2016 Conference Championship Picks

And in this season that I have not enjoyed at all (I even missed the epic Cards-Packers game on Saturday), we’re down to the final four. Last week I once again went 3-for-4 in my picks (although I was just 2-for-4 against the spread). How do I feel about this weekend? Well, I’m about 99 percent sure of how one of these games will go … and I have no idea what’s going to happen in the other one. Let’s go with the sure thing—which just happens to be Sunday’s early game—first.

New England at Denver

I’ve written this a million times, and I will never, ever stop believing it: Tom Brady is this generation’s equivalent of Joe Montana, and Peyton Manning is this generation’s Dan Marino. One is a consummate winner; the other puts up gaudy stats but comes up short in the playoffs. (Note: I am not saying that Brady is as good as Montana, and frankly, I am very much NOT looking forward to the two weeks of Brady/Montana stories we’re going to get with the Super Bowl being in San Francisco the Niners’ home stadium.) I will always, always, always pick Brady over Manning—especially this version of Manning, who is physically shot. It just feels right that Peyton should lose his final playoff game, at home, to his longtime rival, doesn’t it? I’m calling this one Patriots 26, Broncos 13.

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I am already sick of this photo

Arizona at Carolina

In this game, on the other hand, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I think these are pretty clearly the two best teams in the NFL, and I’ve been stoked about the prospect of this matchup for weeks. Both teams have hard-hitting, aggressive defenses, and both have big-play capabilities on offense (the Cards through their passing game, the Panthers through their running game). Before the Division round, I felt pretty confident that Arizona was the better of these teams, thanks to all of their downfield weapons, but the Green Bay game shook me. Specifically, it reminded me that Carson Palmer has never gone this deep in the playoffs. Of course, neither has Cam Newton, but Newton played with confidence in the Panthers’ win over the Seabitches, while Palmer looked like the shaky, turnover-prone QB he was during his Raiders days, not the MVP candidate we saw this year. I still think Arizona is a better team from top to bottom, but I just have a feeling that Palmer is going to kill them with a big turnover at exactly the worst time. So, in what I’m pretty sure will be the game of the year, I’m taking the Panthers, in overtime, 33-27. Dab it, Cam.

kmEmrr

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2016 Divisional Round Picks

As usual, my Wild Card picks last week illustrated just how little I know about football. I thought Chiefs-Texans would be a tight game; instead, it was a blowout. I thought Pittsburgh and Seattle would beat Cincy and Minnesota easily; instead, the Steelers and Seabitches both needed epic chokes from their opponents in order to advance. I thought Green Bay was toast; instead, the Pakers beat the Racial Slurs by 17. So, even though I was actually 3-for-4 last week (albeit just 1-for-4 against the spread), I don’t feel any more knowledgeable about this week’s games. But not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me before, so here are this weekend’s picks.

Kansas City at New England

The Chiefs are the hottest team in football, having won 11 in a row. The Pats looked pretty beat up and pretty bad the last few weeks of the season. But still, it’s Belichick and Brady vs. Andy Reid and Alex Smith. Gotta go with the Pats, right? Maybe not. Granted, this was a million years ago in football time, but the Chiefs crushed the eventual Super Bowl champ Pats early last season, and they’ve retained the formula to do it: ball-control offense, a murderous pass rush, and an opportunistic secondary. Maybe I’m over-thinking things, but I feel like there’s some bad energy around the Pats … and there’s usually one upset in the second round … and come on, y’all know how I feel about Boston sports.

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I’ll never get tired of running this image

So I’m calling the upset: Chiefs in a 22-20 nail-biter.

Green Bay at Arizona

When these teams played three weeks ago, the Cards slaughtered the Pack 38-8. Has anything changed since then? Sure, Green Bay won on the road last week, but I remain unimpressed with them, and I think Arizona is probably the most complete team in the NFL this year. I think Rodgers will do more to keep his team in it this time around, but I just don’t see anyway the Pack pulls this one out. I’ll say 35-24 Cards. My only regret is I won’t get to see Rodgers and Alex Smith play against each other in the Super Bowl on the Niners’ homefield.

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I wish I could stop running this image

Seattle at Carolina

Most people think this is the game of the weekend, and I admit it’s the one I’m most likely to clear my schedule to watch. On the other hand, I think people are being a little too quick to jump on the Seabitches bandwagon. I mean, Seattle would have lost to a pretty mediocre Vikings team if Blair Walsh had made a 27-yard field goal. Finkle?

