cinnamon raisin brioche, but they were out, so I said I’d take the city loaf sourdough, but they were also out of that. The worker said I could have the multi-grain porridge loaf instead, and I agreed, despite not being a huge fan of porridge or multi-grain bread.

A rounded loaf of dark bread covered in oats and sliced.

It definitely looked… oaty. I actually did not like this bread at all, unfortunately, but I didn’t really expect to so at least I didn’t have high hopes going in. I’m more of like a Hawaiian Sweet Bread person and much less of a super hearty oaty loaf kinda gal. I really wish I had gotten to try the brioche. This bread was just too hard or too dark or too something.

Moving on, it was my first night in Santa Monica and I was determined to go out to dinner. I knew there were probably a hundred restaurants in the area and I’ll be damned if I don’t get out and try at least a few.

After looking up several places and debating how far I wanted to walk, I settled on a place called Rize Thai & Sushi.

The inside was relatively small, just a few tables and booths, and some seats at the bar. The decor was definitely on the modern side, with Edison bulb light fixtures that gave the place some atmospheric dim lighting.

The menu was quite varied, as it offered both Thai dishes and sushi, as you might’ve guessed by the name of the place. The menu also boasted a generous happy hour, but I had missed it by fifteen minutes.

I was tempted to try a Thai dish, as I’ve never had Thai food before, but I had a feeling everything would be a little too spicy for me. Mostly because all the names of the dishes included the word spicy in it, so I wasn’t going to chance it. I settled on a shrimp tempura combination plate. It came with miso soup, a house salad, rice, a California roll, and five pieces of shrimp tempura.

A bento box with five sections, one filled with salad, one with the California roll, one with rice, one with the shrimp tempura, and one with a twisted orange slice as a garnish.

I’ve had a lot of shrimp tempura in my day, as it’s one of my favorite Japanese dishes. But this shrimp tempura was seriously the best I’ve ever had. I was blown away by how crispy, flavorful, and overall delicious it was. And the whole combo plate (soup not pictured, but also really good) was seventeen dollars! Not too shabby, I’d say.

I also got a Thai iced tea to go with my dinner, which I am a fanatic for.

A mason jar full of orange, creamy liquid with a blue and white straw.

If you have not tried Thai iced tea before, I cannot recommend it highly enough, this stuff is life changing. And this place had a really good Thai iced tea.

I was totally stuffed by the end, so I got a mango sticky rice pudding to go and ate it around midnight.

A to-go container with a mound of sticky rice next to two sliced mango halves.

Mango has always been one of those things that is hit or miss for me, but I am confident when I say this mango was the single biggest hit I’ve had in my life. I don’t know where they get their mangoes from, but holy shit this stuff was unbelievably good. I’m so glad I didn’t pass up on dessert.

As if you needed even more reason to check this place out, the wait staff was super friendly! I had a very enjoyable experience and highly recommend going here if you’re in the Santa Monica area and like Japanese or Thai food.

So, yeah, day one in Cali was a total success, and I’ve loved every minute so far. The weather has been incredible, I love the cat I’m watching, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the week!

Have a great day!

-AMS

A Personal History of Music, Day 20: “Jennifer,” by Falling Joys

John Scalzi

I think everyone has a favorite band that literally no one else they know has ever heard of. Not in the gatekeepery “I’m so unbearably hipster I only listen to bands that broke up even before they recorded their album” sort of way, but in the enthusiastic “I don’t understand why more people haven’t heard of this band, they’re really cool” sort of way. For me, that band was the Australian group Falling Joys, who arrived on the scene (here in the US) in 1990, cranked out three albums over a few years, and have spent the rest of the time since then mostly doing other things, with the occasional reunion gig, one presumes mostly for fun at this point.

The Internet being what it is, even mentioning the name of the band will have people crawling out of the woodwork to say “Hey I love Falling Joys too, you’re not special, pal,” so let me qualify that my being The Band’s One Fan is a highly qualified thing. They were popular in Australia, to begin; the song noted here, “Jennifer,” was a number one indie hit in its day, and at least a couple of their songs made the mainstream charts. So Australian Gen-Xers, I see you! Thank you for your service. Likewise, I imagine there are American/Canadian/UK fans as well, even if they may be sparsely dispersed. They’re not hopelessly obscure. What I mean, however, is that in my day-to-day life I’ve never met anyone who, when I mentioned the name of the band, was “Oh! I know them!” I always had to talk them up.

Which was fine! Randall Munroe talks about the 10,000 people daily who learn about something that “everybody knows,” and that the best response to people who don’t know what you is not to ridicule them but to be excited that you get to share with them. Well, clearly in my experience, more than 10,000 people daily don’t know about Falling Joys, and Whatever, via direct visits, RSS and e-mail, has about 50,000 readers daily. So I’m really outkicking the coverage in getting to bring them to people’s attention.

