Sunday
Aug092015

Ten Great Reasons to Live in L.A.

It's no secret that I miss the New York. What do I miss about it? Pretty much everything. I was constantly near tears when we visited this summer. Our friends and family, the seasons, the culture, the food...It has been hard to leave all those things behind. 

And then there's France. I actively hope that we can move there in 15 years or so, and I try on a daily basis to prepare for that, language-wise and otherwise. 

But I'm here now. I knew moving to Los Angeles was the right thing for our family, and Patrick has never been happier in his work. And I believe strongly in savoring and living in the moment, even while preparing for a different future. As I've struggled to adjust to life in Southern California--finding zen despite the traffic, enduring the relentless sun, dealing with homesickness--I've identified at least ten great reasons to be here and be happy about it. Some are general, while a few are personal. See what you think.

10) It's always easy to be a dog owner here. 

As much as I love the seasons on the East Coast, I'm not sure I'd want to own a dog there, where every element must be braved to ensure dogs' comfort and hygeine. Here, my morning walks with Moneypenny (above right) are delightful. It's almost always cool and pleasant, with no violent weather to endure. This may sound like a small thing, but since I spend nearly an hour walking Penny almost every single day, it's a significant portion of my time, and I appreciate the ease and convenience.

9) Excellent ethnic grocery stores are close by--and mad inexpensive.

My favorite of these is 99 Ranch Market, a Chinese supermarket less than ten minutes from our house. The fish, poultry, meat, and produce are amazingly priced and much fresher than what you find in more mainstream stores. Ditto goes for Baja Ranch, which is just a little farther away. (Fresh, house-made tortillas...drool....) And when we want to make sushi at home? We go to Mitsuwa to get all the essentials. I can never resist trying new things--the Asian cookies, the Mexican drinkable yogurt. I don't love shopping, but these stores make it more of an adventure.

8) The Pacific Ocean is better than the Atlantic.

It's true. The waves and tides are more interesting, the topography is more varied and wild. The abundance of beaches can't be beat. And then there are the sunsets. We don't get to the ocean all that often, but when we do, the Pacific refreshes my soul. 

8a) Corgi Beach Day

7) White flowers are my favorite.

For a good portion of the year, jasmine, mock orange, all kinds of citrus, and gardenias are blooming in our yard and neighborhood. Their exotic, bewitching scents fill the air, making every inhalation a luscious treat. Oh, and the datura. Last night, we were watching a movie in our room, and as usual, our French doors were wide open to let in the evening air. The datura beneath our balcony, which releases its fragrance mainly at night, was out of control scent-wise. Bliss. 

7a) We sleep with our windows open nearly year-round.

As hot as it gets in the summer, it's almost always cool enough to turn off the A/C at night. And, you know, winter doesn't really exist here. I love to fall asleep looking out at the palm trees and the city lights far beyond. It's like living in a treehouse, and it's amazing.

6) We never run out of terrific, inexpensive restaurants to try.

It's true that great Italian food is scarce and great French food is almost nonexistent. (But we've squirreled out a few favorites in that regard, so we'll get by.) But when it comes to Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Mexican options, the San Gabriel Valley is a treasure trove. Oh, the dumplings; ah, the scallion pancakes, tacos, beef rolls, banh mi, and pho. I mine two excellent food blogs: 626 Foodettes and Gastronomy, for ideas, and haven't been steered wrong yet. Also: donuts and burgers. In these things, L.A. excels. (But don't get me started on In n Out. It's not good and never will be.)

5) I love me some Trader Joe's.

Here's another great thing about L.A. that may seem trivial, but affects our life for the better on a daily basis. (And I fully realize that 30% of this list concerns food. That shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me.) I'm at Trader Joe's at least three times a week for lovely dairy, produce, and other groceries that make life good. Just this week, we discovered Thomcord grapes, a hybrid of sweet, crunchy Thompson and luscious, full-bodied Concord. Insanely delicious and affordable. They'll likely only be around for a few weeks, because Trader Joe's likes to focus on seasonal stuff, but we're eating them while we can. 

We're doubly fortunate, because Trader Joe's is notorious for having horrendous parking options--or lack thereof. If I lived in Toluca Lake, for example, I'd likely only walk to TJ's. But our local branch is close, convenient, and has ample and sane parking, which again is a bigger deal than it may appear.

