January 4, 2017

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The years in which you learn the most about yourself usually aren’t the most outwardly exciting. There’s a great deal of solitude, of thinking how you reacted (sometimes poorly) to the things that have happened to you. In those eras of introspection, sometimes you have to just allow life to happen — to ride the wave while paying attention to the way you react to its crest.

It felt a little narcissistic to think about oneself in 2016, after all the loss, acrimony, and tumult happening in the outside world. But I can’t say I haven’t spent days—sometimes weeks—looking for the internal resolve to improve my way of thinking and reacting to the world, a world which seems to be changing for the worse every day. I am a largely different person than even the guy who wrote this last year, and I’m not sure whether that’s the environment of the year in general or the environment beneath skin and skull. 2016 was a surreal year, and one I’m thankful has cycled out. But there were a lot of things to remember, and I suppose life is like that too. You can’t help but hold onto a few stray memories, even in years you hope to forgot even happened. — Douglas Martin

I. Ka, “Mourn at Night”

Way outside the numerous windows in my loft/studio apartment/office with a bed, in reaches of the universe quite a bit far away from them, the world’s tilt in 2016 seemed to be slightly off. Our heroes were shunted off by the Grim Reaper and replaced with the false idols sporting cheshire grins. That’s not quite true. Our heroes left a void which will eventually be filled by different heroes, ones who are still on the verge, ones still building their bodies of work. If there’s one thing I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that people come and go, no matter how much you love them. The spoke falls off, the wheels keep turning.

Mourning the fallen is good, it’s healthy. Three of the past five years for me have been spent mourning the loss of people I love; I’m personally kinda burnt out on mourning right now.

But there is that unusual occasion where I look out of my window at the night sky, not looking to all the people I’ve lost necessarily, but thinking about them nonetheless. Thinking about how those losses reflect both Allah’s wrath and God’s glory. Even in my satisfied agnosticism, I sometimes wonder if a court of the people who have left this world are going to convene with St. Peter at the gates of Heaven when I die. It alternates between being a nice and intimidating thought.

I’d like to think I treat my life with a fair amount of acceptance, but I can’t help but ruminate on how my life has changed by losing some very essential components of it. The nights are spent looking back at the day or looking forward to tomorrow. Sometimes things go missing, sometimes they get taken from you. Sometimes you have to collect the fallen spokes to focus on how the wheel looks now.

II. Chris $pencer featuring D. Brash, “Marcus Miller”

Just as “good grief, I’ve been reaping what I sow” was a central lyric of my life last year, in 2016 it was, “a nigga stayed to himself so he wouldn’t mess up.” I guess “I ain’t been outside in a minute, I’ve been living what I wrote” was something that carried over.

After marathon writing sessions or just appreciating my solitude at home, I occasionally enjoy taking a short daytime drive. Sometimes these drives are sunny jaunts home from my lady friend’s house. Whatever the occasion, these drives usually involve rolling through what Tacoma residents refer to as the Tide Flats, the stretch of highway circling around the Port of Tacoma and Commencement Bay.

Past the Tacoma Dome, past Emerald Queen Casino, past the lumber mill office where my dad worked until he got frustrated and quit before joining the postal service, I retreat toward the winding hills my neighborhood sits on top of. Kind of a far stretch from Monaco, but what it lacks in scenic beauty is more than compensated for in personal history.

There are fewer antidotes for my cloudy mind greater than an unsociable drive. I can roll down the windows, put on a good rap song, and feel the wind sweep the fog out of my head. I don’t have to think about ruined perceptions or failed relationships, worry about money or the future. I can think about unwinding with two shots of Tito’s and a bottle of Arizona Mucho Mango or almost two grams stuffed in a blueberry Swisher Sweet (and, let’s be real, sometimes both). The stuff on my mind weighs me down sometimes. It is very rewarding to feel that weight caught by a gust of wind and blown out of the window of my car.

III. Sheer Mag, “Worth the Tears”

I spend too much time thinking about the subconscious. In a year where I made an active effort to value accepting things I can’t change, one of the songs I listened to the most was about acceptance. It wasn’t until I actually reviewed Sheer Mag III that I knew the words to the chorus of the song: “At least I tried / And the time we had was worth the tears that you made me cry.” You know those songs you mumble-sing because you don’t really know the words? I suppose writing about music for so many years affords me the gift of being forced to find out what most songs are about.

The thing is, the song doesn’t particularly remind me of all the times I’ve nursed a broken heart. A really striking image burned into my mind when I hit play is it being 11:30 at night on southbound I-5, blasting this song and belting out the words (which I had learned by then) down that 30-mile stretch of freeway between Downtown Seattle and my home, elated by a friendship once forged on a Tumblr account I haven’t had since 2014 and sealed in person. Why does its guitar line get stuck in my head and I start thinking about leather jackets and pinball?