So, here’s “Jennifer,” which is my favorite Falling Joys song (although I understand in Australia “Lock It” is their best-known song, which is fine, it’s terrific, too), for its jangly guitars, snappy drums, and story by lead singer Suzie Higgie of a singular sort of girl who moves through the world on her own terms. Rather later I found out Higgie wrote the song about her own sister Jennifer, who would become a writer and editor of some note; she has written essays, books and films, the latter of which makes the song’s observation that “her dreams could be filmed for a motion picture” somewhat prescient. I think that’s kind of cool.

“Jennifer” was a staple of my post-college mixtapes-and-CDs for friends, back in the day when we used to do that. I was always happy to put the song on there and to give my pals something they might not have already heard, that they might like. I guess I’m still doing that. What can I say, I like sharing.

— JS

A Personal History of Music, Day 19: “Beloved Wife,” by Natalie Merchant

John Scalzi

I don’t think most people would make a connection between my military science fiction novel Old Man’s War and the works of the famously earthy-crunchy singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, but there is one, and it’s pretty significant: her song “Beloved Wife,” which was originally on her 1995 album Tigerlily, but which I first encountered on her Live in Concert album a few years later (and is the version I’ve included here). The song is from the point of view of an elderly man grieving the loss of his wife, and Merchant captures perfectly the plaintive devastation that a stoic, hurting man of that age feels but doesn’t necessarily say out loud. The song feels like an internal monologue; a storm of emotion, all kept inside.

I, who at the time had been married only a handful of years, was nevertheless struck by the song — even at that early point in my marriage to Krissy, I knew how I would feel if she were suddenly gone. It would be a lot like the man in Merchant’s song, although I would probably neither be as quiet nor as stoic about it.

The Live in Concert album came out in 1999; fast forward a couple of years to 2001, and I have begun writing Old Man’s War. I knew that for the purposes of the book, and my own personal inclinations, I needed to have the book start with John Perry, our protagonist, at the grave of his wife, saying goodbye to her for what he believes will be the final time. I also knew I needed to convey a lifetime of his love and feeling for her in a relatively few pages. I was 32, and this was my second attempt at a novel, and so I might not exactly have the life experience, as a human or a writer, to convey what John Perry, at 75, would feel.

So I put “Beloved Wife” into the CD player, let it run, and let how it made me feel sink into my bones. And then with it in mind, I wrote the scene at the graveside that begins the novel.

Anyone who has read the novel (which, at this point, is probably a lot of you who are now reading this) knows how important that visit to the graveside is to the rest of the novel, in establishing who John Perry is and how and why he reacts to certain events later in the story. Now you also know that “Beloved Wife” is the soundtrack to that scene. Again, not a connection people would necessarily make on their own.

But it exists, and I’m grateful that Natalie Merchant wrote and performed a song that helped me to convey a depth of feeling I might not otherwise have managed to do as well. This is how art inspires art, sometimes in surprising ways.

— JS

A Personal History of Music, Day 18: “Higher,” by The Naked and Famous

John Scalzi

My inclusion of this song is pretty simple: Late 2016 was a pretty rough ride, emotionally, and I needed something anthemic to keep my spirits up. “Higher” fit that bill pretty well: Quiet(ish) verses raising up to big fist-pumping choruses, catchy, defiant lyrics, and a spirit of hopefulness that for me acted a bit to counteract the dread I feeling about the approaching years. Over the four years that followed, I would put it on every now and again whenever I needed a little boost to my mood. It helped! There’s not all that much a single song can do when was is confronted with a relentless stream of incompetence and malice, but, look, every little bit helps, and sometimes you just have to cling to what you have.

As a band, The Naked and Famous are probably best known for their debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You, and the song “Punching in a Dream,” which memorably accentuates singer Alisa Xayalith’s siren-like vocals. Both that song and album are pretty darn good, but Simple Forms, the album “Higher” is on, is the one of theirs I come back to. Aside from “Higher,” the songs on Simple Forms focus on the frailty of people and their relationships, and yet still trying to do and be better despite those frailties. That was also something I identified with, or at least, sympathized with, over the last several years, I have to say.

— JS

A Personal History of Music, Day 17: “Help Me,” by Concrete Blonde

John Scalzi

I decided to highlight Concrete Blonde today because today is my and Krissy’s wedding anniversary, and when we met and for a long time afterward, Concrete Blonde was Krissy’s favorite, and still remains high up in her personal musical pantheon. When Krissy entered my life, the amount of Concrete Blonde I listened to went way, way up, particularly the Bloodletting album. It’s the band’s best-known album, loosely inspired by Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and also featuring the band’s biggest hit, “Joey” (which I don’t think has anything to do with vampires at all, except possibly the emotional kind).

