The Heart and Voice of Mark Eitzel

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his chest was like christ's“His chest was like Christ’s. That’s probably who he was. I could have followed anybody off that train. It would have been the same.” –Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son


I’m a relative latecomer to the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club. When I was still more avidly consuming new music and reading music blogs in 2009, I read a post written by John Darnielle saying that The Golden Age was one of the best albums of the ’00s. It didn’t take me long to seek it out, and I became obsessed. It’s rarely left my iPod in the last five years. The lyrics, the acid humor, the arrangements, the pacing, Eitzel’s voice—it’s a treasure trove of elements that I most reliably look for and respond to in music. “The Sleeping Beauty” sat at the heart of my Best of 2009 mix.

By the time Eitzel’s solo album Don’t Be a Stranger came out in 2012, I was a year into a relationship with someone who knew and adored Eitzel’s work as much as I did. We were both immediately overwhelmed with how good the album was. When we found out Eitzel would be playing a show at the Beat Kitchen here in Chicago the day after Thanksgiving, we immediately bought tickets, and I started obnoxiously Twittering at him, inviting him to spend the holiday with us in the event he was in town a day early and didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Allison on Twitter: "Just bought tickets to see @markeitzel at the Beat Kitchen on 11:23. Hey Mark, come on over for Thanksgiving if you're in town a day early!" 2014-11-30 17-19-20Allison on Twitter: "@MarkEitzel Seriously, man, come on over! Irving Park & Ashland. We're coming to the show tomorrow." 2014-11-30 17-20-00I never heard back from him online, but when we got to the venue the day of the show, I almost literally ran into him as I was coming back upstairs from the bathroom. “Mark!” I accosted him. “I was the one who kept Twittering at you!” He immediately, reflexively folded me into a hug.

mark eitzel by bradalmanacEitzel sang that night accompanied by an extremely talented piano player, with no other percussion or guitar or bass. And it was one of the most achingly lovely shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve hesitated to write about it for the past two years because I’m still wary of breaking the spell—and of not doing it anything close to justice. Would I ruin the memory, the effect it’s had on me, by trying to put it into words?

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I grew up in a house with a musician who never seemed to suffer from any self-doubt or crisis of confidence. But, perhaps because of the not-so-subtle insinuations from family, friends, and his colleagues that I should be his protégé, I’ve always been afraid of, well, sucking. Being a disappointment as a musician would reflect badly not only on me—for not being sprung from his forehead fully formed and ready to jam—but also of course on him for not getting the kind of firstborn everyone figured he was owed, karmically. So, I lived in a constant terror of playing any wrong notes on the piano, or singing out of tune, or succumbing somehow to having bad taste. Despite the inescapable pressure of expectation, I continued to make music in multiple capacities for pretty much my whole life, in musical theater productions and choirs and jazz bands, and truly had as much fun with it as I could reasonably be expected to have.

tiny magnets lizards liquid loungeYet, finally joining a full-on rock group in my early 30s was the thing that really threw me into a crisis of confidence. Surrounded by guys who’d had years of experience playing on stage at major venues like CBGB’s and Chicago’s Metro, I found myself doubting my talent, doubting my contributions to the band, feeling like I probably didn’t deserve to be on stage with them at all. I believed I was dead weight and that if I was going to have the audacity to sing at all, I should at least make an effort to play some tambourine and other miscellaneous percussion so that it didn’t seem like I was taking up so much space. I even forced the songwriter to teach me how to play his Gibson SG so that I could borrow it to (badly) play a secondary guitar line to fill out the sound on one of the songs.

allison plays the sg december 2010Imposter syndrome would be an easy and obvious explanation for the self-doubt that was transforming me from a mostly joyful performer into a more hesitant, unsure one. The narrative would probably go something like, “now that I’d finally achieved my dream of being an adult playing rock music in the city of Chicago alongside a group of extremely talented musicians, I was waiting for someone to discover that I didn’t know what I was doing and, worse, that I was taking up space as a chubby, not very attractive girl in a role that should rightly be filled by either another dude or by a bombshell like PJ Harvey.” And, that all might be true, and might be folded somewhere in my psychology, but I think it was actually a more acute fear of vulnerability.

In all my musical experiences up to that point, I could hide behind sheet music (in band or choir), behind a character (onstage in a musical), or even behind my father’s legend as a musician in Northwest Indiana (when I sat in with jazz groups in the area). But suddenly there was no sheet music and no script and no one who knew or gave a shit about my dad’s performance history. Suddenly, being required to sing as myself felt like the most impossible and terrifying task I’d ever been faced with.

illuminated pedal boardWhat did I have to offer anyone? What did I have to say or contribute musically? Why should anyone listen to me?

And, assuming I would be able to figure any of those questions out internally, how would I go about communicating it in performance? How would I allow those answers to become visible or hearable when I sang?

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Watching Mark Eitzel on stage that night in late 2012 was an incredibly profound healing on all those questions that had been roiling inside me for years. Everything in me released its tension and went, “ohhhh. So that’s what a singer can do onstage.”

mark eitzel xabier vazquezHe showed up with an openness that was so complete that it shifted from revelation to command. He wasn’t merely vulnerable so that the audience could gawk at his flaws and idiosyncrasies. He was transparent, irreducible, a 1:1 correlation between who he was being and what he was doing, moment by moment. His heart was not hidden from us.

Often you’ll hear people describe an artist or performer as being a channel, as if it’s somehow more impressive for that person to disappear so that angelic or cosmic information can be transmitted. But Eitzel’s performance wasn’t a gate for heavenly glory; it was the gift of pure presence. He was saying hello to us by offering us the deepest, truest, most graceful parts of himself through his voice. It was the kind of soul-bearing greeting that one usually only receives when falling in love—but he was giving that energy, so intimately, to an entire roomful of people. It was a gift. He gave us his humanity.

mark eitzel with bandAs an audience member, I was moved to my core. As a musician, I knew I was there to learn from this master. How did he do it? How could I do the same?