4) The independent bookstores and movie houses are the best.

I've never been to a better bookstore than Vroman's. It boasts a huge selection of wonderful books, intelligent staff reviews and recommendations, lovely stationery and gifts, international magazines, and a really cool program that rewards the community with every purchase you make--Vroman's rocks. But then there's Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Kinokuniya downtown, San Marino Toy and Book, and a host of others over on the West Side that I haven't even gotten to explore. Yet.

Movie-wise, we favor either ArcLight, a local, upscale chain, for mainstream movies, or Laemmle for independent and foreign movies. I love them both.

4a) Also: the Pasadena library is great: branches all over town, and the ability to order any book in the Pasadena/Glendale system online. The Central Branch in Old Town is gorgeous. 

3) L.A. has given my children opportunites they didn't have in New York. 

Specifically, my younger four have become avid, skillful swimmers. Hope and Tess swim and play water polo in Pasadena High School's aquatic program, and Daniel and Anne are on the town swim team here in Sierra Madre. They're fit and having a great time. Marching band and orchestra are two other activities that weren't available to us in New York. And I doubt that James would have decided on UC Berkeley had we been on the East Coast--and it has turned out to be the perfect place for him to attend college. 

2) I'm closer to my family.

We miss Patrick's family in New Jersey terribly; there's nothing good about that. Visits with my family, however, have gotten much easier. My mother is in Reno, my grandmother is in St. George, and nine of my ten siblings are in the San Francisco Bay Area (2), Portland (2), Utah (2), and Arizona (3). This was a blessing when my father died, but being closer to my family under non-tragic circumstances has also been a boon. And we've even seen Patrick's family from Texas a lot more often. 

1) I've made life-changing friends.

Again, it's a bitter thing to be so far away from people I cherish in New York. Four groups of people have saved me. We are surrounded by kind, generous, interesting neighbors. My amazing book group is full of diverse, fascinating women who treasure each other and make excellent conversation (and meals). My world-class writing group (above)--I can't even believe these famous, skilled ladies want me around, but I've learned so much from our weekly meetings. And a few stalwart friends at church, who both understand and inspire us. I can't imagine life without any of these people--and I would never have met them if we hadn't moved here. 

I wrote this post mainly as a count-your-blessings exercise, a reminder to ground me either when the challenges of living here loom large, or when being away from New York seems intolerable (friends; bagels; autumn leaves). But maybe a few other immigrants to the Southland will find it helpful. If so, let me know by leaving a comment.  

Thursday
Apr092015

Stunts and House Finches

Nellie Bly, one of my heroes. Image from Wikipedia

I have a great weakness for stunt journalism. From Nellie Bly to Bill Buford to Gretchen Rubin--I'll read it all. I'm entranced by the stories of people choosing to go without seemingly essential things for a year or more, or attempting to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the complete works of James Joyce, or electing to abandon their workaday lives to buy a failing/abandoned/ancient chateau/hostelry/dairy farm in Maine/Tuscany/Provence. 

The fun of it is the vicarious experience, the insider's view. Every time I finish something from the genre, I wish I could think up my own stunt, write about it, and get it published. But I haven't come up with anything original yet--at least not anything my family would put up with. (The closest I've come to stunt journalism is The Great Cinnamon Roll Project.)

Now, I'm sure there are some who would consider my daily life to be as foreign and as challenging as some of these stunts. After all, it's not every day you meet an actively publishing writer who also teaches five days a week and is the primary caregiver to five children--with two more in college. Of course, none of that seems remarkable to me, because I live it--and I didn't take any of it on for the sole purpose of spinning a good yarn about it later. It's just my life (and, unlike the above stunts, there's no end in sight).  

I've recently jumped into something rather stunt-like, however. I'm about two thirds of the way through a Sixty-Day Challenge at Bikram Yoga Pasadena. (If you like, you can read my daily diary of the experience.) To the outsider, even one session of Bikram yoga might seem like a stunt; each class entails ninety minutes working through twenty-six yoga asanas and two breathing exercises (all done twice) in a room that is heated to 105 degrees F with 40% humidity.

But Bikram aficionados try to make it to class three to five times per week, and will on occasion take on a thirty- or sixty-day challenge: doing a session every. Single. Day. For a month or two. It's that simple.