Also, I think people are forgetting that Carolina went 15-1 and that they have Cam Newton, an awesome defense, and an extra week of rest. I’m pretty sure Steph Curry’s boys have got this. Let’s say Panthers 24-16.

Pittsburgh at Denver

Goddammit, I was so excited to pick one final Peyton Manning home playoff chokejob. And then they drew the Steelers, who are coming off a brutal Wild Card game in which all of their best players got injured. I would literally run across the Jersey swamp to bet on Pittsburgh Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were healthy, but the Steelers are just too banged up. So I’m saying 20-13 Broncos. Peyton’s final playoff choke will have to wait until next week.

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hehehe

 

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2016 Wild Card Playoff Picks

Good lord, I hated this football season. My beloved San Francisco 49ers were a complete abomination—the laughingstock of the entire league. Two of my three most hated teams (the Deflatriots and the PEDhawks) are still Super Bowl contenders. (At least the Cowboys were nearly as bad a mess as the Niners.) Nearly every Sunday this fall, I woke up at noon and looked at the slate of games and said, “Nope, I can do something productive with my time today.” (Note: I never actually did anything productive. I still wasted my time—I just didn’t get to enjoy football while I was wasting my time.) The NFL as a league and a corporation continued to be a despicable cartel of money-grubbing, hypocritical assholes. I have slim to no interest in watching these playoffs.

But I’ve also been making playoff picks for too many years to stop now. So here goes. If you want to make some money, take these to Vegas and go the other way, because I’m always wrong (except for that one glorious time when I nailed the exact score of the Niners-Packers semi-annual Holy War).

Kansas City at Houston

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If you’re looking for a reason to bet against KC…

As usual, the early Saturday game is an unwatchable dog. Houston is one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory, a team that basically has two good players—all-world receiver DeAndre Hopkins and all-universe defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Kansas City has won 10 games in a row and has a fearsome defense and a decent quarterback (Alex Smith has actually played very well in two of his three career playoff starts) … but they also have a long streak of crushing playoff losses and a coach, Andy Reid, who has a history of being, let’s say, “unreliable” in the playoffs. I wouldn’t put a ton of money on the Chiefs because of those two historical mitigating factors, and because I could imagine Watt going full destructor mode—four sacks, two forced fumbles, a TD, and multiple offensive lineman getting their arms torn off—and singlehandedly winning the game. But I also can’t bet on a team that started Brian Hoyer at QB in a playoff game. It’ll be an ugly, defensive affair, but I’m guessing it’ll end up something like 17-13 Chiefs.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

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Poor Cincy

Football, like life, can be so unfair. If Andy Dalton hadn’t gotten hurt, the Bengals would probably be the one seed in the AFC. Instead, they have to host their powerful division rivals with either A.J. McCarron or a broken-thumbed Red Rifle under center. Ben Roethlisberger may be a fat-assed woman-abuser, but he’s not losing a playoff game to either of those guys. I’m saying Steelers 27-17.

Seattle at Minnesota

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Nope

This one’s easy. There’s no way Teddy “Two Gloves” Bridgewater is beating Russell Wilson and this Seattle defense—even at home. Minnesota’s defense will keep it close early, but I see Seattle getting a long TD off one of those Wilson scrambles and then a big turnover to seal it late. We’ll call it 27-10 Seabitches.

Green Bay at Washington

I really can’t believe that I’m going to pick Kirk Cousins over Aaron Rodgers in a playoff game. But let’s be honest, even with Rodgers, the Packers have been garbage for almost three months now. Their defense can’t stop anyone, their running back looks like a Biggest Loser contestant, and their receivers can’t get open. Plus, if I go with Green Bay, that means I’m picking all four road teams to win Wild Card weekend—and that shit NEVER happens. So, while I don’t feel great about this pick at all, I’m taking the Racials Slurs 20-17.

No, Kirk, I don’t like it. Not at all.

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36

Dear Lolly,

You were 19 when I met you, in 1999, on the eve of your sophomore year of college. That was more than 16 years ago. There are kids out there who weren’t out of the womb when we met who are now old enough to drive cars. Those kids are almost as old as I was, 18, that first night, when I got drunk at your parents’ house under the guise of “getting some advice on what classes I should take at UCSB.”

You were 23 when we started dating, in 2003. You were sick, having recently quit grad school. I was 22, a fresh graduate, working my first post-college job, at a used bookstore. We were so young. The things that you faced, that I tried to help you face, made us grow up so fast.