I suddenly started to understand my role as a singer in a whole new way. I knew that I wanted to start inching myself toward the kind of performance that could be about so much more than the music, that could be about love and spirit and connection and emotional intelligence and wisdom and a 100% lack of hedging or compromise or bluster. I knew that I needed to find a way to choose that degree of integrity in my own practice as a performer, paying tribute to his example every time I get onstage myself.

And not only that — I have to reach beyond the desire to see someone else reveal him- or herself onstage, and even past the mere wish that I could do it too, and into the realm of pure potential where I can actually tap the strength needed to burn away the bullshit that keeps me stuck in questioning my ability to contribute anything worthwhile and pull incredible beauty forth in my life and my art.

Is this a tall order to fill? Of course. Is there any way to avoid it now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen and heard what I’ve heard and know what I know? No.

mark eitzel by jaime orizMusic, even in my greatest moments of triumph, has never felt effortless to me. Playing or singing has always felt like walking through a minefield, like any minor misstep I made would be catastrophically destructive to my fellow musicians, to the audience, to the piece of music itself. So, I’ve always approached performance with a studied seriousness, as if my sincerity would at least earn me brownie points in case I ended up being responsible for something going horribly awry.

It’s cliche, but, a guy like Eitzel makes it look easy. Of course he’s had years of experience and preparation to get him to the level he’s at these days, but I think the greater truth he’s showing me is that it really just is easy. It’s much more difficult to hold back and pretend and apologize. The energy it takes to maintain those competing anxiety narratives directly detracts from the energy of healing that is able to be transmitted in turn to the audience.

More than anything, though, I see it as a perspective shift. I’ve come around to the conclusion that everyone can see everything about me when I’m onstage anyway, so I might as well make the choice to show up as the singer of the song without letting the static in my own head drown out the melody. The vulnerability is in the hiding, not in being seen.

mark eitzel smiling bjorn giesenbauerThank you, Mark.

Help Me Plan My Next Vacation

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I am very good at figuring things out.

tools

I always have been. And I am grateful for the combination of intelligence and intuition that I have been blessed with that makes it possible for me to teach myself a variety of things by process of elimination, rudimentary research, observation, etc.

Which, guess what? Makes it very, very easy for me to get super, super angry when I can’t figure out something on my own.

I read a study recently that found that “bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up—and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” The article is more than a little gender essentialist and is problematic in a bunch of ways, but I find that it rings heartbreakingly true for me. I’ve long felt that if I can’t relatively quickly get into a groove with a new endeavor, it means I’m bad or wrong in some way, and that I shouldn’t bother trying to do whatever it is because it isn’t fated or otherwise in the cards for me.

One of the (many) problems with this approach comes up when the challenge is not so easily tossed aside, when it’s a thing that some deeper part of me is really drawn to. Which makes the thing even scarier because not knowing how to get it starts to feel that much more freighted with risk and peril and the possibility of not only failure and humiliation but also of not being able to satisfy a deep craving in my soul.

This is a very, very highfalutin preamble to my talking about the fact that I want to travel more than I currently do, and I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to make it happen.

globe and camera

I’ll need to write more at length at some point about the extremely formative trip I took to France when I was fourteen. Suffice to say, this first journey abroad lit up a longing for travel in me that was so acute it felt less like longing and more like necessity. I need to be a person who travels.

Chateau Chenonceau

And though I’ve taken many wonderful, memorable trips in the years since, in some ways it feels like some sort of travel anorexia—like it’s the bare minimum that I can parcel out to myself to keep my traveler’s spirit alive. As I watch so many friends have amazing experiences adventuring, working, and relocating abroad, I feel like that little girl inside me, the little girl who will always be trying her hardest to get an A on the test, start to throw a tantrum because she can’t figure out how to get a piece of that for herself.

horizon line

But, I’m realizing that the key for me at this point might be to stop silently stewing about this in private, allowing myself to feel like an epic failure as each month ticks by without my getting on a plane (or a train or, hell, even in a car for longer than an hour), and just admitting out loud that this is a thing I want but haven’t yet figured out how to get for myself.

train tracks

I want to figure out how to budget more effectively so that I can afford airfare and accommodations for getting to and staying in the kinds of places I want to go.

I want to figure out the best combination of traveling solo versus going with a companion who’s as excited about these kinds of trips as I am.

I want to figure out how often is often enough, and how long is long enough, for me to feel happily well traveled without compromising the rest of my life and routine and responsibilities.

I want to figure out how to have the kind of soul-enriching, quirky, and unique travel experiences that I want to have without succumbing to the convenience of bland, Americanized, prepackaged tourist traps and clichéd sightseeing.

I want to view trips I haven’t taken and destinations I’ve yet to see as exciting, invigorating goals on a wishlist rather than as forbidden fruit I can’t touch, or, worse, as failing marks on some kind of cosmic test that’s being held against me.

tasmania

So, if you’re a traveler at heart, too—let’s talk. If you’re feeling stuck in your ability to make it happen, let’s brainstorm ways we can all inch a little bit closer to our dreams. If you’re someone who has cracked the code and revels in a steady diet of journeys and excursions, help a girl out and let me know what kind of steps you took when you were first learning how to put these kinds of trips together for yourself.

