BOOK REVIEW: ‘love is a mixtape: life and loss, one song at a time’ by Rob Sheffield

*some small plot detail spoilers contained in the description below*

When I found this book on the stacks of Halifax Public Libray, as I navigated through the careful architecture pathways – looking for inspiration in environment or education or both – I noticed in the Table of Contents that the second chapter (all named after playlists and important songs to the story telling) was titled Hey Jude.  So, naturally my interest was piqued, if i am to play into this Beatles ascribed identity for this life. As I read the story at the beginning of chapter 2, Rob describes building a mixtape of only Hey Jude for the entire length of the cassette by repeating portions of the record into an album of filler “hey” “na na na nanana” and “JudyJudyJudy” – I knew the storytelling would continue to balance musical entertainment with heartache and joy in careful harmony to tell his story.

The story of his wife unexpectedly dying, and his coming to terms with their romance’s untimely end is eloquently explored by describing their relationship in a series of mixtapes from their life together. The mixtapes were evidence of their mutual adoration of music at the time, and the changes in the alternative-punk legacy with albums which had in the duration of the track length, each contributed to this love story.

His wife, Renee, completed the music part of his life, and soon filled in the gaps he didn’t know he needed filling by a southern accent and sassy comments. Their love feels so true off the page, being in their company must have been a simple treat.

And so, while reading this comfortable love story, the despair of her loss being within each story about his memory, I am comforted by the peace he has found in the joy they shared. It’s their love story, and it has ended – in the sense of no longer continuing into the future. but I can understand the need to preserve what was, for the sake of the beauty of the story. for the perseverance of our belief in love.

Reading into their life together, i was cheering for the happy couple the same way they were living it – until, as abruptly as it happens, Rob carries you into the truth of the situation. that in less than a minute, his wife dies from a brain aneyursm.

In the flurry of the grief and frantic planning of memorializing her body + memory he recalls not sitting with the immensity of the loss until later, on solo drives in the days following when music on the radio (no matter the station) would remind him of her. Stating what I feared was true, “I knew I would have to relearn how to listen to music, and that some of the music we’d loved together I’d never be able to hear again.” (149)

Soon after, this thought is followed by the assurance to the reader that as the story began, it continued:”mix tapes were the life raft I held onto” – and understandably so. It seemed this was what was happening while they were living and falling in love, but now more than ever, it would be the best self-made therapy to keep creating new memories in the style of the old ones.

—-

Where this hits home the deepest, is how there are plenty of unwritten stories kept within my personal memory of music intersectionalities. And how I share some of the songs with this tender couple’s experience, but how many of the songs were briefly popular during the late 80’s and into the 90’s – and they never made it into my working memory of the time period (okay, I was a small child living in a rural place..). Even with the missed association with the value of some of these songs I could appreciate their organization together as even song titles creating simple, abstract poetry of shared living in a globalizing community of shared stories.

And how, the era of the mix tape is unique all in its own. But we still understand the value of compilations, of sharing collections of music; track order does, and sometimes does not, matter. In many senses, technology is advancing faster than our ability to make use of it in our own time. When i was a kid I used our family’s CD/tape player to record copies of my sister’s CD tracks into a mixtape for the car (which only had a tape deck) or create strange CD mixes based on whatever music I had used our computer to download via Limewire, Napster, and whatever software at the time was able to translate a cool song into a digital file. As a child, I didn’t believe anything could happen by copying music in this way, because it’s just like making mixtapes and sharing music across the street, it’s just across the world now.

My history with music as a transition aid has been the most valuable part of the loss of places, people associated with those places, and the soundtrack we build underneath it all will be what holds us together when the rest falls apart. That’s where Riverhouse/Heartwood are a foundation – or atleast two deck posts- of my grief; layered with changing places (“we’re not us anymore”, unfortunately) and the loss of people who created them.

