Posted in dating, Music, pop culture, relationships

It Was Rare, and I Remember It All Too Well

Time check, its 4am on day 3 of my mandatory hotel quarantine and I’m slowly starting to go insane. I’m surprised my sister and I haven’t killed each other yet after being forced to tolerate each other’s company in such close quarters. I love my sister, and I’m sure she loves me too, but siblings were not meant to live in each other’s pockets all the damn time, especially if one of those siblings (AKA me) has a penchant for playing Taylor Swift songs on repeat.

Could you blame me though?

Ms. Swift has just released a re-recording of her Grammy-nominated album Red, which contains, among other hit songs, what is generally considered to be the best song she’s ever written: the magnificence that is All Too Well. And, just because she is the Queen of Extra, she’s released a 10-minute version of this ode to autumnal heartbreak and dancing in refrigerator lights and red scarfs, accompanied by a truly harrowing short film which she directed and starred in.

Since the song was released, I find my thoughts straying time and time again to Jake Gyllenhaal, widely believed to be the inspiration behind this song. It truly isn’t a good time to be Jake right now. He is being roasted in all corners of the internet, and is the subject of hilarious tweets and memes on social media. As a self-confessed Swiftie, I should be all over this. But more often than not, I find myself cringing just a little bit at the outpouring of hate and vitriol towards the other half of this supposed relationship.

Before I get blasted for supporting the patriarchy and defending a guy that the majority of the Twitter population now consider a scumbag, let me explain. I am not taking away Taylor’s right to express her feelings through her chosen medium. She’s a gifted songwriter, and that is due in large part to her ability to draw from her own experience and turn them into lyrics that perfectly capture moments that we can all relate to. When you listen to her songs, it makes you feel less alone, and less stupid. Because if someone like her can go through something like that and survive, then maybe there’s hope for you.

I think my discomfort stems from the fact that all this palaver over what is essentially – READ MY LIPS – a three-month relationship (yep, it boggles the mind) hits a little close to home. Taylor is re-treading the stomping grounds of her old heartbreak, the added verses to All Too Well giving us a better insight into what she went through whilst in that relationship.

This all happened 10 years ago and yet she’s still singing about it, still talking about it, and even though she’s moved on and is presumably a lot happier now, all evidence suggests that she will probably never get over it. She will be carrying those Mysterio-shaped scars to her grave, singing about little kids in glasses and twin-sized beds until her last dying breath.

And damn me if I’m not able to relate to that just a little.

We all have them, okay? Whether its the one that got away, or the ex that dumped you in the most brutal manner possible, or (in my case) the unrequited love that is the One Great Love of my life, we all have that one person we constantly bring up in conversations, whose name sounds different when it passes through our lips, whose impact peppers our lives even as the years pass without any meaningful contact from them whatsoever.

They become our inspiration and our muse. I for sure know that I’m at my best as a writer when I’m writing about Him, and I write about Him a lot. If everything I’ve written about that period of my life were to be compiled into a single volume it would be as thick as War and Peace.

At first, I wrote about him as a way of letting go of the past and all the feelings that came with it. There was a lot to unload. Love is at its most devastating when its unreciprocated, after all. Then, I wrote about him as a way of validating that it was love, albeit the one-sided kind. I think I wanted to convince myself that I didn’t waste my best years chasing after someone who could never love me back.

I felt the need to justify why I shouldn’t feel regret that I held on longer than I probably should have, and that at the end of the day it was better to have loved and lost and blah blah blah.

Then there came a time when writing about it just became fun. Yes, there are certain memories that still make me cringe, that make me want to go back in time so I can tell my younger self not to be so bloody stupid. BUT. There is a certain kind of exhilaration that comes over you when you realise that it doesn’t hurt so much anymore, that you can actually laugh about it and make fun of the experiences that have shaped so much of the person you become.

People always say that success is the sweetest revenge, but I think laughter is right up there with it.

