Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Short Days

You know what's nice? The days are getting longer again. What a huge relief. On Tuesday, I went to a Solstice party in Kensington Market. In previous years, I've marked the longest night of the year by a) doing nothing or b) getting schnockered with my mom. This year, I went to a street party comprised equally of children, hippies, and drunk hipsters, and I have to say, this was kind of a hoot.

I mean, I did my best to carry on the tradition of solstice tipsiness: we had some drinks after the bonfire, including Dieu du ciel's Solstice d'hiver and Great Lakes's Winter Ale. This past summer, I was all about Mill Street's totally drinkable Lemon Tea Ale, but the darker, spicier brews I tried on the solstice felt cozier and warmed the belly (and the blood - the Solstice d'hiver was a whopping 10.2% alcohol, which meant the half-bottle I drank went straight to my head and made me slurry in under ten minutes.)

But that was after. The event itself was a mini-parade of folks and their paper lanterns, leading each other down to Alexandra Park for the bonfire. I suffered with absolutely zero view, although I by the time I left the bonfire, I could tell you everything about the hoods on the coats of the girls in front of my face. Apparently there were fire spinners and native dancers, whose singers I definitely heard, and was thrilled by. I know it's super white of me to be all, "I love Native singers!" without being able to identify, like, specific tribes in that, but y'all know what I'm talking about when I say that, so let's not make each other feel bad. My special friend and I shared a Thermos full of tea and leaned on each other for a better view. And after the cultural expressions, the fire breathers lit up the bonfire, which was in the shape of a raven, and whose light warmed the faces of the entire crowd.

I struggle some in the short days, and I know I'm not alone. My friends Mike and Amanda wake up before the sun rises and leave work a scant fifteen minutes before it sets. Canadians suffer from chronic vitamin D deficiencies in the winter, a result of endless overcast days and less effective sunshine when it does break through. It's hard on people to be stranded in darkness, and endless night, aside from being an up-and-coming horror movie trope, is often a metaphor for death. Sometimes, in the bleak Toronto winters, it's easy to dramatically throw myself down on my mattress and declare, in my best middle-school voice, that I'm moving to New Mexico and I'm never coming back.

Which is a dirty lie. I love Toronto, and I even like winter most of the time. The wind cuts and the snow makes me crazy, but it beats the hell out of summer, which is when I want to move into a walk-in freezer and never come back. Truth be told, I'm at my best in the middle months, when the clocks change and the leaves are doing interesting stuff. I think a lot of people can identify with my not-at-all groundbreaking stance: room temperature is awesome.

But there's something to be said about looking around a crowd of bundled up, chilly people who have come out to bear witness to a long, slow, cold season. I feel better than I have in a long time, and while I know some of that has to do with my new special friend, old friends being around, and generally enjoying the Christmas season, I think marking the solstice definitely helped. So: enjoy the winter season. And think about a crowd of chilly people trying to stay warm together as they wait for the old year to burn away and turning their faces towards the light.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Open Letter to Hipsters

It's my 200th post, and since I woke up with a sore throat, I've decided to don my finest pair of cranky pants and tell you all to get off my lawn. So to speak. Or to attack the very premise this blog has been based on. Namely: do hipsters even exist any more?

I mean, okay, yeah, sure, they do. There are plenty of folks with their fingers on the pulse of heart of the scene, or something equally meaningless. Writers and their editors, musicians and their internet admirers, fashion mavens and students, techno-geeks and media obsessives: they're all part of the hipster scene, still, because every generation and every city has its strata of people who are devoted to the New and the Now.

