Press play to listen to me read this post aloud:
Earlier this year I put together a zine called Loose Ends and Loneliness: A Zine About Transition Times.
I wanted to explore those occasions in life when things are changing and you’re not quite sure who you are or where you belong or what you’re supposed to be doing anymore. I invited a handful of friends to contribute short pieces and recollections, and they wrote brilliantly about divorce, basic training, spontaneous cross-country moves, and so many other essentially liminal experiences. My own essay centered on the six months after college graduation that I lived with my maternal grandmother before she passed away from lung cancer.
I wrote and revised and scrapped and rewrote multiple drafts of my piece, trying to get at exactly the right tone of confused longing and seemingly thwarted ambition that suffused that time for me. I’m mostly OK with the finished piece and how it turned out, even though I knew I’d probably need to revisit that time of my life in writing again eventually since there’s so much to say about it.
I just didn’t expect to have an occasion to revisit it again so soon.
A big, meaningful chunk of the story that went unwritten in my piece as it stands now was the narration of the actual day that my grandmother died. Not only the narration of the day, but a character study of the major other player in the afternoon’s events, my best friend’s mother, Mary Ann Becklenberg.
I’d known for years that Mrs. B. was a long-time employee of Hospice of the Calumet Area, which was the same hospice team that had been called in to provide care for my grandmother in the last six or so weeks of her life. As a typically narcissistic teenager, though, what did I really know about what hospice care entailed? At least until I was immediately exposed to it.
My grandmother’s physical health went into sharp, sudden decline in the last three-to-five days that she was alive. But that final day, she must have taken a turn for the worse that freaked me out enough to call over Mrs. B. She lived very near to my grandmother’s house and I knew she’d be able to get to me much quicker than the actual case worker who’d been assigned to us.
Many of the details are a blur to me now, but I remember Mrs. B. arriving immediately to help me make my grandmother more comfortable in the hospital bed that had only recently taken the place of her favorite blue recliner in the living room. Mrs. B. helped me adjust the sheets, clean up some bodily fluids, and taught me how to slide my grandmother’s body up to the top of the bed, using the white sheet underneath her torso like a sling.
As my best friend’s mother, Mrs. B. was primarily known to me as an ebullient hostess-with-the-mostess, always quick to laugh, gossip, and revel with friends both dear and recently made, young or mature. But here I got to experience a new, remarkable side of her personality—her professional acumen, her sixth sense for when to offer gentle instruction versus letting me take the lead, her calm certainty in the face of my own grief and panic. How many deathbeds must she have been at over the course of her career as a social worker to have been able to remain compassionate and unphased in the face of this most momentous transition in a person’s life?
“Allison, these will be her last breaths,” she stressed to me, quietly but firmly, as my grandmother began gulping desperately for air.
And, as it became clear, as I clung to my grandmother’s left hand while I crouched at the side of the bed, that she had indeed taken her final breaths, Mrs. B. let me collapse into tears, providing space and safety for me to have my own emotional experience freely, while standing literally beside me, solidly holding the space, lending her inimitable strength, but not rushing to comfort or otherwise distract me. I’m pretty sure she was also the one to have called the ambulance, and recommended that I step outside into the backyard so as not to have to watch them physically remove my grandmother’s body from her house for the last time. She was masterfully efficient and unquestionably authoritative, yet possessed of a supreme delicacy that protected and sustained the bedrock emotional reality of everything that had just transpired.
I of course saw Mrs. B. many times in the ensuing years, at the holidays, at her other daughter’s wedding, at my own father’s wake. Her Alzheimer’s eventually became discreetly apparent but never overly distracting or disturbing to me. The essential radiance of her personality was more than enough to patch over any memory or cognitive fog that may have been affecting her, at least in those moments when she knew she had to be “on” in public. Even in my final visit with her at the nursing home just this spring, though she was mute and unresponsive, I was fascinated to notice the last kinesthetic traces of her personality still lingering in her muscle memory—the way she would suddenly lift her arm or shift her weight was so persistently Mrs. B. that I found it hard to resist a naïve belief that she might open her eyes at any moment and start chit-chatting with me again like old times.
And so, though of course I’m enormously sad over her death, for my sake as well as her family’s, I can’t help but marvel, admiringly, at how much of her essence still remained present despite the brutality of the Alzheimer’s, at how much she allowed her life force to be felt by her many, many loved ones, right down to the very end. And because, in my own mind, I associate her so much, and so positively, with my grandmother’s death, in many ways I feel like she’s simply gone back to work again, quietly yet authoritatively being the one to show us all how to make a graceful, and grace-filled, exit.