I think a part of me objects to all this airing of dirty laundry in public. There should only be two people in a relationship, but we live in an age where we invite so many people (too many people, in my opinion) into what is essentially a sacred and private thing, regardless of whether you’re a celebrity or not. I think the best thing Taylor has ever done was to NOT talk about her current partner, and I think the older I get the more value I see in keeping aspects of my private life, well, private.

There’s a line towards the end of the 10-minute version that goes like this:

Just between us, do you remember it all too well?

I think that more than anything encapsulates Taylor’s original intentions for this song. Sure, the savvy businesswoman in her probably anticipated (and even encouraged) the publicity that came with the speculation over what happened with Jake, but the 31-year old who is reflecting back on the relationship shines through in the intimacy of those last few lyrics.

It’s worth mentioning that the last few verses of the 10-minute version felt more nostalgic than angry, and it gave me chills the first time I listened to it, and not just because I’m genetically programmed to love a Jack Antonoff production. No, its the same kind of feeling I get when I listen to Gwen Stefani’s Cool.

Its the peace that comes with knowing that when all is said and done, you’re okay with it all. Because at the end of the day, cheesy as it sounds, maybe it is better to have loved and lost and blah blah blah.

So here’s to you, you know who you are. Here’s to the memories, and for remembering them all too well.

Posted in Books, Music, pop culture, Reviews

Book Review: Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen

The Boss needs no introduction. Even those of us who were mere blimps in our parents’ minds (I doubt I was even a concept in mine) when he released his biggest hits would have heard his songs, or some iteration of it, at least once: Blinded By the Light, Glory Days, Born in the USA, perhaps even a teeny tiny song called Dancing in The Dark whose music video featured a then-unknown young actress who would someday grow up to be Monica Geller.

I personally have very fond memories of Bruce and his music. Both are inescapably linked with my memories of growing up. I can still recall sneaking my uncle’s limited edition 2-disc Bruce Springsteen and the E-street Band Greatest Hits CD out of the living room cupboard late at night so I can listen to Thunder Road on repeat as I go to sleep, and then waking up at dawn so I can sneak it back in before he’s had the chance to notice it was gone.

In hindsight, I honestly don’t know why I didn’t just ask to borrow it but there you go.

For some reason, Bruce seemed to have experienced some kind of renaissance during the pandemic. He was everywhere during the first, second, and (for those of us in the UK) third lockdown; at least, it felt that way to me.

He was in all my running playlists because you simply can’t finish a run without playing (wait for it) Born to Run. His Broadway show was on Netflix, he had a weekly Spotify podcast with Barack Obama, he was showing young ‘uns like Jack Antonoff and Brandon Flowers how its done in songs like Chinatown and A Dustland Fairytale, and leaving them in the dust even at the ripe old age 70.

So ubiquitous was his presence that I felt compelled to buy a copy of his memoir, aptly titled Born to Run, from Blackwell’s in Oxfordshire of all places, because Waterstones and Amazon were no longer selling the hardbound edition. And after the slow start of the first few chapters, where it felt like he was still struggling to find his voice, I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Boss can really write, and that I actually gave a damn about what he had to say.

I found that although our lives are about as different as night and day, Bruce Springsteen’s story is universal, and in reading his memoir, I felt seen, heard, and understood.

Bruce in his younger years was the consummate perfectionist, who lived with all the voices in his head telling him he wasn’t good enough. Like me, he needed his people. This is why he brought the guys of the E-street band with him all the way up to the stratospheric heights of success he achieved, because he knew the experiences would be meaningless if you don’t have anyone to share it with.

Bruce had his demons. He was very forthright with his mental health struggles and his turbulent relationship with his father, but only to an extent. Despite his public persona, and despite the glimpses of his true self he allows us to see through his music, he is an intensely private man. He describes the reasons for this perfectly when he said:

Trust is a fragile thing. It requires allowing others to see as much of ourselves as we have the courage to reveal.