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See also, from the Queen of Peaches archives: A Vegas Baby, The Spirituality of Air Travel

Peach Buzz: Panang Noodle and Rice

For ages now I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about some of my favorite restaurants, shops, service providers, and other “Allison’s Guide to Chicago”-type raves and recommendations here on Queen of Peaches. And when I recently found out one of my standby spots for lunch will soon be closing, I knew I needed to take the opportunity to memorialize it — and figured I might as well kick off this new semi-regular feature while I’m at it.

So, welcome to Peach Buzz!

Peach Buzz!

And farewell to Panang Noodle and Rice on Chicago Avenue.

panang storefrontIt’s strange now to imagine the first two long, sad decades of my life when I never ate Thai food, or even knew what it was.

I mistakenly thought I didn’t like it the first few times I had it while studying abroad as an undergraduate in London in the summer of 2000. I was overwhelmed by my first glimpse at a menu full of Thai items, so my suave and sophisticated American co-intern at the Institute of Ideas advised me to try the pad thai. Something about the combination of the bland noodles and weird sweetness added by the grated peanuts just didn’t appeal to me (and honestly it still doesn’t). Summarily writing off the whole of Thai cuisine based on one dish, I devoted myself for the rest of my stay in London to eating at every hole-in-the-wall Indian place I could find instead.

"Seattle Sunset" by Howard Ignatius

“Seattle Sunset” by Howard Ignatius

It wasn’t for another year and a half, during my brief sojourn in Seattle, where there were seemingly three amazing Thai places on every block, that I learned I actually love Thai food, after becoming obsessed with lad nar. Fat, slurpy rice noodles drowned in salty, garlicy sauce, studded with bitter, crunchy broccoli — it was ideal comfort food, hangover food, “I misjudged my hunger threshold and my blood sugar is plummeting so I need to eat NOW” food. The palate of my early 20s was suddenly transformed.

One year after that revelatory experience, when I moved to Chicago and finally started working my first big-girl job, I was delighted to discover a fantastic Thai place just a short walk down the street from my office.

Since that autumn of 2002, I’ve probably eaten at Panang an average of once a week. We’re talking several hundreds of meals there, people. Many of these have been solo lunches, of course, spent shoveling noodles into my mouth distractedly while reading a book, writing in my journal, scrolling through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and an assortment of bookmarked essays and blog posts on my iPhone, and otherwise decompressing from my job for an hour in the middle of the day.

But there have also been a fair number of birthday lunches with coworkers, awkward on-the-clock meals with vendors courting my business, “let’s do lunch!” lunches with friends who unexpectedly happened to be in the neighborhood during the work week, and even the odd dinner after work squeezed in before a film screening or theatrical performance or concert. It became a standby, an old reliable, quite simply part of the fabric of what I think of as my regular life here in Chicago.

panang interior february 2011

And that’s the crux of it. Though their lad nar still lives up to all my highly romanticized memories of my first bite of the dish in Seattle, and every other item on the menu that I’ve ever eaten there has been fresh and tasty (and never overly greasy), it remains the sweet simplicity of the restaurant’s status as meeting place, extension lunchroom, neutral territory, and common ground that elevates it above just about any other Thai place I can think of.

So much of this vibe is due to the unfailingly swift and pleasant service, which has always succeeded in hitting that elusive sweet spot between friendly recognition and letting you go on about your business. Dozens of different servers who have come and gone over the years learned my standby order(s) (“rama tofu? Panang noodle? Garlic tofu noodle? Pad see eiw? Lad nar tofu?”) and I very often had hot lunch sitting in front of me within five minutes of my arrival. And this is assuredly not just my experience — virtually everyone I currently work with or indeed have ever worked with would likely report much the same. And it’s not just us — the restaurant is always packed with other neighborhood employees and students from nearby Moody Bible Institute. They do brisk takeout business as well.

There are other Thai restaurants in Chicago of which I’m exceedingly fond, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing about some of them too. But, not to be overdramatic, Panang will truly leave a hole in my heart and in my personal, internal map of Chicago if it does close as promised in the next few weeks. A large part of the absence will of course be the affordable, reliably tasty food and kind employees. But it will also be swallowing up over a decade’s worth of the kind of mundane memories that never seem noteworthy until they’re threatened with extinction.

When I say goodbye to Panang, I also say goodbye to early-20s Allison just learning to navigate the city, mid-20s Allison thrilled with her independence, late-20s Allison feeling her way to greater and greater responsibility at her job, early-30s Allison pushing the boundaries of what she expects out of her own life, and now mid-30s Allison making refinements to the old and starting to dream about what she can possibly make happen for herself next. When Panang closes its doors, in many ways it also closes them on personal growth, professional growth, trauma, triumph, and indeed even the kind of productive boredom that resets one’s internal compass in seldom appreciated ways.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Panang, for providing a space for me and countless other River North denizens to nourish ourselves ourselves on a regular basis, in both body and soul.

UPDATE: October 15, 2014 was their last day of operation. This is the sign that was posted in the window.

panang closing notice

How Do Your Memories Smell?

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My mother died in 1987, when I was eight years old.

In Remembrance

My brother was five and my sister was two. Her breast cancer had been discovered too late by condescending doctors who had pooh-poohed her earlier complaints and symptoms, so by the time it was officially caught, the cancer had already begun doing a number on the rest of her body, including, eventually, her spinal fluid. There was chemotherapy, hair loss, weight gain, and the hallucinations I remember trying to calmly and rationally talk her out of while I stood meekly at her bedside.

The chronology of that year and a half and the exact circumstances of her diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death remain a blur to me. And now that all four of my grandparents and my father have died as well, there are precious few people around anymore who could tell me the objective details to set the record straight, if I even dared ask them. So, the story of that time remains an eight year old’s.