Press play to listen to me read this post aloud:
My dad had a debilitating stroke in the summer of 2004 and then died a full eight years later at the very end of 2012. He hadn’t left much in the way of a will, so my family and I did the best we could with the wake and funeral arrangements, guessing at what he would have wanted.
(I will always be proud of my insistence on playing The Spaniels’ “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight” as mourners filed past the casket for the last time on the day of the funeral. My dad often ended his gigs with a tape recording of the song, and, even though the funeral home attendant rushed, slightly panicked, to turn down the volume on the stereo when that first bass vocal riff DA DA DUH DUH DUNH kicked in, it’s just the sort of impish, slightly inappropriate joke that would have tickled the shit out of him.)
The other major decision that needed to be made at that point was burial or cremation. He’d never said much about what he’d wanted, neither while he was healthy nor after the stroke. My maternal grandmother had at some point purchased, for herself, the plot at the cemetery next to my mother’s gravesite, but then at the last minute, before her own death in 2002, decided she wanted to be cremated, with no funeral, no fuss. But the process of transferring the deed to that space to my dad was never pursued, and then it was too late. Also, it’s not like our family was swimming in money, and the precious little that had been set aside for the wake didn’t go very far, so, all things being equal, it seemed to make the most sense to skip the additional cost of a gravesite and headstone and whatnot and just opt for cremation for him as well.
My boyfriend drove me back to Northwest Indiana in early January 2013 to unceremoniously pick up the cremains from the funeral home on a grey weekday morning. It was a plastic bag filled with ashes inside a cylindrical metal canister, inside a sturdy black box with a lid, inside another slightly flimsier box with a label with his identifying information on it, inside a heavy black bag with straps that closed shut with thick strips of Velcro. We drove the 45-50 minutes back to Chicago with the bag in the back seat. The tiny one-bedroom apartment where we were living at the time had next to no storage, so I ended up putting the whole grim package, of all places, on the top shelf in our kitchen pantry. (Lest you get the wrong idea, we had plenty of other stuff on that shelf as well—art supplies and rubber stamps, a broken flashlight, and one of the cat carriers.)
With my younger siblings’ full agreement, I’d decided that, once the weather got nice again, the best place to scatter his ashes would be in Southern Indiana. We actually ended up making the trip in early September, the weekend of what would have been his 64th birthday.
My dad’s undergraduate years at Indiana University were among the happiest of his life, and at some point early in their relationship, he and my mom started vacationing in Nashville, Indiana, a small town less than 20 miles away from Bloomington, known mostly for its arts and crafts community and for its relative proximity to the Brown County State Park. In a short journal of the first year of my babyhood that my mom kept for me, she lovingly described Brown County as “our place.” We subsequently spent many, many years vacationing there as a family, both before and well after my mom’s death.
There’s a bit of family lore about a time when, as kids, my dad and his younger brother were being so naughty that my grandparents packed them into the car late one night, took off from their home in Hammond, and threatened to drop the two of them off at one of the oil refineries in nearby Whiting. The boys, being young, impressionable, and credulous, were, of course, terrified.
Haha, hilarious bit of parenting, right? It was the 1950s, things were different then, my dad and uncle grew into upstanding citizens as adults, no harm done, right? Sure, I guess, but I’d also argue that this incident did no favors for my dad’s subsequent ability to separate out from the family group and define himself as a man.
He spent the majority of his adulthood, until he went into the nursing home post-stroke, living no more than a 20-minute drive away from his parents and two younger siblings. Which is why I think his school years at Indiana University and his vacations spent in Nashville with my mom were so important for him. Even if he would not have described it as such, Southern Indiana represented personal autonomy. It was the one place on earth where he’d had the experience of being, blessedly, his own man. No wonder we vacationed there so frequently! While he maintained his devotion to our extended family for the majority of the year, there was always at least a week or two set aside for a road trip, when, while still being a good parent and caring for me and my siblings, he could also reconnect with the energy of his own first, joyful, youthful separation.
But, because traumas and internalized assumptions that go uninterrogated tend to keep trickling down the family tree until they’re consciously disrupted, I actually was dropped off in the middle of nowhere as a young child, as I’ve written about before. What felt like being abandoned for no reason that I could make any sense of at the time consequently passed along to me that same compulsion to stay connected to my loved ones at all costs, fearing for my safety, while I simultaneously, desperately craved the permission to claim my own sense of distance, of silence, and of personal space.