Except it's not, not if you have a life as busy as mine. Not even, apparently, if you're single and have a flexible work schedule, as Paige Williams and Aimee Macovic both were/had when they did their own Sixty-Day Challenges. Exercise this intense is demanding for the beginner, and its effects are cumulative. Ninety minutes really means more like two and a half hours when you count the prep, travel, and recovery time. Eating needs to be built around the classes, too; you don't want to eat for a couple of hours beforehand, and you don't feel like it for a long while afterward. And then there's the hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom). 

Given all my responsibilities, the stars really need to align for me to get to the yoga studio consistently. Sick kids, booked-solid days, and family trips to Disneyland--in other words, reality--all need to be taken into account.

Fortunately, there's a provision for days missed: you simply make up the class by doing two in one day. Which I've done twice now. Which is brutal. And which I'll have to do three times more by April 29th in order to complete my own personal Challenge.

(I have to finish! I already ordered the T-shirt.)

So, why take on something so difficult, if my life is already so complicated? I won't go into the details of some nagging health challenges, but that was definitely a factor. The bigger issue, though, is that I hope that a regular Bikram practice will be a catalyst for me in my writing life--which is really just an outgrowth of my mental/emotional/spiritual life.

Catalysts fascinate me; it's one of the reasons I love stunt journalism. What's the touchstone that allows people to make wholesale changes in their lives; whence cometh the paradigm shift? Can it be pinpointed? Can it be engineered, or does it need to drop from the sky? Can people really redefine who they are through a series of choices? Can they make the changes stick? I hope so; I choose to believe so. I've read about many others for whom Bikram has been a catalyst--for healing, for renewed energy and perspective, for professional pursuits. I figured I'd give it a try. (It is, after all, more reasonable than sailing around the world or buying a B&B in Fiji.) 

Forty days into the Challenge, I'm still floundering writing-wise, but clarity is slowly coming. Change is coming, too: new attitudes, recommitment. I have renewed faith that I need to keep working at it: keep writing, keep submitting, keep writing some more. 

As I write this post, house finches are building a nest under the eaves of my balcony, a mere six feet away from where I sit. The French doors are open, and the cool April air wafts around me. The finches--one ruby-headed, one brown, both lovely--show up with a piece of dried grass or hair or dryer lint and disappear behind the beam where their project nestles. They reappear and search for something else--just the right piece of material. I've seen them pick up and drop the same thing several times, fluttering around to consider it in between. They warble to each other as they go. Will it work? Can we make it fit? Is there something better?

The finches remind me of myself as I draft and edit. Cutting, pasting, reworking, starting from scratch when the whole thing falls apart. Or in yoga, struggling to find my balance, my edge, a new level of strength and grace. Piece by piece, moment by moment, breath by breath, choice by choice, building a new reality.

Because as energizing as the vicarious thrill of reading is, real life is ideally at least as satisfying--and if it's not, perhaps the reading inspires us to make changes necessary to bring our real lives into line with our hopes and dreams. Or to change our hopes and dreams to fit the awesome life we're already living--if we choose to see it that way. When it comes right down to it, the finches and I don't do what we're doing as a stunt; our work and our choices are who we're becoming. 

Thursday
Jan012015

Let It Be: The Best of 2014 

I'm sitting in my snuggly bed with the Rose Parade on TV. It's a gorgeous, if chilly, morning--perfect for reflecting on the year that has just past. So much good!

Our sweet foster daughter moved in with us full time back in April. I had two short stories, two essays, and a novella published or accepted for publication. (My short story "Spring Hill" won the Mormon Lit Blitz contest!) I was invited to join a legendary writing group. Patrick continues to love his job at Warner Brothers. We had a blissful trip to France. James started his first year of college (UC Berkeley), and Christian started his senior year of college (University of Mary Washington) after an exciting summer internship with the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. 

We faced many struggles as well: James's diabetes diagnosis; my own (solvable) health issues; our cat Goldberry's death; and the everyday challenge of having five kids at home in three different schools. But we got through it all (hopefully) with grace. Below are all the things that helped--good books, music, entertainment, and food: 

Favorite Books

10) I'll Drink to That, by Betty Halbreich

9) Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

8) California Bones, by Greg van Eekhout

7) The House Next Door, by Anne Rivers Siddons

6) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

5) Letters to a Young Mormon, by Adam Miller

4) The Paper Magician/The Glass Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

3) Hild, by Nicola Griffith

2) The Magicians Trilogy, by Lev Grossman

1) The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

Yes, I cheated a bit; #4 is two books, and #2 is three. Sue me. Don't sue me; read the books instead.