Sharon Felus

Part of that eight year old’s story is that, sometime not long after the wake and funeral, perhaps only a day or two, I was pulled aside by my uncle, my father’s brother, who told me quietly, “You know, it would be a big help to your dad right now if you could go stay with Barb and Steve for a little while.” Barb was their cousin and Steve was her husband, and at that time they had two daughters around my age and a third a bit younger. They lived about an hour and a half east of us, in a rural area near South Bend, Indiana.

Though my uncle’s tone made it sound like a suggestion, a task I might pursue in order to be even more the model daughter than I already was, the decision, of course, had already been made for me, the arrangements already set in motion. I had no choice but to assent, even though it felt, devastatingly, as if I were being sent away. Which, no matter what way I look at it even now, I was.

I could see no reason why I should be the one to be packed off. I was the oldest child, the one most capable of being helpful around the house, the one most able to be self-reliant, while my brother and sister, three and six years younger than I respectively, were true children who needed taking care of and looking after. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to jettison one of them?

The only remotely satisfying conclusion I’ve ever been able to come to is that I simply looked too much like my dead mother, with my brown eyes and then-curly dark hair and precocious maturity. Seeing me hovering at his elbow at that delicate time likely would have driven my father into inconvenient paroxysms of grief.

Allison with Sharon

And so eastward I was driven, to a house I remember as enormous, on a piece of land I remember as sprawling, nestled near several actual working farms I remember as confounding and mysterious. Having grown up in a small town about 45 minutes away from Chicago, even at that age I felt divorced from any sense of belonging to Indiana’s Heartland heritage, casting my lot instead with the bustle and culture afforded by and associated with the big city.

Dyer to Bremen

The classic “stranger in a strange land” story I always tell about that sojourn in the country is about the time when Barb asked, by way of involving me in the family’s chores, if I would go get the mail. I went out onto the porch and looked for a mailbox mounted to the side of the house near the front door, the equivalent of where it would have been at my house in the suburbs, and saw nothing. So, I went to the back door and there, too, saw no mailbox. I recall then circumambulating the house, probably multiple times, and checking both doors again for good measure, looking for where the mailbox could possibly be hiding.

Eventually, feeling a horrible combination of frustration, shame, and defeat, I went back into the house after who knows how long and, burning with helplessness, confessed to Barb that I couldn’t find the mailbox, that I’d looked on the front porch and it wasn’t there. I remember her expression melting as she gently explained that it was at the end of the driveway. I got the mail, relieved to be of use once again.

The Farm Beyond

I have no recollection of how long I stayed with them; my best guess is something like a week to ten days. I do know I would have been there through the end of May and likely into the beginning of June. In other words, it was the late spring—when manure gets spread on the cornfields.

One morning I remember waking and going outside into the rising heat of the day and being blasted with the worst smell I had ever smelled. It was like the odor of changing my baby sister’s diapers but writ large across the entire landscape. The stench was like a wet quilt wrapped around me, totally enveloping. I had no context for the enormity of it and, more alarmingly, no expectation of escaping it. As long as I was bound to that house and its immediate environs, that smell would be there. If there was a brief moment of blessed respite, the wind would shift direction and blow a fresh assault at me.

Once again, my hosts tried to compassionately explain that manure was just something to be expected out in the country, an inevitability of farm life, something to be borne at first and eventually habituated to. I didn’t, however, really feel like I needed any more lessons in life’s inevitabilities at that point, thank you very much, and inwardly seethed at what felt like a final, revolting insult, one more marker that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t understand the way things worked.

I don’t think I ever outright complained about the smell of the manure, though I suppose I didn’t have to. My poker face has never been the best, and I’m sure my initial, obvious revulsion was responsible for their launching into an explanation of the manure’s purpose in the first place. But, what I couldn’t have explained at that time, even if I’d wanted to, was that I was infatuated with the power and magic of smell, perhaps to an abnormal degree.

It just wasn’t in my nature to let a scent, even a horrendous one, fade into the background of my consciousness until I could figure it out. Even if figuring it out simply meant—as with the magnificence of soft, clean towels straight out of the dryer; fresh cut grass mixed with lawnmower fuel; chocolate chip cookies getting warm and gooey in the oven; the invisible, mineral approach of the lakeshore on a drive to the beach; and other familiar scent pleasures of childhood—figuring out how can I get more of this up my nose and into my brain?

And so, restless and fixated, my nose got stuck on the manure, essentially trying to solve the problem of it—circling the house, trying to find the mailbox. I was searching for a hint that maybe there was something appealing hidden inside it, the way rubbery skunk blast always secretly brought me joy. But I only ended up encountering, time and again, my own resistance to it, my outsider’s unfamiliarity with the way it worked. Its noxious, maddening persistence eventually beat me at my own game.

Well over ten years later, on a springtime road trip from the Bloomington campus of Indiana University north to Valparaiso with my best friend Mary and her fiancé Mike, we passed through a particularly pungent fog of manure that had evidently been recently laid in the fields along the highway, somewhere in central Indiana. As Mary caught a whiff and bellowed a knee-jerk “yuck!” from behind the wheel, Mike, perched in the front seat, cranked up the car stereo. “I’m sensory confusion guy!” he laughed, the idea being that he was drowning out the noise in our ears with music rather than rolling up the windows to stop the assault on our noses.

mary delighed by the joke

I’ve been delighted by the absurd elegance of that joke for over a decade now, despite the fact that I can never seem to accurately convey how extremely funny it was to me at the time. Partly it’s to do with the late-’90s brand of non-sequitur humor my group of friends cultivated in college, but mostly it’s to do with the implicit acknowledgment that the scent of manure is unresolvable, irreducible, in many ways impossible to “fix” and therefore ridiculous and best dealt with through mockery. The regime-toppling power of humor turned out to be the last, and best, recourse to dealing with the terror of its mute, brute force. That, and the ability to speed away from it at last, at 65 miles per hour, with friends who loved me, and understood me, and spoke my language, and also brought heavenly smelling, fresh-baked banana bread along for the ride.