During the first year of my training as a clairvoyant, I received a profound reading from a classmate—she saw an image of me rowing myself way out into the darkness at the center of Lake Michigan in an effort to get myself away from the tyranny of other people’s thoughts, emotions, and demands. I was astonished that I’d never thought of my need for silence in quite that way before. Despite my years of sitting in Zen meditation and attending silent retreats, I’d never consciously acknowledged that I actually needed silence, that it wasn’t just something that I made do with when there was no one around for me to entertain and/or take care of. And not only did I need the silence, but I was actually allowed to claim it for myself regularly, simply, rather than going to increasingly outlandish lengths to find it. I was relieved and grateful to have had that aspect of my spirit recognized and validated with neutrality.
And so I came to deeply sympathize and resonate with my father’s clear but unspoken longing to carve out a place for himself to be free. After eight years of watching him suffer the purgatory of an uncooperative body, an uncooperative body which of course needed constant monitoring by nursing home staff (that is, the complete opposite of autonomy), I resolved to frame the scattering of his ashes as a significant act of mercy.
It’s not really illegal to scatter ashes on public property. But darting in and out of my boyfriend’s car in Nashville, poking through the underbrush near the Jordan River on campus, and trying to choose the perfect scenic spot on the route between the two towns, all the while looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was going to give me shit about what I was so furtively doing, still felt a bit like a scavenger hunt in reverse. Or like TPing a friend’s house in the middle of the night, or some other bit of benevolent mischief. (Lord knows that the catch-as-catch-can quality of it all would have driven my father’s perfectionist Virgo side nuts.)
But even though the actual, physical process of doing so felt anything but mystical or holy, I knew that, with time, the experience of very deliberately scattering his ashes in three specific places where his biography overlapped meaningfully with that particular bit of landscape would reveal itself as a course correction, a healing on my family line, and most of all, a magical spell to release him back to his own selfhood.
Late in the summer of 2010, I found myself participating in a two-day silent Zen meditation retreat.
The temple that I belong to periodically hosts silent retreats of varying length—typically either two-day shorties or five-day intensives. This was one of the shorties, and I’d signed up to attend, thinking that it would be a decent way to refresh my practice in the midst of all the other things I had going on in my life at that point. There was my 40-hour-a-week day job, a new band, and a burgeoning interest in developing, beyond mere meditation, my psychic abilities.
I’d recently just completed a five-week course where I learned some basic techniques for psychic development. These techniques included getting energetically grounded, clearing out the layers of my aura, understanding and working with my chakras, creating and destroying energetic constructs, and—the one that everyone in my class was most excited about—manifesting objects and circumstances in my life.
So, though I’d been regularly sitting in meditation since 2007 and had even taken formal precepts as a Zen Buddhist practitioner in the summer of 2009, I now had this host of other techniques I was learning to work with. The two approaches didn’t necessarily conflict, but they didn’t necessarily 100% synch up with each other either.
Zen meditation retreats can be brutal. Not in the sense of Zen masters beating you with sticks or depriving you of food and water and sleep or anything like that. Just in the sense that…you’re left alone with your own mind for hours and hours at a time. The lack of distraction can be really beautiful when you’re able to sink into it, but it can also be really punishing if you find yourself in a negative mind loop for any reason. The weekend of that retreat, I happened to trip into a negative mind loop and just couldn’t get myself out of it.
Armed with my new roster of psychic meditation techniques, though, I thought I might as well try to switch my approach. I figured if I was going to be stuck sitting in lotus position on my mat and cushion anyway, at least I could use all that quiet time to try to transform the thoughts that were making me feel bad about myself. So I thought, hmm, let me try one of these manifestation techniques I just learned about.
And so I walked myself through the steps of creating a thoughtform that I would release with the intention that that thoughtform would eventually come back to me (hopefully) as an actual, physical object in the real world. One of the many things that often made me feel down on myself was my lack of skill with money, and my tendency to carry more credit card debt than I would have liked. So, I began to think, how can I create a thoughtform for enough money to pay off the remaining debt that was sitting on my credit card?
And in the process of creating the thoughtform, I realized I had to ask myself, if I had the money to cover that debt, would I actually give it to myself? Like, if I, as some hypothetical third-person construct, were to ask myself—the true me, the inner me—for that specific sum of money, would I be willing and able to give myself, with kindness and generosity, the amount of money that I needed? And I realized that, sadly, no, I wouldn’t. Through whatever trip of bad self-esteem I was on, I was convinced that I wouldn’t have enough compassion to get my own self out of debt if I somehow actually had the immediate means to do so.