It’s also a matter of coincidence (or the power of the subconscious) that both Sheer Mag and my friend are based in Philadelphia. Or that a song about lost love strongly reminds me of eating tacos, drinking, having a weed chocolate for dessert (Seattle visitors often go crazy for our marijuana retail), talking about writing, talking about motorcycles, making small talk with someone who worked for ACLU and donating some money, making small talk with strangers at a pinball bar, going to pay for parking and realizing she already crossed the street, trying to cross the street myself and getting caught in front of a bus, trying to drive up to the Elephant Car Wash sign so we could take a picture and failing. I found two quarters from the bar and kept them. It’s funny how fifty cents and a song about accepting the bad times can elicit such a feeling of good times.

IV. Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled 04”

Tinder is the province of the bold. You utter the word “Tinder” to someone and they know it’s a euphemism for a bad idea. Some people are just lucky, but most people have a horror story or unintentionally humorous profile to share. Every now and again (but rarely) do the majority of us find somebody who just fits. Maybe that’s just a metaphor for life, but I’d like to think life doesn’t seem like a desert full of duck faces wearing Snapchat flower crowns looking for an oasis.

I met more than one woman I liked on Tinder, but only one from the site has stuck around. She piqued my interest very early on, as I found out she was a little older than me, owned her own business, and regularly attended art walks in Tacoma. And I know there are plenty of others like her, but she’s one of the only white women I knew who was watching Rap City in 1996. She came to my house wearing a Wu-Tang Clan tee and a green military surplus jacket. Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered was playing as we talked for hours and hours, did things that will make this fairly significant moment seem like a crude joke (especially since it got awkward for a second), and engaged in brief pillow talk before falling asleep. I lay in bed early the next morning and watched her as she hoisted her Wu-Tang t-shirt over her head to put it back on. She texted me as soon as she got back to her place, feeding her cats. I read the text and fell back asleep. She’s texted me good morning every day since.

It could have been just a one-time thing, but I was amazed by the comfort with which everything happened (including the awkward moment that will not be elaborated on here). It’s a comfort that has stayed with me most of the year, even through my host of insecurities about relationships and my insistence to embrace the uncertainty of my future.

Head is the answer. We laughed about it because we knew it was true.

V. Drake, “Controlla”

I don’t know how we came into listening to “We the Best Radio” on our drive down to Portland, I just know it was the best idea we could have had.

Riding shotgun as my closest friend drove, I-5 traffic slowed to a crawl in front of the Tacoma Dome, picked back up past Olympia, and was a breeze from that point on. The stretch took over an hour and a half when it’s usually 25 minutes, she listened to “Down in the DM” for the first time and asked me if it was really about what she thought it was about. This provoked a short but very insightful discussion on the merits of the DM slide. We listened to “Pop Style” and I yawned. We snacked on Trader Joe’s spicy dill potato chips and expressed excitement about crashing with our dear friends in Portland and attending an NXT show (of course I attended the one in Seattle the previous night). I, as I’m often wont to do, gushed about Shinsuke Nakamura.

We were in Centralia when “Controlla” came on and we laughed about Drake spending way more money on a vocal coach than his performance showed. I’m still going to need some receipts for that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Jeff had to say about friendship toward the end of our Best Songs List in his harrowing and incredible write-up on “Perky’s Calling.” Are only a few of us lucky enough to have a best friend in our 30s? Emily and I don’t talk or even text every day, and when we do, we’re usually trading flippant jokes about my love life. But she once referred to me as the Ilana to her Abbi, and I’ve told her and other people being around her makes me feel more like myself. Aside from my uncle and his family when I was a kid, she’s the only person I’ve been on more than one road trip with. I mentioned how much I value my solitude; hanging out with Emily always makes me as comfortable with myself as being alone.

After a comfortable silence of looking out of the window and a few moments of drifting into our own thoughts, Emily asked, “Why does DJ Khaled play so much Drake?”

VI. Kanye West featuring Chance the Rapper, “Ultralight Beam”

May 23, 2016, a year to the day after my father was murdered, I took a drive to visit my parents’ gravestones at Tahoma National Cemetery. I brought them flowers.

Dropping by to see my parents is never something I was particularly good at. For starters, I’m not really the “dropping by” type; I like to have plans with people. There’s also my noted love for solitude, my obsession with writing, and an assortment of complications I’m sure every stubborn young person has with their parents and their parents have back. I suppose I wasn’t “just dropping by” here either, I had plans to see them without having to send the “what are you doing tomorrow” text.