You were 29 when we broke up, in 2009. It was mid-November, right before the holidays. It was a month after our sixth anniversary. We hadn’t really gotten along in months, had gone through one very brief breakup already, and had taken a trip to New York for our anniversary in the hopes that it would help improve things. You were sick throughout the trip. We fought for most of it. We were too far gone.

You were 31 when you died, in 2011.

You would have been 36 today, the last day of 2015. Thirty-six isn’t a round number, it doesn’t hold any special significance, but none of the ages I already mentioned stand out as obvious life markers, either. Who knows what would have happened for you in 2016? I suspect great things.

Looking at all those numbers, I’m struck by how much time has passed since you came into my life—and since you went out of it. We were together for six years and one month, and as I write this, that’s the exact amount of time that has passed since we broke up.

I don’t know what my life would be if you hadn’t been a part of it, and at the same time I don’t know what to make of the life I’ve lived since you ceased to be a part of it. I’ve had moments of joy in the last six years, though probably none as elevating as the best times I had with you. I’ve had terrible times too—the worst right after your death, of course, but others that made me wonder what the point of any of this is.

When I wrote this note to you last year, I was coming to the end of a successful year. I felt full of hope for what was to come in the year ahead. Sadly, 2015 wasn’t what I hoped for. It turned into a malaise, both personal and professional. I had financial problems. I had problems at work. I had problems with women. I celebrated nearly all of my friends’ weddings—including your sister’s, at which I gave a pretty profane speech—but at the end of each of these events I felt lonely, left out. Given some of the things I said to you about marriage, I don’t know that you’d be sympathetic to hear me say that now. This year I was often reminded that you never got to have your own wedding day. I will always feel guilty about that.

I’m not here to muck around in guilt or self-pity. It’s just that I’m struggling a bit for words this time around. I’ve written a few of these birthday remembrances for you now, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Nor do I want to turn this into an annual occasion for taking stock of my own life. I want these to be about you, not about me.

And yet, as much as those of us who loved you will always carry you in our hearts, the truth is that we have to move forward. Tomorrow it will be a new year, and while we can use the memory of you for inspiration or motivation or whatever, ultimately we have to live for the living.

But I can worry about the coming year, and my place in it, tomorrow. Today, before I move forward into whatever 2016 holds, I’m taking a pause, as I always do, to look back.

To remember the ways that you helped make me what I am today.

To say that while you may not be a part of my life anymore, no matter how much time passes, you’ll always be a part of me.

To have a very Lolly breakfast of Oreos and milk.

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To say happy birthday, and that I wish you were here.

Love always,

Justin

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The Best Books I’ve Read Since 2008

December is the time of the year for listmaking: All the critics name their best movies, songs, sandwiches, whatever, from the previous year. And since y’all know how much I love lists, I don’t want to get left out! Hell, I already did a post on my 10 favorite songs of this year.

When it comes to books (the only thing I’m more holier-than-thou about than music), I have a little bit harder time coming up with a year-end list. This is largely because I rarely read any new hardcover novels—I stick to cheaper, easier to carry on the train paperbacks. But, even though they may not have come out this year, I did read a bunch of great books in 2015, and I wanted to write about them. And then I got to thinking that it’d be fun to look back at the best book I’ve read every year for the last few years. Fortunately, I’ve been a member of Goodreads since 2008 (coinciding with my matriculation into my MFA program), so I have a record of everything I’ve read and how I rated each book in that time period. So, I decided to take a little stroll down memory lane and figure out what was my favorite book each year. Consider this a Christmas gift for all my bookworm friends.

2008

The year I joined Goodreads and entered grad school. Out of the 16 books I read, I gave four of them 5-star ratings. My two favorites were True Notebooks, Mark Salzman’s deeply moving memoir about teaching creative writing at juvenile hall in Los Angeles (which I read while I was preparing to teach a workshop at juvie in Oakland), and Waiting for the Barbarians, South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee’s masterful allegory of the evils of colonialism. I truly love Salzman’s book, but the edge goes to Waiting for the Barbarians, which may have been the best book I read in grad school.