Obviously, this left me feeling profoundly bad! And once I started feeling bad, self-flagellating over my perceived lack of money sense, it wasn’t long before I started to feel like a straight-up bad person on top of it, thinking about how much, under my perky exterior, I secretly loathed myself, how despite all my highfalutin ideas about being a virtuous meditator and whatnot, I was actually a crummy person full of self-hatred. And if I hated myself that much, then, hoo boy, my logic went, I was probably not a very nice person to everyone around me as well. Shit upon shit!
So, after quite some time dragging myself mentally and emotionally through the mud (while outwardly sitting quietly in lotus posture, ostensibly tracking my ingoing and outgoing breaths over the course of several 30-minute sessions), I thought, OK, let’s back this up and try again with something easier, something that won’t make me feel so completely horrible about myself. So I thought, when I get out of this retreat and head home at the end of the weekend, I just want a cupcake. Pulling a little bit of sugary comfort out of thin air felt both achievable and necessary. Crucially, however, since I am an absurd overachiever in all things, as I was going through the mental/energetic techniques to create the thoughtform, I processed it with the intention that I would manifest “the perfect cupcake.”
In my innocence, I was simply conceiving of the perfect cupcake aesthetically. I wanted a cupcake that would be gorgeously crafted, with the ideal proportions of frosting to cake, in an inventive flavor combination, decorated beautifully and lovingly, like something out of a Zooey Deschanel movie.
And so, that’s where I left it. The retreat eventually ended, and though I didn’t feel that much better about myself at its conclusion, at least I was free to go home and zone out a bit.
But first! The bass player/principal songwriter/covocalist in my band had wanted to meet up with me after the retreat to hand off a burned CD with some new demos on it.
Even though I was fairly exhausted and wasn’t in the best mood of all time, thanks to all the self-flagellation I’d been putting myself through over the past few days, I showed up at the restaurant we’d chosen, which was about halfway between the temple and my apartment.
I remember sitting down at the table and saying something to the effect of, “I don’t even know why I’m here right now.” Which probably sounded rude and dismissive, when in fact it was an expression of self-hatred. As in, “why would you need to see me right now, don’t you know that I am garbage, why am I even in the band, who would ever need or want my horrible, ill-informed opinions about anything, much less anything as sacred and important as music?”
He just kindly told me about the handful of new songs that he’d recorded at home with his four-track Fostex, described how he thought I could fill them out with some backing vocals and/or harmony lines in a couple places, and told me he’d e-mail me the lyric sheets subsequently.
I went on my not-so-merry way back to my apartment. No cupcakes fell out of the sky that day, or that week, or that month. Stupid manifestation technique. I couldn’t even seem to get that right.
Time passed. My attitude regained equilibrium. Life was good. Over the course of the next few months I took a trip to Spokane to visit some dear friends who’d just had their first child. I got on an Edith Wharton kick after reading The House of Mirth for the first time. I signed up for a yearlong training program to formally develop my own clairvoyance at the school where I’d taken my first psychic meditation class. I reached the end of my second year as a volunteer on the advisory committee at the Buddhist temple. The band continued to play gigs, including a monthly residency at a tiny club in a slightly out-of-the-way part of Chicago, and we decided to self-record and self-release a full-length album.
I’d wanted to be in a band for so long. I grew up enthralled with my dad’s life as a musician and desperately missed that world. For better or worse, my father always basically treated me like an adult, even when I was very small, and there was nothing I loved more than being allowed to hang out with him and his musician friends while they talked shop, rehearsed, or listened to music together. I struggled for years to find my own musical comrades, and I was overjoyed when I met the bass player through a mutual friend and he told me that he’d been wanting to add female harmonies to his songs and wondered if I might want to join the new band that he was putting together.
And though I struggled with low self-esteem about it, perversely feeling like this was maybe too good to be true and living in fear that he and the guitar player and drummer would all soon realize what a horrible mistake it was to have invited me to be in the band, at the bottom of it all, I was thrilled to be back among what I felt were my people—the show folk. Playing music was a big part of it, sure, of course, but it was also the kinship, the agreed-upon acknowledgment that we were all chasing a lifestyle at odds with regular, respectable society (what with all the rehearsals and gigs in crummy shitholes, the specialized vocabulary, the time sacrificed on nights and weekends when other people are usually hanging out and relaxing).