With gratitude to Tara Swords of Olfactif for instigating and igniting my thinking on scent memories.

Livin’ That No Pants Life

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About four years ago, I stopped wearing pants.

Sure, I’ll wear yoga pants to the gym or pajama bottoms for lounging around the house, but in public, I don’t think I’ve worn anything but skirts and dresses with tights or leggings since the autumn of 2010. One of the last photos of me in jeans is this promo shot of the original line-up of my old band, Tiny Magnets.

Photo by Annie Jonston I can’t recall the way I explained it to myself at the time. I only remember that I executed the plan swiftly and resolutely. In seemingly no time at all, I had dredged up the few skirts I had stuffed in the backs of my drawers and purchased a handful of new-to-me pieces from the thrift store and put them all into immediate, daily rotation. Suddenly, I was a Girl Who Wore Skirts.

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I probably wouldn’t be described as fashionable or even very put-together by most people who pay attention to such things. Never have been. As a female-identified person who grew up middle class, in the Midwest, in the 80s and 90s, and has struggled with weight and body image almost as long as I can remember, clothing, while fascinating, has always also been fraught with mild terror.

Does this fit? Is it cute? Is it trendy? Will I fit in with the other girls? How much does it cost? How much wear will I be able to get out of it?

Being raised by a single father didn’t help matters either. When, as an awkward early adolescent, I wasn’t wearing the blousy tops left behind in my dead mother’s old closet, I was inevitably dressed in what can only be described as a kind of baby butch getup—oversized t-shirts to hide my pudgy tummy, or my dad’s cast-off suit vests, dress pants, button-down shirts, and even the occasional tie.

Even as I grew ever-so-slightly more comfortable with my female figure in my late teens and early twenties, occasionally wearing a more form-fitting dress for a special event or a shirt that showed the slightest bit of cleavage, my fall-back look mostly revolved around jeans and t-shirts, along with a few statement pieces, mostly tops in outlandish colors and bold patterns.

Even as recently as my late twenties, when my then-roommate suggested that shopping for clothes became easier when you could look for stuff that fit a self-designated Venn diagram (like “sporty”/ “sexy” / “sport-sexy”), I thought about it for a moment before declaring that my look was probably “little boy” / “circus” / “little boy at the circus.” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, and I always insisted that I liked the tension created by the visual of my very womanly curves dressed in, say, a stripy rugby shirt. But even then, there was always an element of my not quite feeling like I knew how to do “girl” right.

And so my complete switch to a no-pants wardrobe was an obvious attempt for me to reclaim my femininity on some level, even if it didn’t immediately read as such to anyone else. I figured I’d cracked some sort of code for myself, and didn’t give it much thought beyond that for quite some time.

Suddenly: skirts!

Until I recently began reading Tess Whitehurst’s book Magical Fashionista. In her chapter on using specific articles of clothing to achieve specific, magical effects, she mentions that pants, obviously worn on the lower half of the body, in many ways align themselves symbolically with our ability to be grounded.

From Tess Whitehurst’s “Magical Fashionista”

She points out three phrases that evoke other qualities as well:

“wears the pants” (determination and authority)
“flying by the sea of one’s pants” (intuition)
“fancy pants” (affluence)

It was that first one that really hit me, though.

As a child put in the position of being overly responsible, over-achieving, and over-vigilant about everyone’s needs and emotions but my own, I’d been wearing the pants in many different ways, in many different situations and relationships, for far too long. Thanks to that passage in the book, I suddenly saw my complete refusal to wear anything other than skirts and dresses as more than just a craving of femininity for its own sake—it was also a craving to be released from the burden of constant responsibility.

I didn’t want to be the one wearing the pants anymore!

I didn’t want to be in charge. I wanted to be doted on, to have someone fetch me the things I desired, to allow space for my silly whims and sudden cravings to not just be expressed but to be indulged. I wanted my female energy to be seen and prioritized and validated. I wanted to be worth more than just what I could do for other people. I wanted to be decorative, fanciful, flowing. I was exhausted by all the work required to keep up that facade of hyper-competence. I was ready to let it all go.

And so I’m doing my best to give that girly part of me room to breathe and play, to find freedom, and a very different kind of power, in femme expression.

 

Declare Your Independence of Spirit!

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For as long as I’ve considered myself a religious adept or metaphysical practitioner or healer or clairvoyant or whatever other term might apply to my spiritual studies and striving, I’ve secretly longed for my will to be obliterated.

Photo by Martin Staněk

Photo by Martin Staněk

I’ve longed for a spell or charm or prayer that would achieve its intended effect without any involvement from me.

Through a strange combination of both skepticism and deep credulity, I’ve wanted to see incontrovertible results that would override my need to believe in them. I approached each new technique or discipline with a wide-eyed hope that this would be the puzzle piece that had been missing from my belief system so far, that finally I’d found the thing that would not only work but would, in working, validate my deep desire to know that magic still exists in the world. And that I could access that magic if given the right tools.

Photo by Carli Jean Miller.

Photo by Carli Jean Miller.

Of course this is all bullshit—but not for the reasons you might think.

Yes, magic exists and can be made through a variety of different avenues.

The key, though, is that I have to work it. I have to expect it to work, and hold space for that expectation to come to fruition, and acknowledge my role in making it happen. It’s not that I’m forcing it to happen, or lone-wolfing it. The process is indeed co-creative, in the sense that the magic cannot flow without me. I’m the portal through which it enters my world.