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2009

This was a big year. I was immersed in school and trying to get better at writing, and so I read constantly—to the tune of 42 books in one year. I’ll never get anywhere near that again. I gave nine of those books 5-star ratings, so we’ll have to whittle down. We’ll disqualify Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, as I had read each of those previously; we’ll eliminate Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, about his time covering the Iraq War for the NYT, due to my preference for fiction; we’ll toss out Nicholson Baker’s hilarious and profane Vox, a fun book that doesn’t have quite the same emotional resonance as some of these other choices, and we’ll scratch Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, a brilliant novel about slavery, because I don’t love it quite as much as the remaining four. That leaves us with Italo Calvino’s beautiful, evocative, fabulist Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes all the wondrous cities of Kublai Khan’s vast empire to the emperor, who will never see them, and three Cormac McCarthy novels: The Road, Suttree, and The Crossing. As enchanting as Calvino’s book is, it has to be one of those three, because this was the point at which McCarthy became my favorite writer, and the one that stands out the most is The Crossing, the second book in the Border Trilogy. I read this novel while I was traveling in Europe (I bought it at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris) , and I became so engrossed in the tragicomic tale of Billy Parham, who traps a wolf and then decides to return it to its home in the mountains of Mexico, that I actually burned one of my five days in Paris just lying in a hostel bed reading the book. It’s probably my favorite book of all time.

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2010

The year I finished grad school and moved to New York. Read just 21 books this year—I spent a lot of time writing a novel of my own—and gave just four of them 5-stars. All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic; I loved William T. Vollman’s sad, lewd novel about Southeast Asian prostitutes, The Butterfly Stories; and Jennifer Egan’s narratively dexterous A Visit From the Goon Squad was the rare book that left me so intrigued that I paid full price for a new hardcover. But the best book I read this year was David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. His essays range from tales of the porn industry to a moral investigation of crustacean consumption to a dive inside John McCain’s presidential campaign, and each one of them leaves little doubt that DFW was his the greatest writer of his generation.

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2011

Read 22 books this year, and gave five of ’em 5-stars. DFW very nearly repeated, as I followed up Lobster by reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. And I was deeply impressed by Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson’s story of racial strife in post-WWII Puget Sound. But easily my favorite book of this year was Joshua Mohr’s Damascus, a novel set in a Mission District dive bar that captured so much of what I feel about art, post-Iraq America, and gentrifying San Francisco. (Just look at that cover!) This book feels like home.

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2012

As far as quantity, this was my second best year of the past decade, with 26 books. I gave eight of them 5-star ratings, including two of Jeffrey McDaniels’ collections of cracked, surreal poems; another great San Francisco book, Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries; and Stewart O’Nan’s weirdly poignant Last Night at the Lobster, a novel set in a mall Red Lobster during a snowstorm. I also re-read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I hadn’t loved the first time, but upon second examination I came to my senses and realized it’s a masterwork, featuring one of the great villains of all time, the Judge. My favorite book, though, was Katherine Dunn’s brilliantly weird Geek Love, about a father who uses radioactivity to breed himself a family of carnival freaks. This novel features another of literature’s greatest villains, Artie the Aquaboy, the manipulative mutant who starts a cult in which he convinces his followers to amputate their own limbs. It’s so fucking weird—and so fucking brilliant.

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2013

Again, high quantity this year, with 25, but only four 5-star ratings. One was Thomas Bernhard’s shape-shifting collection of vignettes, The Voice Imitator, and two were pocket-size short story collections I bought from Hobart Press at the AWP conference: Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds and Mary Miller’s Big World. I especially love Miller’s stories, which read like Raymond Carver shorts—if Carver wrote about young women and teenage girls in the South. But the best book I read this year was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a shattering novel (and deserving National Book Award Winner) of numerous plots and characters that all revolve around the day Phillippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. It’s like if Crash had been a great novel instead of a sophomoric film.

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2014

Sort of fell off a cliff this year. Read just ten books, and only gave two of them 5-stars: The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s magical-realist allegory for Chilean history (which I read on a trip to Santiago); and Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard’s versatile collection of comic yet depressing short stories. While I didn’t have as much to choose from, Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a fantastic collection, and a worthy winner.

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2015

I haven’t quite bounced back to grad-school levels of quantity, but of the 14 books I’ve finished this year, a very respectable six earned 5-stars. These books were diverse: Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a darkly funny satirical look at a squad of soldiers being honored during the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game; Claire Vaye Watkins’ fantastic collection Battleborn; Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, a quiet yet moving novella about a librarian in Portland who falls in love; Phil Klay’s stunning collection of Iraq War stories, Redeployment; and Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería, an inventive, deeply tragic tale of an immigrant family in Texas, told from the perspective of an abused 11-year-old girl. As great as all of these were, the winner was the last book I read, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. This epic novel, a sort of Trainspotting/Mean Streets mashup about gangsters in 1970s Jamaica (with some 1980s New York thrown in) was the longest book I read this year, and even though it was almost 700 pages long, at no point did I feel like I could put it down. I often disagree with literary awards, but James won the Man Booker Prize for a reason.