Making my way into the cemetery and to their gravesite, I rolled past the same parked convoys of grieving families getting ready for memorial services, sitting with their cars in the same spot as my family had occupied for the two previous years. I parked and got out, reminded of the three uniformed men ringing shots into the quiet air while “Taps” played. Of my normally stoic grandmother’s hand trembling in mine, a year after she was consoling my crying father in the spot I was sitting in, as an American flag was folded and presented to her. Of hastily buying a black suit from Wal-Mart because I donated my other one, certain it was going to be a while after my mom’s funeral before I went to another.

I didn’t spend a very long time in front of the head stones that represented the physical space they’d occupy for at least the rest of my life. I said a few words in my head to each of them, presented their flowers, took a picture for my grandmother because I told her I would, and made my way home.

Kanye’s humble plea for salvation started up as I was on the highway. I could see the sky breaking, I could feel something inside of me welling up. By the time he was basking in a god dream, it was pouring down rain and I started crying. I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t cry harder because this stretch of highway had no shoulder. So I quietly sobbed over the swell of the choir. By the time Chance started rapping, I felt some part of my emotions begin to turn around.

“I’m just having fun with it, you know that a nigga was lost!”

Before I realized it, I was scream-rapping along to the remainder of Chance’s verse, feeling like I had crossed over into something truly cathartic. It took me awhile to get to that visceral moment. I did a lot of crying over the sudden deaths of my parents. A lot of smoking weed all day, every day for weeks at a time, feeling droopy and lethargic. A lot of striving to treat it with acceptance. This was the first point where that negative energy was truly being forced out of me.

“Ultralight Beam” is essentially a prayer for God to not give up on you just yet, but this context made me think about the words I said to my parents, the forgiveness I sought, and the admission of I’m flawed, but I’m trying. I’m trying to make you proud.

VII. Isaiah Rashad, “Bday”

The twinkle of this song followed me on another march down I-5, this time on the night of the wedding of my two dear friends Emily and I went to visit in Portland about four months prior. It was early September, the end of a summer of self-imposed pressure and using my solitude to know myself better. Aside from watching the union of my friends, I was asked to prepare a blessing for the wedding. The last two times I wore a suit, I was processing, trying to find a way to express and process grief and failing. Being asked to bless my friends’ marriage was comparatively joyous and a little intimidating after only recently having truly alleviated myself of the burden of loss.

But the wedding, as weddings often are, was gorgeous; my friends were the most elated I’ve ever seen them; and my blessing went well even in the moments of improvisation. (I often say speaking to people is something not entirely natural for me, that’s why I became a writer.) Emily and I cut out a little early, and I felt a little guilty for it. It had been a long day, a long summer, a long journey through my early thirties. My pants were a little too tight for dancing, and I didn’t want to drink too much because the drive back to Tacoma would have been long enough already. Emily drove me to my car, and I listened to Isaiah Rashad rap about having conversations with his glass as the Seattle skyline appeared and disappeared from the windshield of my car.

I woke up on October 2nd, my birthday and that of the groom. I texted him birthday wishes, probably texted Jeff too, and watched the rain fall on my street with the twinkle of this song in the background.

VIII. Westside Gunn, “Peter Luger”

“So, I have some good news and some bad news,” the doctor said as the morphine clouds cleared space for his words. Why do doctors always do this? They’re not paid by the hour; save the preamble and tell me what I need to know, you know? “The radiologist took a look at your kidneys and it’s not cancer. That’s the good news. The bad news is you’re passing a kidney stone, and it’s gonna hurt.”

I had some dull but persistent pains in my side earlier that day. It felt like someone had hit my insides with a hammer. The pains took me to an empty urgent care center on a Saturday afternoon, urgent care led to a trip down the street to the hospital. They told me to leave my car, that I was in so much pain that I shouldn’t drive. They told me I’d probably be in the waiting room for hours, in pain, if I drove. The ambulance ride was an unnecessary privilege, but I still have the red blanket they gave me.

I remember being pushed through the ER, eyes on me like I was Miss America in a parade. I remember my lady friend calling me at the hospital, because I told her I was in pain and couldn’t make our scheduled dinner date at her house. I remember laying down on the phone, about to slip into unconsciousness from the morphine, and telling her, “They didn’t even give me a room. They’ve got me about to pass out in the hallway like a bad dog.” I remember the tender touch of the nurse relieving the other nurse for her break. I asked if she found her job to be stressful. “It’s okay most of the time,” she replied in an Eastern European accent. “But an infant passed away the other day and that was hard. It was hard for everybody.” I remember an ambulance driver entertaining three kids by pressing his index finger against the inside of his cheek and using it to make a loud pop. The kids tried to recreate that sound and weren’t successful, but they had fun trying.

Later that night, my lady friend picked me up and drove me to urgent care to get my car. This was the soundtrack for the short drive home, feeling the morphine wear off.