I like how he remained true to himself, and honest about who he is, faults and all. Most people give in to the temptation to edit their life story and make themselves look good. He went almost the opposite way. There was a sense of self-deprecation underlying everything that he wrote which makes the book immensely readable.

Bruce is the anti-thesis to the everyday working man who holds a 9-to-5 job, secure in the knowledge of where his next pay check is coming from even if said pay check is meagre as hell after taxes, pension, and additional deductions because payroll totally screwed up in calculating your National Insurance contributions so you’re now having to pay back that salary increase you thought you had earned. (Sorry, I didn’t realise I was still bitter about that).

Bruce’s story is everything that mine isn’t: taking risks, taking chances, holding on to your dream even when you were down to your last dollar, virtually homeless and living off the goodwill of your friends. I could not live like that. I sometimes ask myself why I never pursued a career in the entertainment industry, and the answer, apart from my obvious lack of acting skills or musical talent, is that I do not have the constitution to live under the threat of poverty as I wait for my dreams to come true.

Sometimes I wish I was the kind of person who could choose the road less travelled, instead of the one who makes the safe choices every time the road diverges. Because even though examples are few and far in between, if you want it bad enough and you work hard enough, you can pull out and win. Thunder Road is one of my favourite songs in the world because it is a love letter to possibilities, to those who have beaten the odds and won.

Most of us will live out our lives living perfectly normal existences, and that’s okay. There is joy to be found in the ordinary. I actually think the ordinary is underrated, and in his later years Bruce Springsteen himself will reflect on the value of simple things, of family, and of love.

But I think we need the Bruce Springsteens and the Thunder Roads of the world because of what they represent: POSSIBILITIES.

More than anything in my life right now, this is the one thing that gets me out of bed and gets me all excited. The idea of possibilities. The wish, the dream, and the hope that something extraordinary could be waiting around the corner.

Whenever I start to feel like the best years of my life are behind me, I think of Bruce, I think of Thunder Road, and I think of possibilities.

Then I smile, knowing that there’s always going to be some magic left in the night.

Overall book rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Posted in Books, pop culture, romance, Women's literature

Is Romance Dead: My Views on the Romance Novel Genre

The romance genre has not always gotten the recognition or respect that, in my personal opinion, it rightly deserves. At best, people who consider themselves “serious” readers think of it as a bit of fluff that women read to pass the time (mom porn is a turn of phrase popular among critics); at worst (and especially after the admittedly ridiculous 50 shades of grey trilogy was published) it has been scathingly referred to as destructive, morally questionable and responsible for the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

A part of me is tempted to roll my eyes and tell people to relax, its just fiction, but as an aspiring writer myself I fully believe in the power of the written word. And let’s face it, some of those romance novel tropes are repugnant: sex that’s bordering on non-consensual if not outright rape, the fact that some books lead readers to believe that people really have nothing better to do than obsess about their love life all day, the way women are portrayed as overly dramatic damsels in distress and men the conquering heroes who will arrive just in time to solve our problems, usually in the form of a marriage proposal. Some of them are so badly written, its a crime that they’ve even been published.

Thanks to the new Netflix adaptation of Bridgerton, based on a series of books by Julia Quinn, I have spent the better part of the Christmas holidays reacquainting myself with romance novels. Lockdown being what it is, and being the voracious reader that I am, I’ve somehow managed to finish around 10 in a matter of days, including some of my favourites in the Bridgerton series.

It felt like a return to childhood. I can still remember hunting down secondhand copies of these books because they didn’t used to stock them regularly in the country’s only bookstore (at the time); or eagerly anticipating my aunt coming home from the US because she used to bring a whole heap of them. As I re-read old favourites on my Kindle and discovered some new ones, I found myself laughing out loud in a way I haven’t done with any book in a long long time. In addition, I was happy to find that the really good ones have more overt undertones of feminism and acceptance, reflective of the changing landscape of society, this growing belief that “women don’t owe you pretty”, and the female gender’s need to assert ourselves as equals.