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That’s all folks: the best books I’ve read since 2008. Now stop reading my ramblings and go pick up a book. And always remember what John Waters said: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”

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What It’s Like To Go on a Date with Justin

If you do online dating, doesn't your whole life just become 50 First Dates? Why do people do this to themselves?

If you do online dating, doesn’t your whole life just become 50 First Dates? Why do people do this to themselves?

Not too long ago, I was reading a friend’s blog on which she reviews her Tinder dates. I have never done the  online dating thing, but I do occasionally score myself a night out with a girl the old-fashioned way, and I got to thinking: What if I had to read a review of myself after one of my first dates? At first, the notion seemed horrifying, but then I thought about how most of those stories would actually be pretty amusing, thanks to my unique combination of drunken ineptitude and sweethearted charm. So I took a stab at imagining what a dating columnist—and I admit, regretfully, that I actually have gone out with one of those—would write about a typically “Justin” first date. For a laugh (and, likely, a Louie-esque cringe) at my expense, read on.

***

Justin wanted to meet at a bar/restaurant that I’d never been to, in a supposedly trendy neighborhood that seemed to be populated mostly with people drinking from paper bag–covered bottles in front of shuttered warehouses. I had wanted to go for coffee, but he said he didn’t drink coffee and that coffee dates suck. I studied abroad in Italy, so the no-coffee thing was a black mark against him, but I have to admit he’s right: Coffee dates do kinda suck.

I got to the bar right after we’d planned to meet, at 7:30, but didn’t see him. There was a crowd right inside the door, so I decided to wait outside. It had been raining earlier in the afternoon, but the clouds had broken, and the evening air was pleasantly crisp—or would have been, if it hadn’t been for all the 22-year-olds smoking in front of the bar.

Justin showed up about 10 minutes after I did. He apologized for being late and said “I used to be really good about being punctual, but…” and then just shrugged his shoulders. Then he said, “I never know how to do this—do we shake hands or hug or just stare at each other awkwardly?” I told him to do what he felt, and he gave me a quick hug. I thought I smelled cigarettes on him, even though he’d said on his profile he didn’t smoke—but maybe it was from the aforementioned kids. Justin wasn’t very tall and he had a shaved head, which you could tell he shaved because he’d gone bald early, and he had these big colorful floral tattoos on his arms. Ink isn’t my thing, but I had to admit they were pretty. At least they weren’t fratboy tribal tattoos.

His sense of style was a little odd. He wore a pearl button Western shirt with flowers embroidered above the pockets and a pair of vintage cowboy boots. He definitely had a whiff of hipster about him, but the jeans weren’t quite skinny enough. I’m still not sure what the deal was with the cowboy look—he said he was from San Francisco, not Texas. Overall, I wouldn’t say he was exactly my type, but he was cute in an awkward, needs to get a little more Vitamin D sort of way.

I'm not kidding. This is really what I look like

I’m not kidding. This is really what I look like

There weren’t any tables available, but we got a couple of seats at the bar. He said he liked sitting at the bar better anyway, and that he thought having to stare at someone across a table for an entire night was weird. Umm, okay. He shook hands with the bartender—they obviously knew each other—and ordered a Sazerac. I asked what that was, and he said it was a whiskey and absinthe cocktail from New Orleans. I actually don’t drink all that much, but I didn’t want to seem lame, so I got a white wine. He asked if I’d ever been to New Orleans, and I said no. I’d realized by then that the bar had a Big Easy theme—latticed walls, oysters, horns on the stereo. I asked if he’d been there, and he told me about how it was his favorite city and how he’d been there for Mardi Gras one year and gotten in a fight with a bouncer and broken his hand in the process. He told the story with a lot of energy and laughing enthusiasm—especially when he described blindly walking down Bourbon Street clutching a broken hand—but I wasn’t sure what to say. I mean, was I supposed to be impressed? He could tell I was nonplussed, because he said, “Hmmm … probably I’m not supposed to tell that story on the first date.”

Mmmmmm ... Sazerac....

Mmmmmm … Sazerac….

The bartender brought our drinks, and Justin offered me a sip of his. It was really strong, and he laughed at the face I made when I took a sip. He took his drink back and asked me how my day had been. I told him I was having a hard time coming up with a column for this week, and he smiled and said he’d try to give me some good material. “Just don’t fight the bouncer,” I said, and he laughed and took a drink and said, “no promises.”