"Secret door" by  Theophilos Papadopoulos

“Secret door” by Theophilos Papadopoulos

Every time I’ve sat down to meditate or conjure, I’ve unintentionally handicapped myself by splintering off a part of my valuable attention by thinking, “ooh, OK, I wonder if this is really going to do anything?” And that subtraction of energy has killed, or at least seriously diminished, the effectiveness of nearly everything I’ve ever hoped to achieve through my self-directed energy work. Not because of the skepticism, necessarily—but because, in some sense, I force-quit the program before it had a chance to fully boot up. I withheld the resources from the endeavor and then sat back with a mixture of disappointment and resignation when nothing happened.

To use a lame and overextended metaphor: “I planted this seed in the ground, but gave it no water or sunshine. What the fuck, seed? I guess you weren’t ever going to work in the first place, were you?”

"Many sunflower seeds" by Richard Thomas

“Many sunflower seeds” by Richard Thomas

I’m not sure when or how or why I started to see the error of my ways more clearly, but it seems incredibly obvious to me now why I’ve been struggling for so long. And it’s not only obvious, but actually exciting, in that I realize now how much power this is giving back to me. Or, not even giving back, just properly illuminating.

If magic doesn’t work without my energy added to it, what does that say about the quality of my energy?!

So, my friends, from my magical little corner or the world to yours, I say to you: declare your independence from any system that robs you of your own inherent power or makes you doubt its effectiveness in any way. Celebrate your freedom to create a life as beautiful and magical and gorgeously improbable as you can imagine.

Behind the Scenes at a Small Town Police Station

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My maternal grandmother (or Nanny, as we called her) was a radio dispatcher for our small-town police department until her retirement in the early 1990s.

She had actually worked, for a number of years, way before I was born, as a hairdresser (one of the great pleasures of my young life was getting my hair washed in the salon-style sink she’d had installed in the basement of her home), so I have no idea how or when she landed at the station. And now pretty much anyone I could have asked about it is either dead or all but estranged from me.

Nevertheless, she was a well-regarded fixture among the town’s various civil servants, their goodwill toward her extending well past her retirement. She even cashed in a favor on my behalf when, at 16, I begged her to get a police officer to fix the ticket he’d given me for blowing a stop sign late one night on a back country road, so that my dad wouldn’t lose his shit if he found out his precious, perfect daughter had fucked up so carelessly.

More than that, though, I remember, as an extremely small child, being taken by my mother to visit her on duty at the town’s small old police station, which buzzed with faintly green fluorescent lighting and smelled of stale coffee and enjoyed the then-novel feature of an enormous, wood-paneled pop machine near the front entrance.

Photo scanned from “Images of America: Dyer” by Paul Anthony Benninghoff (Arcadia Publishing, 2010), page 104

I’m sure that many of these visits must have occurred while she was on a break. But I’m also pretty sure that the town was sleepy enough in the early ’80s—long before it became overrun with chain restaurants and strip malls built to appeal to exurban commuters to Chicago—that sitting with her in the control room while she was on duty wouldn’t have been that big a deal. It was normally quiet enough there that we could visit together casually, our conversation only interrupted by an occasional “10-4” spoken into the radio, or by hearty greetings from the burly, friendly cops on duty, just passing through.

My grandmother was far from mild-mannered, and she yelled at us plenty when my siblings and I got ourselves into trouble or started getting insolent and bratty with her. But my memories of her demeanor in her professional capacity at the station are consistently cool and even-tempered. There must have been countless emergencies she needed to attend to over the years, things that I certainly wouldn’t have been privy to both due to my age and my being a citizen off the street, and she had to have had a million other responsibilities beyond sitting at the desk and communicating via radio with the police cruisers. But the many times that I saw her at work, I recall no stress, no overwhelm—just steady, calm, alert command. 10-4, 10-4, over and out, she’d repeat quietly, almost flatly, with her dusty smoker’s voice, into the long metallic microphone affixed to the elaborate radio console.

TeachingI compare this, mentally, to my hot-tempered father, a high school music teacher and band conductor, who was reputed to have thrown a music stand in anger, either at a student or near a student, during an after-school rehearsal. (Called on this in later years, he hedged that the incident may have been exaggerated, that he likely just knocked the stand over accidentally while gesturing emphatically.) I compare this also to my own current job, managing book production at a midsized publishing house, where I’m constantly short-tempered, irritable, and prone to lashing out if I’m feeling over-stimulated or unnecessarily distracted by someone else’s demands on my time and attention.

death, death, death, death, murder

Of course law enforcement, even in a small Midwestern town, would likely be very different today from what it was in the ’80s, and assuredly much more high stress, but I still find myself thinking about my grandmother, and the discrepancy in our respective workplace attitudes, a lot these days. Thoughts of her, in her light blue police shirt and clip-on earrings, pop into my head, almost unbidden, when I feel myself losing control of a given situation at my own office, when I find myself ashamed of my wild mood swings and pettiness. I try to channel something of her cool way of handling things, and of handling people. 10-4, 10-4, over and out, I’ll think to myself, remembering her dignity and her situational unflappability, not so much wishing that she’d answer me back as hoping to make contact with my own version of the oasis of calm that she was able to summon, night after night, shift after shift, helping keep the town as quiet as she’d found it.

The No-Excuses Guide to Home Recording

Stop kidding yourself if you think it takes much more than this to record a song and post it online:

My band, Pet Theories, took about three hours on the evening of Memorial Day to record a drum part, a keyboard part, a guitar part, a sung vocal, and a spoken word vocal onto a four-track recorder.

