Philip Montoro is the longtime music editor at the Chicago Reader, where he also used to entertain himself writing a column called Beer and Metal. He likes to play drums and ride bikes, and though he doesn’t entirely believe it himself, he is 44 years old.
Saturday, December 19, 2015
I’m in my own bed, which is a good start. During a protracted period of datelessness—by “protracted” I mean “slightly more than two years,” in case you’re trying to decide whether to sympathize—I got into the habit of sleeping on my couch. It’s a very comfortable couch, and because no one can sleep on it with me, I don’t feel as alone there as I do in a mostly empty queen-size bed.
M. is in bed with me. I’m naked, because that’s how I sleep. I don’t know what she’s wearing, because it’s dark and I don’t feel I have permission to touch her. We haven’t had much to do with each other for three or four hours. I hadn’t been upset with her, just wound up from nonsense at work, but without realizing it I’d triggered her anxiety and shut her down. She’d located the problem in me, where she could be more comfortable with it: she insisted I was “moody” and needed time to myself. But that made it harder for me to get a handle on what was actually happening—we haven’t been dating long enough for this to be second nature to me.
Walking home from dinner, we’d talked about relaxing with whiskey and a movie. I’d already picked the movie in my head. Instead she holed up in my bedroom, leaving me to my own devices, which turned out to mean listening to Usnea at borderline antisocial volume and deleting the day’s avalanche of garbage from my Reader inbox. She thinks I’m angry at her and won’t tell her why. I’m not angry, and I don’t know what to do. Maybe there isn’t anything to do but wait for this to pass.
I don’t want to feel resentful, because I know that will make things worse. I’ll be making her fears come true. But it’s no fun to have someone in your apartment who can’t leave but won’t have anything to do with you—especially if you don’t understand the reason. About 90 minutes into this odd ordeal, I texted her from the next room. “Now I actually am upset. Not that it matters.” Of course, that didn’t help either.
I still haven’t had a minute of sleep. Being in bed a few inches from someone you can’t touch isn’t very restful, at least not if you’re really into touching them.
It’s light enough for me to see that M. is wearing underwear. I don’t know if it’s a good sign that she undressed that far or a bad sign that she stopped there. She’s put an arm over me twice, both times for just a minute or two. I’m possibly simply being stubborn now—lying awake in the predawn darkness for hours at a time can do strange things to your sense of proportion—but I’ve resolved that I won’t be the one to speak first. I’m going to wait for M. to unlock my cell door.
My brain perpetrates an inexplicable cruelty, and I get “Dr. Worm” by They Might Be Giants stuck in my head. I always find the line “I’m interested in things” strangely poignant.
I’m still in bed with M., but at least now there is cuddling. She is a top-shelf cuddler.
I can’t get back to sleep, to the extent that I slept at all, and M. has either conked back out or decided to ignore my attempts at affection for the time being. I get out of bed. I’d hoped to head downtown this morning with M. to visit Central Camera, since she knows a thing or two about DSLRs—the point-and-shoot I’ve been using since 2004 has lovely optics, but the viewfinder stopped working in 2011, and I’m pretty sure the light sensors are better in new iPhones. That trip isn’t looking likely anymore.
I don’t get paid much—I work for a free weekly newspaper, for fuck’s sake—but that’s only part of why I’m still making do with a janky-ass camera. I’m almost comically neurotic about large purchases, even when I’ve been saving money for years. I want M. along at Central Camera not just for her technical advice but also because she has a talent for nudging me through my irrational reluctance so that I actually do the things I want to.
I text my old friend J. about lunch. We have plans to see the new Star Wars flick at 2:15, and he’s invited me to his apartment beforehand. It’s supposed to be a big excursion: J. plans to bring his wife and their two daughters, and they’re meeting two other families of four. If there’s a correct way to see a Star Wars movie, I think “with a bunch of children under ten” is probably it.
I have to put out a brush fire on the Reader website—a colleague has uploaded a Secret History of Chicago Music strip with the wrong headline, and it’s still another few days before I’ll be trained to fix that sort of thing myself. Then I send a work e-mail explaining to a very worthy supplicant that I don’t write my Beer and Metal column anymore due to an ongoing dispute with management over unpaid overtime. (I can’t handle 65-hour weeks. Definitely not for free.) It’s a great pitch too—sales of the beer in question will benefit the Girls Rock! Chicago camps.
M. and I are talking again. It felt like we were in a fight all night, but the fact is, I wasn’t fighting, and I doubt she was either—now that her anxiety has quieted down and she’s lifted her ban on dealing with me, I’m fine.
I broke the ice the most reliable way I know how: I went down on her. If a woman takes hold of your hair and pulls you up short when you try that, then you know you’ve really fucked something up.