I asked him about his day, and he said he’d interviewed an actor who had been on The Wire. I admitted I hadn’t seen the show, even though a bunch of friends have told me I should watch it, and he spent like ten minutes talking about how it was the greatest thing ever and quoting a bunch of lines from it, even though obviously I wasn’t going to get the references because I haven’t seen the show. I started to wonder if he’d already been drinking.

The bartender came back and asked if we wanted to order food. Justin asked if I was hungry, and I said not really and asked if he was. He said he could go either way depending on what I wanted to do. “Whatever you want,” I said, and he sat there looking at the bartender indecisively for a minute until he finally said, “Give us a few minutes. But can I get another Sazerac?” He asked if I wanted another drink, but my wine was still mostly full.

After the bartender left, Justin asked how I got started writing about dating, and I gave my usual noncommittal answer about having just fallen into it. He asked if I’d ever done any other kind of writing, and I admitted that I studied poetry in college. Most guys just change the subject when I tell them that, but it seemed to catch his interest, and he started asking me if I wrote and which poets I liked—honestly, the way he fired questions at me, I started to feel like I was getting interviewed. I could tell he hadn’t read, or even heard of, a lot of the woman poets I mentioned, but he did seem to genuinely care what I had to say. It turned out he had an MFA, and he was definitely well read, though mostly typical guy stuff—Hemingway, Carver, Kerouac.

It was nice to talk to someone who seemed to really care about books, but things took a little bit of a bad turn when I asked him if he still worked on his own writing. He said he had a book that he’d written that he thought was really good, but that no one would publish it. “I used to think I was gonna be Hemingway,” he said. “Now I edit an airline magazine.” I told him he could always come back to it, but he just shrugged and said “maybe” and took a big drink.

He went on to tell me that he used most of his creative energy on music now. He plays guitar in a rock band, and he talked about this bluegrass thing he goes to once a week in Brooklyn, at this bar—I forget the name—that he claims is the greatest place in the world. And then he went off on this tangent about Ryan Adams, who’s apparently Jesus with a guitar or something, because when I said, “Oh yeah, that’s the guy with the Taylor Swift covers,” he looked at me like I had something growing out of my forehead.

Right about then the bartender came back. Justin asked if I like oysters, and I said they were okay, so he ordered a dozen, and we agreed to split a couple of appetizers. I asked what he wanted, and he said, “whatever,” and I suggested a couple of things, and he just said, “okay.” Outside of the oysters, he had to be the least decisive diner I’ve ever gone out with.

When the oysters came out, I scooped the first one out of the shell with a fork and he looked at me like I’d just used the fork to stab someone in the eye. “What the hell was that?” he said. “No fucking way. That’s not how you eat an oyster.” Then he made me slurp the second one straight from the shell—which I have to admit, did kinda work better.

I only had a couple of oysters—I’m actually not that big a fan—and he ate the rest. A cheese plate came out a couple of minutes later, and I noticed that he chewed his first bite with his mouth open. I don’t know if he noticed me noticing, but he admitted he had bad table manners and apologized, in a way. “My parents were hippies,” he said, “so I was basically raised by wolves.”

I took my phone out—at this point I was thinking about texting someone to bail me out of this—and he saw that I have a picture of my dog on my background. Then he took his phone out and showed me that he had a picture of his dog on his background. Then he showed me a video of his dog howling at a fire truck, and I started laughing, because you guys know that I have basically the same video on my phone, and I always end up showing it to guys at some point when I’m on dates. So, I guess you could say he passed that test.

This photo has been the screen saver on my phone for at least five years

I couldn’t even tell you how long this photo has been the screen saver on my phone

When the bartender took our plate away, Justin ordered another drink. I didn’t really want another, but it was too early to just go home, so I got a vodka soda. I figured, tomorrow’s Friday, everyone else will be hungover at work, too.

When our drinks came back, I said I liked his tattoos, and I asked him what was up with the flowers. “Yeah, I’m a walking arboretum,” he joked. Then he told me about the meanings behind them, and it got pretty heavy. I won’t get into it too much, but Jesus, the guy’s had some tough times. Auschwitz and cystic fibrosis aren’t exactly first date material.