Caveat: I don't rank books by people I know. Outstanding examples that would have been vying for top spots this year: The Bishop's Wife, by Mette Harrison; The Scholar of Moab, by Steven Peck; and All the Truth That's in Me, by Julie Berry. 

Most Disappointing Book

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

(Not the worst book this year; that would be Mockingjay.)

Favorite New Music 

Props to Christian for introducing me to #2 and #1. I can't get enough of these groups; check out their other songs as well.

5) "Tell the Ones I Love," by The Steep Canyon Rangers

4) "Uptown Funk," by Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars

3) "Cut String Kite," by Fictionist

2) "Roll the Bones," Shakey Graves

1) "I've Been Loving You," by St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Favorite 2014 Movies

10) Cold in July

9) The Judge

8) Snowpiercer

7) Winter's Tale

6) Edge of Tomorrow

5) The Hundred-Foot Journey

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel

3) The Imitation Game

2) Interstellar

1) Ida

2014 movies that I haven't yet seen, but plan to see: American Sniper, Mr. Hublot, The Wind Rises, Locke, Million Dollar Arm, We Are the Best!, Borgman, Begin Again, Boyhood, Calvary, Magic in the Moonlight, The Trip to Italy, Le Grand Cahier, Jimi, Fury, Birdman, Big Hero Six, The Theory of Everything, The Babadook, Miss Julie, Mr. Turner, and Big Eyes. I'd better get going!

Favorite 2014 TV

5) The Leftovers

4) Gotham

3) True Detective

2) Modern Family

1) Call the Midwife

Favorite New Restaurants

3) Szechuan Impression in Alhambra

2) Auberge de Malo in Etrigny, France

1) The Church Key in West Hollywood

Budgetary constraints (two kids in college!) limited our restaurant adventures this year, but what we did eat out was spectacular. (And we had a lot of great homemade meals, too--especially in France.)

Resolutions for 2015? I plan on greater focus on my writing and a massive decluttering project à la Marie Kondo (see book #6 above). We'll see Christian graduate from college; Aolani graduate from high school; Tess graduate from middle school; and Daniel graduate from elementary school. Hope will be old enough to go to the prom. James will leave on his mission sometime in the middle of the summer. I'm sure that once again, it'll be a year to remember. Happy New Year!  

Monday
Dec292014

Svithe: Ring in the New

"Svithe" is a word coined by Th.  It means roughly "to tithe a seventh," and refers to the blog posts he puts up on Sundays.  I have used it in the past and do so now with all proper homage and deference.

In 1740, John Wesley started a new tradition in his young church. As an alternative to the usual drunken revelry that was (and is) New Year’s Eve, he held a special late evening service called “Watch-night” or “Covenant Renewal.” Worshipers would contemplate the past year, make confessions, give testimonies, and prayerfully formulate specific resolutions to keep their Christian covenants more fully. Watch-night is one of the sources of our modern-day New Year’s tradition. In late December, we think about the year that has past and the year that is to come. It’s a time of measuring and contemplation, and above all, resolution.

Judaism has a much older, if similar, tradition—but the order of events is a bit different. The faithful celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—which usually falls some time in September. It is said that the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah in order to judge the nations, and any people found lacking have the ten days until Yom Kippur to repent and make things right in their lives so that they can be “sealed up unto life.” Observant Jews fast and attend synagogue services on Yom Kippur, repenting and making restitution for wrongdoings in the past year and resolving to become better in the new year to come.

Many of us will at least consider making a resolution or two sometime this week. Maybe we want to lose weight or save money or learn a new language. There’s a reason that every gym in America has a membership boom every January.

Of course, many (if not most) New Year’s resolutions end up failing. I know lots of people who don’t even make resolutions anymore, because they seem to lose steam any time between mid-January and March. What’s the point of making a goal that’s doomed to fail, they ask.