I didn’t mind, because, as it happened, I was already a fan of the band, albeit not on the same level as Krissy. I even had my own go-to song from the band, the one that was in high rotation in the mixtapes I made for friends: “Help Me,” from the band’s second album, Free. The song captures what I really liked about Concrete Blonde: It’s a hard-driving blast of guitar rock that’s not exactly punk, not exactly metal, but definitely all attitude, most of that courtesy of lead singer and principal songwriter Johnette Napolitano.

I interviewed Napolitano once, around the time of the Bloodletting album; she was profanely opinionated about many things in the course of our half hour conversation and the impression of her I came away with is that she was probably the sort of person who if she were your friend would help you bury a body, and if she weren’t your friend you should not cross her, because then you would be the body she was burying. This attitude is amply evident in Concrete Blonde’s work.

I liked Concrete Blonde for another reason, and that was that they felt deeply rooted in a particular scene and time, namely, Los Angeles of the late 80s and early 90s. Not the pretty parts of LA either: the blue-collar, sometimes seedy, no-bullshit parts of LA, the parts that don’t get ocean breezes or are up in the hills. The other LA, the part with the struggle in it. Concrete Blonde is a soundtrack of that LA to me. I didn’t grow up in it — I was in the other valley of LA County, the San Gabriel Valley, which is much more interesting now than it was then — but I grew up close enough to it that I could see it from where I was. Napolitano’s spitting attitude felt about right to me.

When Krissy and I met, I dug that she dug Concrete Blonde as much as she did; it was a point of connection in growing series of connection points. When Concrete Blonde (and then Napolitano, solo) would put out new albums, I would pick them up for her as a surprise. In fact, I did that just this week, because Napolitano put out a new solo album last Friday; I’m posting a song from it at the end of this piece. It’s cool that nearly three decades on, we still connect through this point among all the others. Happy anniversary, Krissy. I love you the most.

— JS

27 Years

I was going to say “sometimes you get lucky,” but I don’t think you get to 27 years of marriage by luck. I got lucky when I met Krissy. We’ve both been working on it since then to stay lucky. It’s worthwhile work. I hope to keep doing that work for at least as long as we have been at it already. The results speak for themselves!

— JS

A Personal History of Music, Day 16: “Tear In Your Hand,” by Tori Amos

John Scalzi

There are any number of reasons why “Tear In Your Hand” has remained in my mix of Highly Significant Songs, but possibly the most important reason is that it’s rooted into a very specific place and time for me: Fresno, California in the early 90s. This is where I had gotten my first job out of college, as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. At the time I was listening to quite a lot of music, but almost all of it was from bands or musicians I was already listening to before I had come to this new town. Tori Amos’ album was, at least as far as I can remember, the first new music from a new artist that I really connected with —

— well, okay, I just checked and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out literally the week I started my job with the Fresno Bee. But! “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is not a song I associate with Fresno, and Nirvana is definitely not a band I associate with my time in that place. I don’t know, maybe it’s because (to play off the title of Amos’ album) “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a large earthquake, literally the sound of popular rock music being wrenched into another shape entirely. I didn’t feel ownership of that song or that band; who could?

“Tear In Your Hand” and Little Earthquakes, on the other hand: Here was music that was speaking to me at that time in my life, and in that place, where I did not yet have a solid context and was looking for things to help set me there. Here’s Tori Amos bleeding onto her piano with intimate and occasionally terrifying songs, the prettiness of the compositions distracting you from the words until they were well and truly sunk into your brain. It’s inaccurate to say Little Earthquakes was not a popular or influential album; it’s the work that established Amos as a force in pop music, and was a touchstone for all manner of artists who admired and followed her. It may be more accurate to say Little Earthquakes was a slow burn of an album; not everyone found it, but those who found it, cherished it.

I certainly did. It went into heavy rotation on my CD player and “Tear In Your Hand” in particular got a workout; when Amos sang “There are pieces of me you’ve never seen,” that was a sentiment I wholly understood, and the drama of the song in general fit my mood at the time. I put it on repeat enough at the time that whenever I listen to it (or any other song from the album) now, I get a jolt of “You’re 22, you’re in a new place, this is your first job, whoa.” It only lasts a second, but it’s still a bit of a rush. As it turns out I (mostly) liked where and who I was in 1992, so it’s a pleasant remembrance.

I have other Tori Amos music for other times and places too, but none quite as strong a sense memory as “Tear.” Which is fine. One can have only so many madeleines, if you know what I mean.