The weird thing is, he kind of won me over talking about that stuff, because he acknowledged that he probably shouldn’t talk about those tough times so early in the process of getting to know someone. But he told me that he never used to share his problems with anyone—not even his close friends—and that getting the tattoos and having people ask about them forced him to confront his issues and helped him work through them. He seemed really smart and mature about the whole thing. Or maybe the alcohol was getting to me. Or maybe I’m just the type to adopt rescue dogs.

Somehow, the vibe loosened up, and we ended up trading stories about bad Tinder dates—actually, I guess the Tinder stories were mine, although he had a funny story about a freelance writer he’d been going out with who dumped him right after he got one of her stories into his magazine. It was pretty horrible actually, but he laughed about it in a really infectious way the whole time he was telling it, and you guys, he seriously has one of the biggest smiles you’ll ever see. I should probably mention I was on drink number three by this point.

Eventually I told him I had to get up early for work, and we agreed to go. I went to the bathroom before we left, and by the time I came back he’d paid the tab. I tried to give him some money, but he wouldn’t take it.

We were going in the same direction, and he offered to split a cab. I said sure, and while we were standing outside waiting for one, he kissed me. He may have seemed awkward, but he was actually a pretty good kisser and, well, I ended up making out with him in the cab. Not my finest moment, you guys. No more first dates at bars.

Drinks + Justin = Taxi Cab Makeouts. That's more concrete than E=MC2

Drinks + Justin = Taxi Cab Makeout. That’s science

The cab pulled up to my house and Justin got out to say goodnight, only he tripped getting out of the car and totally fell on his face! I ran around to see if he was okay, but I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. He cursed, and then he started laughing too, while he was sitting on the ground. Finally he got up and walked me to the door and he kissed me goodnight, even though it looked like he’d gotten some blood on his face (I don’t know if he’d hit his chin, or had a cut on his hand that he accidentally brushed against his face, or what). I thought I heard a crash after I closed the door, but I didn’t go back to look.

He was a sweet guy, if a little judgmental, funny and smart, but pretty awkward and definitely kind of a wreck. It was a fun night, but I don’t think I’ll be going out with him again.

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My Top 10 Songs of 2015

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Not to give it away, but these guys have a pretty important spot on this list

Every December, my buddy Sam invites a bunch of his friends to share their ten favorite songs from the previous year. It’s a fun little exercise to go back over all the stuff I listened to from the past year and try to come up with a ranking. In compiling my list for this year, I came to the conclusion that 2015 was a pretty bitchin’ good year for music. Looking over the cuts I had to make, I found that several of my favorite artists—Frank Turner, Steve Earle, Ryan Bingham—put out stuff that I liked but just couldn’t fit in here. And new artists that I discovered and really enjoyed, like Courtney Barnett, ended up on the chopping block as well. Competition was stiff.

As always, this list boils down to my own personal preferences. There’s no hip-hop, because I pretty much stopped listening to hip-hop in 1999. There’s nothing that you’d really call “pop,” because I’d rather hang myself with a microphone cord than listen to a Justin Bieber song. There’s no Adele because she’s just not my thing. It’s mostly singer-songwriter shit, mostly acoustic, with a dash of ’70s-inflected soul and country and rock in there. You know, the best kind of music. Hope y’all dig it.

First, honorable mentions: Small Poppies, Courtney Barnett (this one was the last cut and toughest omission); The Next Storm, Frank Turner; Dime Store Cowgirl, Kacey Musgraves; Gates of Dawn, Heartless Bastards; Better Off Alone, Steve Earle; Island in the Sky, Ryan Bingham; Rock & Roll Is Cold, Matthew E. White; Tennessee Whiskey, Chris Stapleton.

Now, on to the top 10

10. When I’m With You, The London Souls

This New York City duo released their second album this year, and When I’m With You was the lead track on that record. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a band that sounds so much like Big Star. And I LOVE Big Star.

9. 24 Frames, Jason Isbell

The album Something More Than Free was former Drive-By Trucker Isbell’s follow-up to Southeastern, which was probably the best album of 2013. It was going to be impossible to live up to that record, and I didn’t think this year’s album was quite as good, but it still had a few gems on it. 24 Frames in particular is Isbell at his best: insightful, witty lyrics (“You thought God was an architect, but now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow) backed by a howling guitar track.