It can be a discouraging prospect, but perhaps it’s helpful to compare resolutions to baseball. In the only true and living sport, a player’s batting average is a calculation of the number of hits divided by the number of times he comes up to bat. A season batting average of .300, or three hits for every ten at-bats, is considered excellent, and a season average of .400, or four hits for every ten at-bats, is a nearly unachievable statistic. So, whereas a thirty to forty percent is a miserably failing grade on, say, a chemistry final, in baseball, thirty to forty percent is outstanding. Apply baseball stats to your resolutions going forward, and maybe you’ll feel a little better about your success rate.

Of course, we can’t define success by intentions alone. Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells is famous for saying, “You are what your record says you are.” This can be a bleak doctrine, except for one thing. In real life, unlike in sports, repentance can change our record entirely. In Mosiah 26:30, the Lord promises “as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me.” Further, he tells us in Doctrine & Covenants 58:42, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” This, to me, is one of the great miracles of the Gospel. Jesus, our Advocate with the Father, will literally no longer remember our mistakes once we fully and sincerely repent.

LDS composer Leroy Robertson based the text for a treble chorale in his masterpiece “The Book of Mormon Oratorio,” on 3 Nephi 12:47. “Old things are done away, all have become new, fulfilled in the coming of our Savior. The Father maketh his Son to rise and smileth down in favor.” The chorale is sung at the moment the resurrected Christ descends from heaven and shows Himself to the Nephites, but the scripture has a broader application than that specific instance. When we repent and allow the Savior into our lives and hearts, old things are done away. The Holy Spirit renews us; Christ’s covenant is fulfilled again each time we fully avail ourselves of His Atonement. “Old things are done away” when we forsake sin and apply the healing, atoning blood of Christ to our wounded souls—and all becomes new.

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for a once-a-year transformative renewal. The Lord, in his wisdom and mercy, instituted the ordinance of the Sacrament, ideally to be celebrated on a weekly basis. In Doctrine & Covenants 59:9, the Lord instructs us: “And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” By doing so, we can have the tremendous privilege of having the Holy Ghost for our companion. As we mindfully partake of the Sacrament, offering up our broken hearts and contrite spirits, we will find renewal, and peace. The Holy Spirit will give us the strength and courage to keep the commitments we’ve made.

I read a fascinating book this week written by Marie Kondo, a successful Japanese decluttering expert who has a huge following in Tokyo. Her approach to home organization resonated with me, and I found it applicable to the way we should live the Gospel. Kondo’s key to success is simple. Instead of focusing on what you want to get rid of, she explains, focus on what brings you joy. She outlines a detailed plan for the resulting decluttering process that includes the following steps: taking a thorough inventory of your belongings in a given category; picking each one up and holding it in turn; and noticing whether that particular belonging sparks joy when you touch it and contemplate it.

If it does not, Kondo recommends thanking the item for however it has served us or whatever it has taught us—and we should be specific—and then let it go. To the trash, to the charity shop, wherever—just out of the house (which includes the basement and garage). Kondo promises that if we do this thoroughly and as quickly as possible, we’ll be left with only that which makes us happy or is useful to us in our lives going forward.

I only had an hour between finishing her book and dinner preparation time last Friday, so I decided to experiment with her technique on a relatively small job: my knitting cabinet. Over the years, I’ve acquired a fair amount of yarn, most of it for unspecified purposes—projects to knit “someday.” Living in Southern California, I’ve known for a while that I should probably find another home for some of the heavier wools that simply won’t be useful to me here—but I hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it.

On Friday, I took all the yarn out of the cabinet and held each skein individually. I found that some of the yarn I still wanted to keep; it still sparked the thrill of creation for me, and I could imagine beautiful, useful things to make with it. But I discovered I could easily part with two thirds of the stash. I’ve boxed it up and will send it to a fellow knitter in New York next week.

How does this apply to the Gospel? Too often, I think that we as members of the Church approach change with a Puritanical attitude. We look at our bad habit or poor choice or foolish behavior with disgust and shame. Regret, or “godly sorrow,” as it’s called in the scriptures, is part of the repentance process; shame is Satan’s counterfeit. Regret inspires honest, forthright change; godly sorrow recognizes the lessons learned from the mistakes made. But shame isolates and encourages us to hide. Shame brings both despair and a perverse desire to wallow in our past rather than learn from it and move on.