It then took Brian, our guitar player, maybe an additional hour to adjust the levels and convert the recording to an MP3. I then grabbed the file, cropped an image to go with it, and posted everything onto our band’s Soundcloud account.

Bam.

All this was done between the hours of 6 pm and 11 pm. Now you can enjoy the song wherever you are, as long as you have access to the Internet.

Of course there’s backstory.

In the lead-up to this year’s Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE), Brian decided to put together a new zine dedicated to the somewhat obscure DC Comics character Man-Bat. What began as little more than an inside joke among friends has quickly turned into one of the most delightful and inspiring collaborative art projects I’ve been part of in a long time.

As friends from around the country, and across generations, began submitting their writings and drawings for the printed zine, the band started joking about writing a theme song to accompany it . . . until it wasn’t really a joke anymore and turned into a creative necessity.

It all came together effortlessly—a couple riffs fell out of thin air, a song structure presented itself fairly quickly after that, and the missing piece was really the lyrics. I’d been improvising some goofy gibberish during rehearsals, roughly inspired by the plots of the two comic issues from 1975-76 that actually star Man-Bat, and then our drummer, Tony, helped me hammer out the rest of the verses about 10 minutes before I got in front of the mic to record my vocal. His spoken word section comes from the poem that he wrote for the zine.

I only bring all this up as a reminder that DIY culture remains strong in Chicago’s indie comics scene, and it’s a spirit that I wish lived a little more vibrantly among the city’s musicians as well.

It seems like every band I run into these days is pulling together exorbitant amounts of cash to book studio time at Gallery of Carpet or Electrical Audio. Aside from the fact that it seems awfully un-punk to me (not that I’m trying to police anyone’s punkness!), it also seems like an awfully expensive, precious, and time-consuming way to get one’s art out there.

I’m far from a devotee of Austin Kleon’s philosophies, yet I loved what he said in this interview on 99U:

I think people seriously underestimate what 15 minutes a day for 10 years will do versus 10 hours a day for a year. If you do little bits and pieces every day, after a while, you have this body of work.

Like, if you want to be a filmmaker, don’t think about being P.T. Anderson, think about making a 30-second YouTube clip. Make the best 30-second YouTube clip you can, and make a hundred of them. Just start making and editing, learn and release the work as you go, and see what resonates with people.

I’m a huge fan of P.T. Anderson’s work (especially The Master) and would argue that we actually do need to encourage more artists to aspire to his level of stature, talent, and vision, but Kleon’s point is well taken. I struggle with being overly precious in my writing and creative output myself, so this lesson, to do little bits of things more frequently in order to keep learning and growing as an artist, is one that I’m currently really taking to heart. It was completely exhilarating to realize that I could put together a song with my endlessly inspiring bandmates and then actually share it with the world.

So, with that, I’m delighted to bring you “The Theme from Man-Bat!” And, if you’re in Chicago, I hope to see you this weekend at CAKE. Brian will have copies of the zine available to trade (and after that, it will likely be available to buy for a few bucks at Quimby’s).

PS: Wanna read more from my perspective as an ultra small-time musician in Chicago? Click here to read my essay, “How to Buy a Guitar in Chicago,” over on the Public Street blog.

How to Be Generous

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I don’t fancy myself a crafty lady.

craft jars

Photo by Katey Nicosia/onegoodbumblebee

Never have.

And I’ve always had a bit of a complex about it.

Long before Pinterest made it possible for us all to feel bad about not being clever enough to whip up 12 different meals with the dregs of last week’s grocery shopping or turn a few bits of cardboard and wire into an ingenious closet organizer or whatever, I always marveled at women who could show up at a Sunday brunch with a gorgeous, tasty quiche they whipped up at the last minute.

chopping vegetables

Photo by Webvilla

Or, women who were capable of assembling an intricate quilt, laden with graphic symbolism, completely from scratch, for a friend’s wedding. My store-bought container of cubed pineapple or blandly practical gift certificates always felt like they paled in comparison.

I inwardly defended myself, perhaps a bit overzealously, with the reminder that I grew up without a mother and thus didn’t have the kind of role modeling that would have subconsciously trained me to know how to pull off shit like that. I was raised by my dad who was short on time and imagination when it came to gift-giving and party organizing but would give hours of his time as a musician at church or help a friend record a special song for her husband for their anniversary or even rehearse me through a number or two for an upcoming audition.

soundboard

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller (http://drewpatrickmiller.com/)

So I likewise defaulted to sharing in this way—making mix CDs for friends’ parties, writing exceedingly detailed film and concert reviews on my old blog that would hopefully help readers steer clear of anything that would be a waste of their time, or just introducing cool people to each other so that they could go on to make cool art together. I figured this was about the best I could do since I felt shortchanged in the baking/decorating/crafting/girl-skills department.

And, perhaps what made it all even more painful for me is that I actually have tons of memories of my mother being crafty and helpful and generous. Aside from her cancer, that’s pretty much the primary way I remember her.

Leaning out the car window at a red light to ask a blind man if he needed assistance crossing at a busy intersection.

Spending hours creating elaborate counted cross-stitch pieces to give as gifts to friends and relatives, pieces that still hang, framed, in many of their houses to this day.

Winning a fat little pot at a bingo game then blowing most of it on toys for us kids and boxes of chocolates and other treats for close friends and family.

But, one of the most salient, instructive memories of her kindness is of a time when I was very small and being given a bath by my father. It was an otherwise unremarkable night, and as he was getting ready to finish up and towel me off, she stuck her head in the door and told us that she’d just made a batch of chocolate chip cookies.

chocolate chip cookies

Photo by Sheila C/wizardofozgurl

“But whyyyyyyy?” I remember asking repeatedly.

