My Favorite Things, 2023
Oh, the splendors of the year!
Happy Holidays, Machinists, however you choose to celebrate. It’s that time of year when suddenly everyone is busily searching their memories for the things that they most liked over the preceding twelve months. Often these rememberings come in clusters of ten, for reasons that science has not yet been able to explain. Here are the ten things that I appreciated over the course of the last year:
1. Eating in Portland
Whatever the doomsayers and the cynics are griping about, the restaurant scene in Portland is happily carrying on in its own inimitable, delectable way. I finally got my shit together to reach out to my old U of M comrade Gregory Gourdet and nab a reservation at his new Haitian-inspired spot, Kann. The food, as you’d expect from a dude of his culinary caliber, was mind-blowing. We went with a friend who eschewed the dairy and he was well looked-after — the whole menu is both dairy and gluten free. So those of you who do not dig the gluten (nor the dairy), this is your place. So good! Thanks, Greg!
2023 was also the year of Peter Cho and Sun Young Park’s continued vise-grip on the Korean food scene in town. This dominance began with their first spot, Han Oak, and has only grown — they’ve now got a place, Toki, where the old Tasty & Sons used to be, downtown, and a family-style Korean BBQ place in SE called Jeju. We were there for my birthday in October (which is also Carson’s birthday, but the grammar of that double possessive is a hobgoblin if ever there was one) and we got roped into singing “Fairytale of New York” on the bar karaoke machine.
Colin Meloy's Machine Shop is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
2. Lisa O’Neill and Glen Hansard singing “Fairytale of New York”
Speaking of the greatest Christmas song of all time, I don’t know if you caught this, but the surviving Pogues reunited over Shane’s wicker casket this past week to play some songs. Spider Stacy did a particularly moving “Parting Glass” and Lisa O’Neill joined Glen Hansard in a really affecting version of “Fairytale.” Glen choking up on that last verse — “I could’ve been someone…” — only underscored the power of the song and the life of the man who wrote it. What a party this memorial looked to be — there, in the background, is former Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan and Hothouse Flowers’ Liam Ó Maonlaí singing (and privately penny whistling!) along. Oh, to be a Dubliner.
3. The Replacements — Tim “Let It Bleed” Edition
There’s like some kind of Replacements Reissue Industrial Complex being built over the last few years, and I, for one, will be all the poorer for it. Listen, they are all good. These records were good to begin with — remastering and reissuing them with extra tracks and new mixes is an unequivocal good for humanity — but this last one, the “Let It Bleed” Edition of Tim, was the one we deserved all along. Famed for its nearly mono mix and 80’s drums, The Replacements’ 1985 major label debut has always been a lopsided affair: great songs, terrible recording. This new version tries to create some kind of equilibrium. It’s a revelation. Suddenly, the songs shine through — the drums sound like they were played by a human being and the stereo spread breathes new life into a sonic palette that, if you’re like me, has been etched on to your frontal cortex since you were a teenager. Of course, I went back and listened to the original mixes, fully prepared to heap scorn on them, and I found myself almost wistful, nostalgic, for the awful drums sounds and the tinny reverb. The reissue managed to make Tim a record that could live in 2023, but what did it lose in the process?
4. Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up
I’m no arbiter of how art and artists should be represented in film and books, but I’ve seen my fair share of clunky attempts — ones done by myself included, probably. It’s not easy! How do you document the creative process with all its epiphanies and dead-ends, its embarrassments and breakthroughs, without coming across as either pretentious or overly obscurant? People make art, they grow as artists, they take baby steps and giant leaps and prat falls — why does it look so bad in the movies or in books? Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up is a total outlier. I might be biased; this movie definitely plays on my own nostalgia for a Portland of old, back when I was a poor, young thing trying to make art in this city. But it’s so good and so human — and it manages to portray the struggle of making art as something that is vital and good, while also making room for the goofiness of it all too.
5. Gabrielle Bell — Inappropriate
I don’t know how people can make a top 10 list of things that exclusively came out in the last year — unless you happen to be a professional critic or something. I might’ve read one or two books that were actually published in 2023 — I’m in no position to rate them against their contemporaries. What I will say is this: I read a lot of great books this year! And one of them was Gabrielle Bell’s excellent and funny graphic novel Inappropriate which was (checks notes) published in 2020. That was not only three years ago, but was maybe fifteen years in COVID time. I’ve followed her on Instagram for a long time, though she’s not a very regular poster, bless her heart. I came across this book while biding time at the Oregon City Public Library, which boasts one of the finer collections of graphic novels this side of the Tualatin River. Or that side. Whatever. Anyway, there is a fine vein of writers working in graphic novels today who are not afraid to put their intimate lives on the page, warts and all, and Gabrielle is one of the finer practitioners of that courageous art. She seems to revel in laying out her darkest and weirdest proclivities for all the world to see and we’re the better for it.