I worry sometimes that M. and I depend too heavily on our sexual chemistry—which we both find astounding—to paper over problems. What if we didn’t have it? How would things work out then? But usually I arrive at the same conclusion: that it’s pointless to wonder what a relationship would be like if you removed the main reason you decided to do it in the first place. So long as the sex feels like an expression of mutual care, not like a drug fix, I’m OK with using it to make us feel better. I mean, that’s one of the things it’s for, right?
M. is in the bathroom brushing her teeth and cleaning up after a lovely slow fuck. I think: We really need to find her a deodorant that doesn’t remind me of laundry detergent and baby powder. She has beautiful dark hair under her arms, and she ought to smell like a sweaty, sexy full-grown human woman at least some of the time.
She’s still in there, so I start futzing around with the iTunes on my desktop computer, which drives an old-fashioned component stereo more than powerful enough to aggravate everyone in my building. I still have a pair of speakers my father built for me in high school, more than 25 years ago—they survived a house fire in 1998 with only minor corrosion damage to the contacts in the rotary faders that control the tweeters.
I play Ahab’s “Further South.” The shuffle function brings up Swans’ “Avatar.” I skip to Wovenhand’s “Hiss,” then to Peter Brötzmann and Hamid Drake’s “Trees Have Roots in the Earth” and Ufomammut’s “Mindomine.” On Monday morning before dawn, I’m taking M. to see Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang perform one of their winter-solstice percussion duos—a ritual they’ve observed in Chicago for 25 years.
It’s time to meet J. for lunch, so I leave M. with a spare set of keys so she can let herself out. It’s cold enough to wear some of my favorite winter clothes: a double-breasted olive-colored peacoat, most likely from the 1940s, that a seamstress friend relined 13 years ago with dusty rose silk, and a scarf handmade by an old coworker from the undyed wool of a black Corriedale sheep she’d sheared herself. The coat was a donation from a different coworker after that house fire—a party guest had abandoned it at his apartment, and though it didn’t fit him, it might as well have been tailored for me.
I ride the Red Line south to the Lawrence bus, then take the bus west to Washtenaw. On the way I text my cousin’s wife, C., who’s messaged me to ask about sharing my practice space. I’ve been teaching myself to play double kick pedal for a few years, but I haven’t had a regular working band in that room since 2009. I need tenants to afford the rent. I make it down mostly on the weekends—the space is nine miles from my apartment—and that leaves plenty of time for other people to rehearse.
Someday I’ll find the right people to play brain-eroding weirdo metal with, so I want to stay in shape. I need to keep the calluses on my fingers.
On the bus I take a turn at Words With Friends, playing against my coworker B.—by any reckoning she’s an utter beast at this game, and I feel all right if she doesn’t double my score. I’m new to smartphones—I’ve had one for about three months—which means I’m just now getting into things that most folks were excited about six years ago. This situation provides an opportunity for younger people to patronize me, which they seem to enjoy.
J. has been a dear friend for 15 years, and used to play bass with me in a bonkers art-pop band called Brilliant Pebbles. His two daughters have blindingly blond hair thanks to H., their Norwegian mother. J. is ferociously, floridly intelligent and understands the creative power of nonsense better than anyone I know. He’s the main child-care provider in this marriage, and I think I can sum up the flavor of his parenting style in one story. Last week he and H. hosted a Santa Lucia potluck thronged with the rambunctious, precocious children of their friends and family. At one point J. and I were sitting cross-legged on the rug in the den when a little boy unknown to me tore around the corner from the dining room and flung himself desperately into J.’s lap. It seemed he’d tangled with J.’s daughter I., who has the temperament of a future dragon tamer. “Help! I. says she’s going to eat me!” the boy shriek-laughed. “Well, go get eaten then!” said J., radiant with magnanimity, as he shooed the kid back to the dining room.
J. and I walk to Nhu Lan for banh mi. I get the “special” (headcheese, paté, pork roll) and the lemongrass chicken. When we return to J.’s apartment, it’s clear that his daughters have decided not to see The Force Awakens after all. The night before, J. and H. checked it out on their own, and they’ve briefed the kids about a few potentially traumatizing scenes—L., the older daughter, has delicate sensibilities, and she doesn’t hesitate to peace out if a movie upsets her. She’ll just get up and walk out of the theater, and this usually means that J. or H. has to miss the rest of the picture.
I’m still finishing my sandwiches on the drive to the theater with J.—it’s just the two of us now, since H. is staying home and we’re meeting the other families there—and the explosively crusty bread showers drifts of crumbs onto my prized peacoat. I get obnoxiously anxious about the prospect of arriving at a movie theater late, so it’s probably good that I’ve made a mess to distract myself.