In my child’s brain, freshly baked cookies were special treats for a special occasion—holidays or birthdays or parties. I couldn’t conceive of why she’d make them for us for no reason at all, just because she wanted to, just because she loved us, just because it was a nice thing to do.

“But whyyyyyyy?”

This explains so much about my personality, even now—that inability to believe that anyone could do anything nice without a very specific reason.

On the one hand, I’m ego-centric enough to believe that of course I deserve special treatment and praise for my humor, my intelligence, my hard work. But when it comes to accepting kindness or affection that doesn’t stem from a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” transaction, I find myself flummoxed, suspicious, or both.

I’m sure you can see where this is going—I tend to panic about being a good enough gift giver because some wormy little part of my brain feels that that’s the only way I can be assured of receiving love or affection or praise or care. And then I panic some more because I don’t want anyone else to feel that my lack of creativity in this area means I love them any less.

forest girl

Photo by Dominik Martin, https://twitter.com/dominikmartn

So, it always comes as a surprise, and no small relief, when I do happen upon a small project I can make with my hands and then genuinely enjoy giving away.

As I approach the end of my training to become a Certified Crystal Healer through the Hibiscus Moon Crystal Academy, I’ve found that I love creating gem elixirs. In addition to just adding them to my water or morning smoothies, I’ve also recently been creating room sprays with them. For instance, I just made a batch of a “negativity neutralizer” spray that can be used around the house instead of burning sage to refresh the energy of the space. I spent weeks making the tinctures and elixirs that go into it, and was delighted to discover I had a vast surplus beyond what I’d ever be able to use for just myself. So I bought several dozen tiny spray bottles and started gleefully giving the stuff away. Just because I wanted to. Just because I felt like it. Just because it made me happy to do so. No big deal.

I may not ever feel on par with those ladies that knit like banshees or throw together perfect cheesecakes with minimal prep. But, how funny that I would end up finding my DIY magic by tapping into what many folks would consider actual magic, full stop.

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PS: Want to learn more about my actual magical offerings? Click here for information about booking me for a psychic reading, energy healing, or reiki treatment.

Musical Chakras

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When I was going through my yearlong training to become a clairvoyant reader, one of the fun games I started playing for my own amusement was, any time I was at a concert, to look at which chakra was most dominant in the different musicians.

In case you don’t know, or just need a refresher, we all have seven main chakras that roughly correspond to the following:

1st: at the root of the spine–safety, survival, security, grounding

2nd: around the belly button–sensuality, sexuality, emotions

3rd: at the bottom of the ribcage–male/female energy distribution, will/workspace, power center

4th: heart–love, oneness, affinity

5th: throat–the ability to communicate with oneself and others, clairaudience, telepathy

6th: third eye (center of your head)–vision, clairvoyance, the ability to see and be seen

7th: crown (top of the head)–connection to one’s higher self, connection to God, sense of knowingness

pranaIn my years of observation, most drummers and bass players are going to be operating from the first and second chakras–keeping the rest of the band grounded, but also keeping the swing funky and sexy. However, I’ve also seen highly idiosyncratic drummers like Billy Ficca of Television or Brian Blade operating from their fifth charkas–bringing a voice or eloquence to their beat-making, beyond just keeping a simple pulse.

Guitar players, especially lead electric players, are often associated with the third chakra–it’s all power, will, and dominance. But I’ve also seen someone like Nathaniel Braddock, an extremely cerebral and intelligent player, work entirely from his crown. Tom Verlaine, at least when I saw him play recently, works from his fourth chakra, not so much as an expression of love like we might normally think of it, but as an expression of his identity and oneness with the music/his instrument.

Sax players and lead vocalists are typically fifth chakra players, which makes perfect sense–they are the voices of their bands, communicating from the front of the stage, getting the songs’ melodic ideas across to the crowd. I’ve also seen, for example, the former lead singer of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International sing from his heart chakra with a pure force of love that felt absolutely revolutionary.

Classical music is another ball of wax entirely, but just to continue with my very general overview, orchestra conductors tend to be working from their seventh charkas exclusively, albeit with very different flavors. Typically the crown chakra is the seat of one’s seniority; if you’ve ever started talking or acting like a friend when you find yourself in close quarters with them, you’re probably matching to the energy that she is running in her crown. It’s obviously handy for orchestra members to be resonating as a unit in this way, so it’s important for a conductor to set a tone and offer his or her crown chakra as a kind of beacon to follow. Which sometimes can have unexpected consequences.

A few years ago I saw a guest conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who was clearly operating as some sort of channel or medium for these CRAZY high-pitched energies that almost felt extraterrestrial. As the orchestra was tuning up that night, it felt like they were in a panic, trying to ratchet themselves up to his level of nerve-jangling intensity. It was a much, much higher level of energy than the average person would be able to sustain for any length of time.

Whereas a guy like Esa Pekka-Salonen conducts from his seventh chakra not as a way to channel anything spacy, but as a way of looking into the future, to keep pushing the art form forward.

So, that’s just a quick summary of one way I play with my clairvoyance when I go out to concerts. But it can certainly also be done in other contexts–I’ve “read” at art museums (both individual works of art and whole exhibits) and even though I’m not sporty at all, I’m sure reading athletes at a sporting event would be terribly interesting as well.

Looking at energy this way started as not much more than a way to practice my developing psychic skills. But now it’s a fun way for me to add a level of depth to my experience as an audience member–almost to feel like I’m participating in the show in some way. It’s also a good reminder for me, as a performer, that it’s foolish to try to tamp down or mask my own dominant energy center(s). The audience, whether they would realize it or know how to articulate it or not, will always see/feel what I’m actually doing.

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