Gone are the vapid, insipid, damsels in distress. These badass women save themselves. They have their own source of income, they are independent, their life is complete with or without a husband.

Gone are the perfect heroines with tiny waists and delicate constitutions. Heck, Julia Quinn’s Penelope Featherington was compared to a citrus fruit and one of Eloisa James’ characters is nicknamed The Scottish Sausage.

Needless to say, I identified with those two heroines the most.

Despite the welcome changes, love is still the first order of business. Its called a ROMANCE novel after all. And ah, how grandly and beautifully love is portrayed in these books. When I finished them, I was almost willing to believe (once again) that true love does exist, that there is such a thing as forever, despite numerous evidence suggesting otherwise. And that, i think, is what makes romance novels so widely scorned.

I think all of the genre’s purported crimes can be mostly overlooked or even forgiven were it nor for the romance novel’s greatest sin: the fact that it has the audacity to tell us that its okay to hope. In this day and age, you run the risk of being laughed at for even so much as hinting that you still believe, in your heart of hearts, buried under layers of cynicism, in knights in shining armour and fairy tale endings; for admitting that you in fact still listen (more times than you care to admit) to Disney songs proclaiming faith in some random prince that might someday come.

This is the real crime of romance novels, that it dares to ask us to BELIEVE.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read romance novels. I really don’t think I would be who I am today, for better or worse, without them being such a huge part of my formative years. I blame them for my slightly unrealistic expectations of what relationships are meant to be, and I thank them for the relentless optimism that makes me believe that things will always get better, that something wonderful is waiting just around the corner.

These days, we could all use a little hope, a little optimism, a little wonder. Its what got me through the worst year in recent history, its what’s getting me through the prospect of an extended lockdown. And if only for that reason, romance novels will always have a place in my bookshelf, and in my heart.

If you’re new to romance novels, here are a few reading suggestions that, in my opinion, are the best representation of the genre:

1. The Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn – of course. Penelope Featherington is my ride and die.

2. How to Marry a Marquis – also by Julia Quinn and in my opinion, even better than the Bridgerton series.

3. Remembrance by Jude Deveraux – cried buckets of tears with this one.

4. The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas – St. Vincent is one of my favourite heroes EVER. Gotta love them bad boys and reformed rakes.

5. The Key Trilogy by Nora Roberts – in my opinion she should have retired after this series…it all kinda went downhill from there.

6. Romancing The Duke by Tessa Dare – absolutely fabulous. I was smiling the whole way through. In fact, read the whole series.

7. On a Wild Night by Stephanie Laurens – she tends to be a bit long winded but I love the plot of this one.

8. Duchess By Night by Eloisa James – hilarious, poignant, one of her best works. In fact, read everything she published before 2017. It all sort of went downhill after that.

9. The Magic of You by Johanna Lindsey – the Malorys are the best. And the books in this series were less rapey than some of her other works.

10. Whitney My Love by Judith McNaught – if you’re in the mood to be a masochist, read this book and all the books connected to it. Its absolutely painful to read but ugghhh, they’re so entertaining.

I hope you enjoy reading these books as much as I once did. And may hope spring ever eternal. xx

Posted in pop culture, Self-Discovery, sport

The Last Dance, Being Like Mike and My College Traumas

Lockdown is making people feel all kinds of nostalgic. Its understandable: the present is looking a little bleak at the moment, and no one knows what’s going to happen in the future, so we comfort ourselves with thoughts of the past. My extended family has taken to sending old photographs in our messenger group, including some of myself that has led me to conclude that I was a cute baby but a freakin’ ugly kid who then grew up to be an okay-looking adult.

I could be an emoji

Anyway, I don’t think it gets anymore nostalgic than The Last Dance, a sports docu-series that’s currently on Netflix which tells the story of the 1997-98 championship winning season of the Chicago Bulls, starring the great Michael Jordan. Its made a lot of people into three-week basketball fans; its had such an impact that its even trending in the UK, a country where – when I first arrived and said I didn’t like football because I’ve grown up watching basketball instead, people looked at me like I had horns sprouting from my head.