But when Leah McLaren (hiss!) puppy-dog-eyes the hipsters of Toronto's Queen West as "cute...with their porno mustaches, their ironic 8-track collection [and] their penchant for Top-Siders," it's enough to rage-grind my teeth into nubs. She trots out the Brooklyn-and-Berlin demographic, again, as if we haven't all heard about those neighbourhoods and cities as the epicentres of cooldom for the past, oh, decade. It'd be cute if she wasn't behaving like my grandma - this backlash began quite some time ago, Leah - and getting paid handsomely by the Globe to do it. Eye Weekly's Kate Carraway, in her brief survey of 2010's hipster scene, asks why hipsters have been dismissed as frivolous: "why these items and ideas — the straw-man black-framed glasses and who-cares-y-ness and the emphasis on detailed knowledge of art and culture mini-movements — are so potent for, say, half of a generation who have some access to an allowance and the internet. Writing off the unmanageable emotional ennui of the post-coddled, the deadening consumerism that the 1990s wrought and the subtlest class warfare probably EVER — while not even attempting to grasp why Vice's safe anarchy made total sense to millions of teenagers — is a serious Grown-Up Problem."

Carraway raises more of a point than McLaren, although I might just be biased. The whys and wherefores of the hipster isn't an issue rating a thesis it?

Challenge accepted! I came of age in a time when hipsters were just starting to resurface in pop culture. "Hipster" was previously an old-person word, more attached to the wanderings of Kerouac than the stylish pop music of Vampire Weekend. But as our culture moved into the new millennium, "hipster" started to mean someone who was posturingly cool: Marc Jacobs advertising campaigns, a sneered lip at white-bread teen comedies, more serious pop music. In a post-Britney world, a pair of black-rimmed glasses signified a rejection of all that bourgeois prepackaged bullshit. Ceci n'est pas les Ray-Bans, right? The internet brought emerging trends to the forefront like no tastemaking magazine could - websites devoted to "street style" curated fashionable looks from all over the planet into easy-to-ape slideshows, and the explosion of vintage stores and online shopping meant an escape from the mall's dreary sameness.

And then there's that other thing. I was seventeen years old in 2001, an year that was widely touted as bringing us "the death of irony." I know, it's lame to blame stuff on the World Trade Centre attacks, but it's hard to dismiss that moment as the defining pop culture moment of my generation, at least until they release the Hoverboards. The comfortable middle class had been attacked - okay, not really, but you'd never know it based on all the hysterical news coverage of A Post-9/11 World. The comfortable middle class's teenagers and college-aged students were thrust into a world that was suddenly less excited about looking forward into a newly scary world. Our popular culture longed for the pre-terrorism days, a nostalgic look back in time to when America (read: fancy white people) were mighty and powerful beings.

We ended up with fashion designers who ripped off 1980s punks in a bid for edginess, or bands who were compared (favourably!) to Hall and Oates. Hell, even the much-derided Tron has come back into style. What passes for edgy is often a ill-communicated attempt at politics: remember those controversial keffiyehs? Even war protests came with its own accessory.I know fashion is cyclical, but it seems weird that so much of what's considered "cool" these days has its origins in a hipster's childhood. Teens and 20-somethings are often folks with some cash; without a kid to support, or with the firm financial truss of living at home, we can blow our disposable income on, well, disposable stuff: beer, sunglasses, mp3s. And it's undeniably comforting to have these motifs of the past surrounding us. The uber-maligned Pabst Blue Ribbon, long rejected as the beer of hipsters, has been around since 1893, but its sales peaked in 1977 - right around the time our parents were hipsters themselves. In the new millennium, what we all seem to be longing for is a taste of what we had before.

We're feeding on leftovers, and hipsters, who, in a different generation would have been excoriated for recycling their parents' trends, have been praised for it. We like comfort. We like sameness - how many times have you heard someone exclaim, "Hipsters! They think they're sooo special, but they all look the same!" Maybe this media ripple about hipsters and their place in the world will force some of our generation's tastemakers to expand our collective horizons. Instead of lauding dingy dive bars, retro-inspired fashions, retread music and movie pitches, and the utter refusal to get our shit together, move out, on and up in the world, we can start making our own new stuff. I'm hungry for the Next Big Thing, not the last gasp of a now-futile demographic.