As an aside, the first time I listened to “Tear In Your Hand,” I had a nice little moment of recognition when she sang “If you need me, me and Neil will be hanging out with the dream king.” This line was referring to Neil Gaiman and his comic book series The Sandman, which at the time was beloved of goths and comics nerds but otherwise had not broken into the mainstream of culture. Amos making a reference to it endeared her to me; it meant we were in the same kinda-secret club. Then she sang, “Neil said hi, by the way,” and I was all, like, whoa, she actually knows the guy, and my estimation of her went up a couple of levels, because how cool was that, she hangs out with Neil Gaiman.

As it turns out, when she wrote that line, she didn’t know him, she just admired his work. My understanding is he heard the song, reached out to Amos, and then they did hang out, and became friends. In fact, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Little Earthquakes, there’s going to be a graphic novel in which various writers create stories about the songs on the album — and appropriately enough, Neil’s doing a story about “Tear In Your Hand.”

I’m kinda seriously geeked out that. I’ll have to tell Neil the next time I chat with him. Neil says hi, by the way.

— JS

The Big Idea: Karen Heuler

Cats and witches are a duo as old as time. But when the cat is a frenemy rather than a familiar? Now that’s a little more unique. Come along in Karen Heuler’s Big Idea to see the dynamic she created between a witch and her most unusual co-worker in The Splendid City.

KAREN HEULER:

It was 2017, the United States was fractured, nothing seemed believable, so of course the solution was to write about an absurd political situation. In the U.S., there have always been states or cities that threatened to secede and I thought, What if a state or two actually did it, led by a president who was more or less ridiculous? 

It also seemed to me that we as Americans are much more interested in entertainment than we are in information—or even justice.

The first completed version of my novel was rejected roundly because it was, in fact, too topical. It was obviously tied to a certain person, and that would eventually change, and the book would basically hit an expiration date. The politics we saw would be replaced by a different set of politics soon enough. So I went back and redesigned the original Liberty as a place that was more of a demented Oz than Big Brother. And it was fun. It was a lot of fun. How can you not like parades, unexpected giveaways, people swimming in the moat around the president’s castle, periodic showers of nougats, and mechanical presidential heads that asked after your welfare? Wouldn’t you want to live there?

Stan, for one, loves it. Stan has been turned into a cat by Eleanor, a novice witch who one day got pushed too far by her manipulative coworker Stan and transformed him into a cat—without her coven’s permission. It was impulsive. It was regrettable. The head of the coven exiles them both to Liberty, with instructions to mend their ways, and Eleanor is directed to search for a missing water witch. Stan the cat finds his life not at all a hardship, since he loves to eavesdrop, scandalize, eat fish tacos, and generally cause trouble—and it’s remarkably convenient to be the cat no one suspects is listening. But then the president starts a treasure hunt, which Stan obviously can’t resist, just as Eleanor discovers a possible reason for the stolen river and the expensive and metered drinking water. 

What I love about Liberty is that it’s all interconnected, it’s all rigged, most people don’t care if it’s rigged, and there’s very little difference between a parade and a protest because most of the protests are fake. Who cares as long as it’s fun? Who cares who stole the water as long as the people you hate get blamed for it? Liberal scum! 

Hidden inside all the nonsense, though, is Eleanor’s search for community, which happens over time and which serves as a counter to the cartoonishness of Liberty. Eleanor has long been an outcast, and the witches become family—a real family with different generations, abilities, cultures, and trials of their own. 

The coven she joins wants Eleanor to search not only for a missing witch but also for a way to counteract the merry dystopia. There’s a possible explanation for it, and the explanation isn’t good. In politics, as in life, the threat may actually come from within.

Stan is happy as a cat and takes advantage of every new twist in Liberty, He uses everything and everyone that comes his way, and quite frankly, he has the best lines. He’s totally self-involved and amoral and challenging and he’s having too much fun. Stan and Eleanor have some lessons to learn, but lessons can be wonderful. There’s flying, of course—my personal favorite—and learning how to cast spells (which is an awful lot like cooking) and learning to live with your enemy. That goes for both of them, even if they’re happiest when the other person isn’t around.

Stan is a snarky, audacious character and he takes over most of the time—as we’ve seen in politics, no? That bullies can charm a lot of people? That lies are unimportant if you like the liar? That the feeling a population has that they’ve been passed by, that people who look down on them are deciding their lives—that makes them ripe for accepting lies to level the playing field for them. It also encourages them to believe in delusions.

Liberty has so much fun going on that the population doesn’t really care about missing water, doesn’t even care if those messenger vans that scream through the streets and give cars away also sometimes take away people. The rumor is that the people who get taken away just won a great vacation. It’s a very convenient rumor.

The Splendid City is a wonderful place to live, if you’re the right kind of person, or the kind of person who doesn’t really care what’s right or wrong. But if you do care, Eleanor and the witches have a spell or two up their sleeves.


The Splendid City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Bookshop|Booksamillion|Kobo

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