So I have an undercurrent of favourite songs which have and will continue to guide me along the path of getting over yesterday and growing into tomorrow. It’s in reading this book that I can put my experiences into the greater context of loss, and understand them to be far less consequential than the abrupt end of a marriage due to the loss of the person while the love remains. And then, it clicks, that’s what I’ve been chasing. Closure from the love that never ended, rather the physical presence was removed. So, I’ve learned to love the music and people of the place differently, without necessary discussion of why we are all connected, because it hurts too much.

And, some songs stick with you even after the loss is fresh. Hearing the song by the Replacements mentioned in this book brought back memories of the first year of infatuation with my Edmonton interest – who made sure I knew to listen for Unsatisfied during their set at Osheaga. But I didn’t, I slept through. And that was some cosmic joke played to remind me of a number of ‘read between the lines’ meanings. But also to remember that it is a song worth listening to, because of its legacy, and great lyrics, and weight. Hearing Leonard Cohen sing on a recording, and knowing you’ll never hear new music by him again. Or, in the heart of the loss, the warm fatherly baritone of Bobby Gibb recite the ode to the haggis on Robbie Burns day. Or see Shotgun Jimmie with Mark Kroeker – though the year he came through the prairies we each caught a show in our respective cities and congratulated the other on accomplishing that Bagtown goal. Some people are always going to be memorable. And if they’re lucky, they’ll get a mixtape of memories all to themselves. Keep the music makers close and the family of appreciators closer. (sometimes outdoor concerts are chilly!)

The nostalgia coded into a song’s storytelling and melody is crucial for its soul to come through, but it needs to transcend an individual’s nostalgia and become ubiquitous into the human experience. That’s where mixtapes – good ones- can communicate more than a kiss in some scenarios. They can be better than a therapist. (not a replacement, but enough to know why you’re unsatisfied, perhaps)

And if you’re lucky, you get to have someone narrate all the reasons why they chose the songs they did to you, with introductions and stories. Appreciating the community this music has created on the airwaves alongside the chaos of living.

I’m not sure if this book was an antidote or an amplifier for my retrospective tendencies, but flipping back through pages of the book now completed seem as familiar as floating backwards into my own memories – smiling at experiencing that joy with the lucidity of deja vu. flashes of curious familiarity mimicking past emotion.

And now, in the phase of my living where I am finding more courage to start learning music and developing unique style + character in playing piano and guitar, I understand the challenges involved with creating a ‘new’ sound, if only for the immediate frustration involved with the pain of not knowing how to get the sound you don’t know you need. So, my gratitude meter is restored with each new song, and each time I pick up a guitar and default to D chord, because it’s the transition from uke to guitar and I feel comfortable there. But i’m getting really sick of that note in particular. Thankful for all the sharers of music ability and advice. Without them my inspiration meter would have no traction against the current of modern life. With them, i have a memory of a time of my growing up and out of naivete.

“a mixtape steals those moments from all over the musical cosmos, and splices them into a whole new groove. … I’d rather hear the Beatles’ Getting Better on a mix tape than on Sgt. Pepper any day.” – pg 23/24

there’s more of my story to be told – about radio synchronicities and mix tape ironies. but for the moment i’m glad to have indulged in someone else’s. Highly recommend this read to you, internet person; if i haven’t spoiled it for you with the plot leaks.

Cartographic Conversation

This past September I packed up my life from the corners of Canada where I’ve been hiding and moved to the Annapolis Valley for the first of two years attending CoGS, a respected but secret place for mapheads.

(cover photo courtesy of NASA, landsat5,+ ERDAS Imagine)

I have embraced my affinity for visual memory recall, and the affinity for photos, spatial displays, and visualized directions whenever possible. Ergo, it was about time I took those skills and developed them into something employable.

Getting here took a year of being unemployed, detaching myself from the emotional loss of a comfortable job, and resettling in a new version of familiar on the other side of Canada.  During this time I got to the heart of what I truly love – spending some time and “Pogey” dollars on travel. By the time I wound up back on the East Coast in March 2016, I’d been to every other land province in the country  for atleast 12 hours since leaving Edmonton in Fall 2015. (Sorry Newfoundland, someday!)