6. A Working Door
This one hits different. The door on the machine shop (the real machine shop, not The Machine Shop, which doesn’t have a door) has been so busted for so long — it was one of those details that I skipped over during the renovation. It closed, it latched, it locked — that’s fine. But over time, I came to know its deficiencies. There was a, like, 3 cm gap around the whole door jamb that let in cold air and bugs. In the winter, the door would swell and wouldn’t shut — you’d have to throw your whole shoulder against it to make it latch. It was a hassle; it was a bummer. Carson, as my big Christmas gift last year, offered to replace it. Not replace it herself, but deal with the hassle of having someone replace it. It took months and months — I won’t go into the details here — but finally I have a door that closes (so satisfyingly, I might add) and opens with ease; it sits inside a bespoke door jamb that no longer lets in Oregon’s icy winter draughts. I’ve never been so pleased by a door in my life.
7. Claire Keegan’s Foster
Again, not a book from 2023. But still: a book I read in 2023 that I really loved. I wrote about it a bit in a previous post, but I’ll just restate here: it’s rare to find a story so simple and succinct and yet will tear your heart out by the end. I still do no know whether or not what I read was a ghost story, and I love it for that. I watched the movie adaptation, The Quiet Girl, on a plane recently and while I would absolutely recommend the movie — it’s a stunner — I will say that trying to represent that pivotal moment at the end of the book, the gut punch moment, is clearly a fool’s errand. I won’t go into detail, lest I spoil the moment for those who haven’t read it, but seeing the filmmakers fall short renewed my faith in the fact that there are certain things that can only be experienced via the written word, despite all the wild wonders that film brings to our senses — and it made me love the book all the more for it.
I still bawled my eyes out at the end. On the plane. And this was after having just watched Nomadland, which also made me bawl my eyes out. Christ, I’m a crybaby.
8. This passage from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
I started reading this book a few days ago; it’s a doorstop at 1400 pages, but already I’m pretty gripped by the writing. Here’s West on a train, arriving at a railway station in Yugoslavia:
I leaned out of the window. Rain was falling heavily, and the mud shone between the railway tracks. An elderly man, his thin body clad in a tight-fitting, flimsy overcoat, trotted along beside the train, crying softly, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ He held an open umbrella not over himself but at arm's length. He had not brought it for himself, but for the beloved woman he was calling. He did not lose hope when he found her nowhere in all the long train, but turned and trotted all the way back, calling still with anxious sweetness, 'Anna! Anna! Anna!' When the train steamed out he was trotting along it for a third time, holding his umbrella still further away from him. A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain. I was among people I could understand.
It kind of explains my own love and connection with you Eastern European types.
9. Watching Movies on the Side of a Barn
Perhaps one of my life’s great extravagances was the project Carson and I (with a great deal of assistance from our friend Jacob who is handy and has a very tall ladder) undertook this summer to hang a film screen from the side of our 1908 gambrel roof barn. This is clearly something that the Schatzes, the builders of the barn and third owners of our farm, had in mind when they designed it back at the turn of the twentieth century. We are only seeing their vision through. Outdoor movies are a real pleasure, despite the restrictions around them: it must not be raining and it must be dark, so if you intend on watching a movie at the height of summer, get ready for a 10 pm showtime. We got it up in August but a warm early fall let us host a movie night on a gorgeous 70+ degree evening for our birthday on October 5. We watched Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Time Bandits. Other movies shown: Sorcerer, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Better Off Dead, Clash of the Titans and one of those Puss N Boots movies for Milo and his friends during a sleepover. If ever you get a chance to hang a movie screen on the side of some building near your house — or even your house itself — please do. Sate the desires of your property’s long dead owners; have an outdoor movie night.
10. Making Music
This list is long; I’ll make this one brief. One of my great joys this year was returning to the studio with a bunch of songs I was excited about and getting on with the arduous and joyful task of making a record with my friends. I am forever fortunate to have that in my life, here thirty years on from the first time I ever set foot in a recording studio to make my own music. And I have you all to thank for that, principally. Happy holidays, Machinists. Thanks for being here.