The Force Awakens ain’t art—if anything, it’s even more derivative of the original trilogy than the original trilogy was of its own inspirations—but I am hardly immune to professionally engineered fantasy fun times. The prequels were so leaden and joyless that it’s refreshing to see characters who simply seem to like each other. I appreciate that the filmmakers allowed Han Solo to be crusty and over the hill, instead of squeezing him back into the role as he’d played it decades ago. I like that there are jokes, even when they’re corny or pandering—not that anybody asked me, but I think ludicrously implausible space adventures should be lighthearted and funny, at least between the blaster massacres and planet-size explosions.
It’s nice that lightsabers feel like physical weapons again, not like glow sticks in a video game—when Kylo Ren fights Finn and Rey in a snowstorm, you can hear each falling flake as it sizzles on his blade. I also like the way this movie reminds us that its Darth Vader figure is still in his 20s—at least twice, he throws an adolescent tantrum and trashes a room with his lightsaber. One of the CGI set pieces even got to me—when Rey and Finn flew the Millennium Falcon through a derelict Star Destroyer, then shook off the pursuing TIE fighters by executing a beautiful hammerhead stall, I felt actual physical exhilaration. When action isn’t all quick-cut confusion—when you can actually tell what’s happening—it can be surprisingly satisfying.
J. and I stop at the Goose Island brewpub for a drink after the movie, since it’s a few blocks away. I order three adorably tiny glasses all at once, because I know we’ve only got time for one round but I want to try more than one beer. The Cermak German pilsner is floral, grassy, and peppery, with honey-sweet malts; the Mildly Cyrus English mild on nitro tastes like toast, toffee, cocoa, and prune; and the Milk Money milk stout, also on nitro, braids together chocolate, creme brulee, and toasted hazelnut. (I got over my reluctance to use “flavor words” a long time ago—if you want to write a craft-beer column, you have to make peace with the possibility that you’ll occasionally sound like an asshole.)
J. and I walk across the street to Binny’s, where I pick up a six-pack of Temperance Gatecrasher to take to the tamale-making party my friend C. is hosting across town (and a six-pack of Metropolitan Generator for myself—this beautiful doppelbock, a flawless and painfully short-lived seasonal release, is literally my favorite thing about December in Chicago). J. has gamely agreed to drop me off at C.’s on his way home, which saves me 30 or 40 minutes on the CTA.
At C.’s party, I find a seat at the kitchen table and take a few pointers about tamale making from the other guests. You’re supposed to arrange the corn husk so that its smooth side faces the interior of the finished tamale—this is news to me, because I’d never realized that corn husks have distinctly different sides. The raw masa is so white with lime that at first I mistake it for an improbably large bowl of farmer’s cheese. Two huge pots of pork tamales are already steaming—C. cooked the meat for 13 hours in a Dutch oven the day before, and it is fucking fantastic.
We’re making tamales filled with corn kernels, diced poblano peppers, and little cubes of silky cheese. We tie off the husks with lengths of blue yarn, which differentiates them from the pork tamales—they use red yarn. While I work, I try a barrel-aged pumpkin beer from Central Waters called Headless Heron—my buddy S., who always brings good shit to parties, is passing the bottle around. It might be the third pumpkin beer I’ve ever liked. I pick at a jar of kimchee with a stray fork I’ve found on the table, because I’ll eat kimchee with anything. When we run out of husks, I drift into the living room, where I shoot the shit with friends and ignore most of Home Alone playing on C.’s giant rear-projection TV.
I’ll have some difficulty reconstructing the rest of the evening in any detail, because people brought an awful lot of good beer to this party. At 8:04 PM, I put The Empire Strikes Back in the VCR. It’s a VHS release that predates the truly offensive “special editions,” but as much as I love Empire, I lose interest before the movie starts—Leonard Maltin is still interviewing George Lucas when I head back to the kitchen. M. was supposed to meet me here around seven, but her roommate has locked himself out of their apartment and she’s still waiting for him to get home so she can let him in. On the plus side, I have a can of High Life—the platonic ideal of the bowling-alley beer—and once I find a seat, C.’s adorable chihuahua, Fixie, hops up into my lap for scritches.
By the time I decide to take an Uber to M.’s, where her roommate still hasn’t showed, I’ve demonstrated to myself why I shouldn’t be left unsupervised at parties. I’m six beers deep, and while I could probably still recite the alphabet backward, I’m feeling no pain. The TV is showing the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Those little imaginary children sure can dance.
M. has ordered herself a cheese pizza and offers me some. Somehow I have the self-possession to stop after one slice. We engage in a shameful amount of Star Wars nerdery—she saw the new movie two days ago—and then sacrifice the rest of our dignity by deciding to watch Spaceballs on Netflix. (In for a penny, in for a pound.) She’s wearing nothing but a T-shirt that barely reaches her hips, and I’m pretty sure she knows how painfully sexy she is. I’d love to show her the salutary effect she’s having on me, but desire loses out to sleep deprivation—my long morning catches up with me, and I pass out 20 minutes into the movie.