So, let’s not focus on what we want to discard; let’s focus on what we want to keep, and let the rest go. In 1992, Elder William Bradford gave a General Conference talk on uncluttering our spiritual lives. He cautioned against letting terrestrial pursuits take time away from celestial goals. Notice that he didn’t mention telestial pursuits, but instead reminded us that the good can often rob the best if we’re not careful. Do we make time for sincere, heartfelt prayer? Do we immerse ourselves in careful scripture study, or do we merely read a few verses in a hurried half sleep?

Do our personal relationships with the Lord and our families come before work, hobbies, or even Church callings? Both Marie Kondo’s decluttering philosophy and Elder Bradford’s talk remind me of my favorite quote by President Ezra Taft Benson: “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities."

That’s a promise from a prophet of the Lord: when we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. That is the very definition of holding onto what sparks joy. And as we let go of the past, we can do so with gratitude for the lessons we’ve learned. When old mistakes resurface in our memory, we can mentally thank them for how they’ve shaped us into better people, and then refuse to obsess over them. How streamlined and serene could your spiritual life be if you followed this principle faithfully?

In the days to come, consider taking a page from John Wesley’s book. We have no Watch-night service, but a visit to the temple or a quiet hour with the scriptures and our journals can accomplish similar results.

One of my very favorite hymns is #215, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the words in 1850 to express his grief over the untimely death of a close friend. While listening to distant church bells swing wildly in the wind of a major storm, he outlined nearly every New Year’s resolution we might possibly make. Crawford Gates loved Tennyson’s poem so much that he set it to music. Gates used only the first, second, and last verses for the hymn, but the original poem is seven verses long. I find all seven to be a perfect meditation as I contemplate changes I want to make in my own life in the coming year:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more,

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

 

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

 

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

 

Thursday
Oct162014

An Octoberish Playlist

Image from bianchibooks.com

Autumn: my favorite time of year. Last year to celebrate, I gave you lists of books and movies suitable to the season; this year, to get my Octoberish mood on, I'm turning to music--popular music, to be precise. (Maybe next year I'll do a classical music edition.) 

I tend to default to melancholy, anyway, so it wasn't hard to come up with songs to get me in an October frame of mind--and genius WMWC DJ Christian (our oldest son) came up with some other excellent ones as well.

We didn't get into any nasty stuff; there's no grindcore or screamo here. Also, I'd be just dandy if I never heard "Monster Mash" or "Ghostbusters" ever, ever again.

Instead, most of these songs tell a sad, strange, or tragic story, with haunting vocals and atmospheric accompaniment. So, light the candles, fill the candy bowl, and put on this playlist while you wait for the costumed kids to ring your doorbell. Your house will be the most Octoberish on the block. 

1) “When You’re Strange” The Doors

Okay, Jim Morrison is probably talking about getting stoned. But it doesn't have to be that. In my experience, the world is weird enough without any chemical help, and this song communicates that perfectly. "Riders on the Storm" would also have worked for this list. 

2) “Fake Palindromes” Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird is way talented and more than a little creepy at times. Someone else characterized this song as "the David Lynch movie of songs"--subtly horrifying images strung together in a way that evokes rather than narrates a tale. Even though it's perfectly "SFW," this song in on the unnerving edge for me. 

3) “The Ghost Who Walks” Karen Elson

Elson is a very successful British fashion model and designer. But apparently, that's not enough for her--and that's lucky for us. (Her former husband) Jack White produced her first album, which includes this song. Its production feels very Doors-y (especially the keyboards); Jack knew what he was doing. A very 21st-century story song with an old-school feel. 

4) "Go 'Way from My Window" Joan Baez

Folk music enthusiast John Jacob Niles collected this eerie song in his travels around the United States back in the day, and virtuoso Joan Baez tinges it with both longing and fear. Stalking is not a new invention, it seems. I love the version by bluegrass artist Sally Jones, but I couldn't find it online. 

5) “The Tinkerman's Daughter” Niamh Parsons

No one does October as well as the Irish, and you don't need ghosts or psychotics to create a chilling story song. Niahm Parsons's mournful interpretation is exquisitely accompanied by pianist Eddie Friel. Unparalleled excellence; Niamh (pronounced "Neeve") is a goddess. For other Octoberish goodness by Niamh Parsons, try "The Lakes of Coolfin," "Orphan's Wedding," and "The Water is Wide." 