8. Short Haired Woman Blues, Dave Rawlings Machine

It’s no secret that I’m a pretty goddamn big Gillian Welch fan, and everybody knows that a huge part of what makes Gillian such an amazing artist is her symbiotic partnership with Dave Rawlings—who I happen to think is pretty much the best guitar player alive. The duo hasn’t put out an album under Gillian’s name since 2011, but this year they released Nashville Obsolete under the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker. The album is chock-full of lavishly arranged folk tunes, none more beautiful than this one. When the fiddle, played by Brittany Haas, comes crashing in over top of Rawlings’ guitar solo near the end of the song, it’s so powerful that it reminds me of the end of Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song—and that’s a pretty fucking huge compliment in my world.

7. The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, Lera Lynn

Yes, the second season of True Detective sucked. You could pretty much say that everything about it sucked, if it weren’t for Lera Lynn. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter was the heroin-chic girl in the dive bar scenes, and the songs she wrote with T Bone Burnett and Rosanne Cash helped give the show its dark, threatening vibe—especially The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, the song that was included in the first trailer. There’s something almost … murderous about this song. I love it. True Detective’s scripts may have sucked. The acting may have sucked. But Lera Lynn was—and is—awesome.

6. How Much Light, Ryan Adams

The vast majority of the press Ryan Adams got in 2015 was for his full album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. As someone who has been a hardcore fan of his for nearly a decade, I find this infuriating. The most prolific—and arguably most talented—songwriter of a generation gets the most plaudits and attention of his entire career for doing a bunch of covers of shitty electro-pop songs? I appreciate that Adams has found the creative independence that he’s wanted for his entire career, but this album, along with the mixed bag of singles he’s released in the last year or so, shows that maybe the record labels he fought so much with early in his career were right to ask him not to release everything he was recording. With all that said, the guy is still a hell of a songwriter when he puts his mind to it—I’m certainly looking forward to his next album of originals, which he has apparently already recorded. How Much Light was part of an album he discarded prior to last year’s self-titled release last year, and he put it out as a single in 2015. (Also, I was at the Carnegie Hall show the above recording comes from.) It’s a snapshot of haunting melancholy that sums up what Adams does best. More of this, please, Ryan.

5. Father’s Day, Butch Walker

I said some mean things about Ryan Adams in the previous entry, so let’s throw some additional compliments his way, and give him credit for something pretty awesome he did in 2015: producing one of my favorite albums of the year, Butch Walker’s Afraid of Ghosts. The record is primarily a rumination on the death of Walker’s father, and this is the track that most explicitly addresses that subject. I’m very close to my father, and this song gives words to a feeling I dread having to experience someday.

4. Church, Gary Clark Jr.

This year, the Austin-based guitar god released his second major label studio album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, and the record continued to push forward Clark’s synthesis of blues, rock, and soul (with a dash of hip-hop). By far my favorite track was the modern acoustic blues gospel song Church. Listen to that jangling guitar, that harmonica, those vocals: “Looooooord, my looooord/I need your helping hand.” You’ll start tapping your feet, and by the second chorus you won’t be able to help belting out the words along with Clark.

3. Better Man, Leon Bridges

Sam Cooke lives! Not really, but fuck me, Leon Bridges sounds like he’s singing at the Apollo Theater in 1964. He’s from Dallas. He’s 26 years old (and looks about 15). He put out his debut album, Coming Home, this year. He fucking sounds like Sam Cooke.

2. Baby Britain, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield

Elliott Smith is probably my favorite songwriter of all time, and like any serious fan of an artist who has died, I’m very protective of his songs. So, when I heard that one of the Avett Brothers was doing an album of Elliott covers, I was not pleased. And then I listened to it … and it’s GREAT. In particular, Jessica Lea Mayfield’s haunting vocals manage to capture the pathos in the lyrics to these songs. This album is a must for any Elliott fan.

1. Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles, Lucero

You know how sometimes a song feels like it was written specifically for you? That’s how I feel about Lucero’s entire 2015 album, All a Man Should Do. It’s largely a record of sad, reflective songs about hangovers and broken hearts—two things I’m intimately acquainted with. I loved so many songs on this album, from the horn-infused Throwback No. 2 to the uptempo Young Outlaws to the Big Star cover I’m in Love With a Girl. I came very close to picking I Woke Up in New Orleans, a song about being strung out and lonely that happens to be set in my favorite city in the world, as my favorite track of 2015. But, in the end, I had to go with the lead single, about Lucero frontman Ben Nichols tracing the footsteps of legendary (and legendarily substance-abusing) singer/songwriter Warren Zevon through LA before returning home to Memphis. I was raised on Warren Zevon, so if you name-check him in a song, it’s probably gonna end up at the top of my list. I’m pretty simple that way.

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