And yet, it was the best kind of preparation I could have designed for myself. If I were to do it all again, I would do few things differently if only for the improved state of mental wellbeing. Road regrets aside, I’m glad to have documented many of the adventures on paper maps with coloured notes. Pathways + people of places etched into memory banks. These banks I draw from on days when transition gets too heavy.

Here, is Lawrencetown (not the beach). For a town that turns out hundreds* (*~2) of cartographic wizards annually, it’s constantly surprising how confusing its location can be for nearly everyone trying to figure where they have to go to be spatially informed. A college tucked in the heart of the Annapolis Valley, it turns out. It’s not really on the map for much, but it hits the mark for maps.

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the course of the past year, and I’m exceedingly grateful for the amount of rad tunes, fun folks, and window-seat-views I have the privilege to remember.

The next step, as it always is with growth, is to take what was and magnify into a continued beauty. Mapping opens the doors to what I have always Trump-ed about: what “should” be and how it “could” be done. Damn him and that attitude. Independent thought is alive and well. Love conquers hate.  Questions conquer fear.

Fear has no place here, says the wise Ken Stead.

So much for fear, echoes another bearded bard Dan Mangan.

In every ounce of sadness, confusion, and melancholy, there is a fellow human who has lived through worse and wants to share that moment with you. Music wins.

I’ve come to learn many parallels between cartography and composition. Notes and phrases move across piano keys as swiftly as the eye connects dots via contour lines, streets, and rivers.

Psychogeography is just that – allowing emotion to bleed into the documentation of living.

For now, it’s watersheds and text placement. Remotely sensing our community’s infrared, even, has a colourful subtext.

So much for Alberta.. Time for happiness in the form of hectare calculations.

thanksgivingdem

straight lines + colonial times (poem)

we’re taught how geography is straight lines, 

in clusters, 

forming cities. 

so we learn the names, who runs them, 

and his-story’s take on how they came to be. 


these straight lines occasionally bend around curving water

and rising hills. 

we know them because of

the flat maps of documentation

we inherit, these important memories

reduced to textbooks. 

we memorize. rarely feeling their textures of culture.
 

part of this learning, of how to carry this tradition,

is about building more and better, always. 

never ceasing to explore. 

document, collect, report back. 

this is the formula of colonialism // our heritage


we learn how to cross the river, not how to follow it. 

skipping over the earth’s chapter on flexibility. 

the inherit importance of curving around a rock, 

not blasting through it, 

may be one of the quietest secrets

eroding from our awareness 

with each new set of lines


this type of geography - systematic at best - denies understanding

of cultural nuance. spatial play. 

what it means to explore, truly and gently. 

rather than rape our land of its value. 

we are learning. we must. always. 

how to carve out cravings, and how not to. 

differently from tradition, if tradition is only a temporary gain


the same way feminism redefines equality 

against hard-headed men

in new ways, each generation’s own bra burning is different.

yet the redefining teaches the crude essence of humanity. 

passionate individuality our greatest and most cursed gift. 

emboldened community our saving grace.


to speak for all the world, and yet hear nothing, 

is a failure of many ‘great’ leaders. selfish explorers. 

fearful of what they might find in places ‘untouched’. 

fabricating myths and drawing such fear on maps. 

for them the value of the world is in power; 

what namesake can be stolen, ascribed, and profiteered.

redefined in industrial lenses. 

resources for the marketplace. 

we are told that is the worth of the earth.


as colonial byproducts we can hardly justify

any of our biases. but as humans we must do something 

(or many tend to feel strongly we should try)

is equalized stasis the goal? 

socially and psychologically, 


in this moment of security

as you cup that hot mug of cumulative achievement

and satisfying refreshment


look outside and notice your reflection

alongside the others in the glass.


question this moment, 

is it time for it to pass?