6) “Nebraska” Bruce Springsteen

Whenever I tell people that Nebraska is my favorite Springsteen album, they get a little confused. No "Thunder Road," no "Born to Run," no E Street Band. Just a series of dark, moody pieces of Americana--brilliantly realized by The Boss all by his lonesome. I wonder if Bruce binge read Flannery O'Connor before he sat down to write these songs. The title track is one of its best. Love that harmonica, Bruce.

7) “Country Death Song” The Violent Femmes

This song naturally follows the one above. In the early 1980s, The Violent Femmes brought a new level of irony to the alt-country scene--which is really saying something. Gordon Gano's acerbic vocals ensure that you feel no sympathy for the delusional father who pushes his daughter down a well.

8) “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” Bauhaus

Talk about influential: this song started the whole Goth scene. Dracula. Bats in the bell tower. Somber lyrics delivered in Peter Murphy's best funereal monotone. Creepy percussive effects and a bass line that bores into your brain like no other. Pure gothic awesomeness. 

9) "She's Lost Control" Joy Division

Sad, sad story. Singer Ian Curtis wrote this song after being diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition that drastically affected his ability to perform. He committed suicide on the eve of the band's first American tour--but even without all that context, it's an unsettling piece of music. 

10) “Mad World” Michael Andrews

Let's travel even farther down the rabbit hole of gloom, shall we? "Mad World" was creepy when Tears for Fears debuted it, but in the hands of pianist Michael Andrews, who used it as part of his soundtrack to the cult classic film Donnie Darko, it's absolutely delicious. "And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Shiver

11) “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush

Kate Bush wrote this song when she was a mere eighteen years old, after finishing the novel and finding out that she and Emily Brontë shared a birthday. For me, it perfectly evokes the mood of the book. Pat Benatar's cover is equally great. (It's probably better not to watch Kate's official video; just listen. Her dancing and emoting date her badly. This was music video in its infancy, people.)

12) "Bad Moon Rising" Creedence Clearwater Revival

Dude, the bayou is inherently freaky (have you seen True Detective?), so John Fogerty has an edge when it comes to Octoberish fodder for classic rock songs. Bad Moon's catchy beat and singable melody completely belie the apocalyptic lyrics. "Hope you're quite prepared to die." Yeesh.

13) "The Killing Moon" Echo and the Bunnymen

Vocalist/songwriter Ian McCulloch isn't quite as subtle as Fogerty, but this post-punk ballad works on every level. "Fate up against your will"--that's always the struggle, isn't it? 

14) "Strange Fruit" Billie Holiday

One of the earliest and one of the best protest songs. "Strange Fruit," which describes the real-life horrors of lynchings in the American South, has October written all over it. Holiday's grace and understatement perfect the piece.

15) "Under the Milky Way" The Church

Baritones have a natural advantage in the October department, and the jangly, neo-psychedelic guitar along with the bagpipes (!) in the bridge all work together with the vocals to produce a slick but spooky song. 

16) "Miss You" The Rolling Stones

In their long history, the Stones have probably produced at least thirty-one Octoberish tracks all by themselves. "Paint it Black," "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Under My Thumb" immediately come to mind. But "Miss You," a flat-out mercenary reach for some of the crazy money that was disco, reigns supreme. Hooting, howling, and growling--this is some of Mick Jagger's best vocal work."I bin walkin' Central Park, singin' after dark/People think I'm craaaaaazy." It doesn't get better than that. 

17) "Stan" Eminem

Dido's dreamy vocals and the sounds of a thunderstorm are an ideal opening for Eminem's epistolary song. It's the story of Stan, an obsessive fan who writes increasingly erratic and menace-filled letters to his idol, Slim--ending with Stan's murder-suicide and Slim's belated response. (I love Marshall's nod to Phil Collins's "Something in the Air Tonight," which was also a contender for this list.) 

18) "Undertaker" Southern Culture on the Skids

According to Wikipedia, SCOTS usually writes music about "dancing, sex, and fried chicken," all worthy muses, to be sure. But they take a sinister turn with this tune--like James Taylor's "Handyman" gone even more wrong. Dig that musical saw at the end of the track.

19) "Long Slow Goodbye" Queens of the Stone Age

Then again, tenors can also rock the creep factor. Stalkers are bad; ghosts are worse. Ghost stalkers? We're done here, people. A simple, subtle blues riff with pared-down lyrics--this track shows off the Queens' genius, which I've only recently begun to appreciate. Thanks, Christian.