Watching this documentary brings home the fact that so many of my childhood memories are centred around those Saturday NBA games on ESPN when we would all gather around the telly watching Michael do a lay-up or a fadeaway or another dunk – basically anything humanly (sometimes inhumanly) possible to win the game. I’ve been watching the episodes with my sister, who’s not a big sports fan but nonetheless could almost reflexively identify all the important players of that era even now, 23 year later.

I remember watching my brother and my male classmates go through a period where they worshipped everything Jordan-related. If a genie had appeared before my brother at age 8 I believe he would have asked for a pair of Air Jordans without so much as batting an eyelash. His face when my aunt finally sent one over from the States is what I imagine mine would be when I finally meet the love of my life (yeah, I just had to get that in there lol).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care what other people say but nothing compares to watching a really good game of basketball, especially when you’re invested in the team and the players, as a fan or as a person. And I think the magic of MJ is in the way he makes you feel invested; he pulls you in with that attitude and that determination to win at all costs. There’s something to be said about a guy who believes in playing at the highest caliber at all times, because if you don’t, what’s the point in playing at all? Hey Mike, I want a sip of your Gatorade.

Watching this series, and getting to know the person behind the legend, I realise that I don’t really like Michael Jordan and I think a lot of people will agree with me; he’s kind of a dick. But I think people not liking him is a price he’s willing to pay for being GREAT at what he does. They don’t need to hug him on his way to the basket, they just need to get out of the way. I find myself wondering a lot of times while watching this series whether it was better to be liked or to be respected, and whether it was possible to be both.

When I was younger I used to be quite arrogant and a bit full of myself. I was probably masking some deep deep insecurities (which may or may not have been related to my weight issues) but the one thing I always had going for me was my intelligence. I knew I was smart. I was first on the honour roll from kindergarten onwards. I graduated class valedictorian in high school and had so many medals around my neck after the graduation ceremony you could hear them clanking as I walked.

Then I started college and for the first time I was around people who a) have not been my classmates since we were practically in diapers and b) who were just as if not more intelligent than I was. Suddenly I was in a class where we had 14 valedictorians and about half as many salutatorians. It was a whole other playing field. And like MJ (just so we don’t lose the thread here! Haha) I revelled in that. I pushed myself hard and I was determined to be the best of the best.

I’m a really competitive person. I want to win. I don’t want to do something if I can’t be great at it. I don’t believe in mediocrity. That attitude has gotten me to where I am today. But my greatest weakness has always been caring too much about what other people think. I have this pathological need to be universally liked. And in college, I rubbed a lot of people off the wrong way because what I thought was me being determined (and okay, showing off a little) most people saw as me being a complete bitch with a superiority complex. I still cringe at the thought of how much people I now call friends must have hated me in college. Oh well. At least they like me now.

Needless to say, I graduated college with one medal, a lot of friends, a more humble attitude and a greater appreciation of my place in the great circle of life.

Why am I suddenly bringing this up? I suppose its because I wonder where I would be if I had the same attitude as Mike…the whole isolation is the price of winning mentality that seems to be a characteristic of the greats. Is it worth it? Or is the old adage true, that its incredibly lonely up top all by yourself? I’m sure my feelings would have been different if you asked me when I was younger, but with the wisdom of old age I can say (with only a slight hesitation) that I would rather have friends than reluctant admirers. I would rather have people who will be there for me no matter what, even and especially if I fail – and its almost a guarantee that you will fail at some point in your life.

As usual I’ve managed to make this about me but whatever.

Takeaway messages from The Last Dance: Dennis Rodman is a Dude, Steve Kerr is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last and you should never judge a book by its cover, Scottie Pippen deserved better and finally, it takes a village. MJ wasn’t winning championships until he had a winning team. 72-10, baby.

P.S. this blog is in part dedicated to the guy whose job it was to shout “What time is it?” during the Bulls’ pre-game huddle. You, my man, are an icon.