20) "Shallow Grave" The Parlor Soldiers

Here's another song introduced to me by Christian. This hip, attractive duo from Fredericksburg, Virginia describe their music as "niche pieces about outlaws, sheriffs, hookers, and whiskey." Well, alrighty, then. Hop aboard the October train, young'uns. 

21) "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" The ‚ÄčKillers

Christian suggested "Midnight Show" for this list, but I chose instead another from The Killers' "Murder Trilogy." Brandon Flowers is a little bit messed up--and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The song's story is told from the point of view of a boy brought in for questioning regarding the murder of young Jenny. "There ain't no motive for this crime," the boy protests. "Jenny was a friend of mine." I love the minor key, and dig that funky bass line--like Duran Duran on steroids. 

22) "The Stranger" Billy Joel

I bought this album when I was thirteen, and I love it dearly still. This song muses on the masks we wear for one another--as well as what lies beneath. "Everyone goes south every now and then"--oh, yes, Billy. Yes, they do. That whistling, that piano--pure gold. 

23) "Golden Brown" The Stranglers

What's timeless and mournful about this song? The harpsichord and the minor key help; so does the compound rhythm (3/4-6/8-4/4). But it's the ambiguous lyrics, sung wistfully by Jean-Jacques Burnel, that are the key to its poignancy. Is the song about heroin? Maybe. But, as with Simon & Garfunkel's "Like a Bridge over Troubled Water," that might be part of its appeal.

24) "Gallows Pole" Great Big Sea

Folks have been singing versions of this macabre song for centuries, and it was most famously recorded by Led Zeppelin. And as much as I love that version, GBS's somehow rocks even harder. (Maybe it's the bodhran.) My best darlings Sean, Alan, and Bob usually sing very cheery, upbeat songs--even when they're about wakes, drowning, freezing to death, and other Canadian tragedies. But this time, they're unreservedly savage in telling the story of a woman willing to sacrifice everything to save the one she loves. Awesome.

25) "No Quarter" Led Zeppelin

"Close the door, put out the light/You know they won't be home tonight." I've been listening to this song for thirty-five years, and it still gives me chills. Nordic ghosts? Fallen soldiers? Barrow wights? Whoever or whatever "they" are, Robert Plant and the boys want to warn us all. 

26) "Creep" Stone Temple Pilots

True confession: I listened to almost no popular music during the 90s. (Don't judge; I was busy with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, etc.) With Christian's help, I've been catching up ever since. In this song, the Stone Temple Pilots are unflinching in their self-examination. "Feelin' uninspired/Think I'll start a fire." Written in D minor ("the saddest key of all," as the band claims), it's a veritable hymn to despair.  

27) "Harlem River Blues" Justin Townes Earle

What's scarier than drowning? Drowning in the frickin' Harlem River, man--especially when you've got a gospel choir cheerfully backing up your suicidal intentions. Justin Townes Earle is Nashville royalty--the son of Steve Earle and godson of Townes Van Zandt--and his aesthetic, genius, and Cash-like voice reflect his heritage. 

28) "Yesterday" The Beatles

Other Beatles songs could be on this list, "Eleanor Rigby," "She's Leaving Home," and "Golden Slumbers" among them. But is there any song ever written that is more replete with regret and sadness? This is one of my favorite songs of all times, and Paul McCartney should go straight to the highest heaven just for writing it--and then singing it in such stunning, simple fashion. Perfection in 2:05; Octoberish in the extreme. 

29) "Drowned Lovers" Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby's angelic vocals weave a terrible tale; Kate, like Niamh above, can convey yearning like few else. Even her Christmas album is mournful. It makes sense; she's from Yorkshire, after all, and they know a bit about October up there on the moors.

30) "Arlington" The Wailin' Jennys

Ah, my Jennys. "Does it stray very far?" The brilliant lyrics ask questions that have no answer, celebrating the ineffable mysteries of life and death. Pair them with exquisite harmonies. Add minimal accompaniment. Gorgeous. 

31) "October" U2

An obvious way to close the list, I admit, for the title alone--not to mention the provenance of the band. But Bono himself said "October is an ominous word"; I can't argue with that. As evocative and inevitable as leaves falling from maple trees. 

My work here is done! But, tell me: what did I leave out? What would be on your Octoberish playist?