And so, sitting in the car for hours after rehearsal with the bass player, talking about music and books and anything and everything else, felt like this huge, triumphant validation that I’d finally ended up in the kind of place, in the kind of life, I’d so desperately been looking for. Not only was I finally in a great-sounding rock band after years of failing to get any traction in other musical scenes in the city, but I’d also made the kind of forever-friend I hadn’t made since my days performing in musical theater as a teenager.
But in the same way that, during the previous year’s meditation retreat, I was so distracted by my inner monologue that I was incapable of enjoying what was happening right in front of me—namely, an opportunity to commune in silence with my fellow practitioners in a peaceful, supportive urban Zen temple—I was so myopically focused on my own agenda for joining the band that I didn’t realize that, over the course of the past year, the bass player had fallen in love with me. And whoops, whaddya know, I’d actually fallen in love with him too.
After we played an eerily perfectly timed mini-tour as a duo in Lawrence, Kansas, we realized we were going to have to contend with our obvious attraction to each other. It wasn’t long after that that the truth finally had to come out. Feelings were aired, declarations were made. Chronologies were compared: “When did you know?” “When did you know?” Life felt like it jumped onto a new and exciting track.
Our band’s next gig was actually the final date of our monthly residency. We’d had the third Thursday time slot for about a year and a half, and it was time to move on. I had nothing but gratitude for the bar’s gracious hospitality for our weird little band and our weird little group of fans. Month after month, it had been a reliable place for me to regain my confidence as a performer.
The night of that final show, I’d had to race to the bar from an event at my psychic school, and I rolled up in a cab, beaming, in love with my crazy life, ready to sound check. The rest of the guys had set up their gear, and the bass player was waiting near the stage for me. “Oh, I got this for you,” he said casually, pulling a small plastic container out of his bag. It was a vegan, gluten-free cupcake that he’d picked up at Whole Foods on his way to the show that night.
And in that context—newly in love, celebrating the end of a great residency with a great band, sparkling with the hard-won ability to start to see things psychically rather than just focusing on the darkness inside my own headspace—I’d finally manifested the perfect cupcake.
I am an extremely impatient person.
Oh sure, I pay lip service to the importance of process, to letting life and art and healing unfold in their own magical timing. But like so many things I believe in and recommend to other people, I feel somehow exempt from allowing that truth into my own life.
I want the learning experience behind me, the knowledge and growth safely implanted in my head. I want my artwork to be finished, polished, and ready to share with the world. I want my challenges accomplished, the stories of their unfolding ready to turn into pithy anecdotes.
I’m very good at starting things, pretty good at ending them, but squirrely, angry, and itchy about their middles.
Just about the only place where I can embrace being in the middle of anything, actually, is when I’m physically in motion—most especially in a car.
My family never flew anywhere when we went on vacation. There was no reason for it. We couldn’t afford expensive or luxurious trips to exotic places (like, say, the East or West Coasts), and anyway, why would we need to go anywhere so far away? Where, outside the Midwest, would my dad even want to take us?
A deeply sentimental man, he was capable of feeling nostalgic about something he may have done that morning before breakfast, so unsurprisingly he invested the locations of our previous vacations with a nearly mystical reverence. Their repetition always had something of a fated quality. “Let’s do the things we used to do. Let’s go to the places we used to go to.” The highways of Indiana, lower Michigan, and western Ohio became a rosary that we would make endless loops around, their deeply ingrained familiarity a comfort to me even now so many years later.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, we traveled in a brown, boxy full-sized van that my dad also used to haul his musical equipment to gigs in. It had a driver’s seat and a passenger’s seat up front, a U-shaped bench seat in the back, and a seemingly cavernous expanse between them. When not filled with his PA system and other gear, that’s where we’d throw our duffel bags and ancillary belongings before we hit the road.
There was also a square plank of wood that could be inserted into the cut-out portion of the U bench, with two rectangular cushions to cover it, to make a flat bed—a convenience for traveling with small children who needed to nap or have their diapers changed.
This plank also, inadvertently, created a small cave underneath. At some point my dad realized this and learned to tuck a lightweight blanket at the end of the makeshift bed, creating an incredibly enticing hiding space for little bodies to curl up inside.
So, as a small child, for vast portions of our road trips, I would crawl into this cave and lay my head against the pungent rubber of the floor and listen to the hum of the road underneath us, feeling the soothing vibrations of the chassis flying along at top speed down the highway.
Lulled by the steady rumble of the road, I was left to bask in my own interiority. What did I think about or dream about or conceive of while I was in my little hermit’s cave? I don’t really remember. But what I do recall is the desire to return—the excitement that would bubble up inside me when we were leaving on another trip and I knew I’d get the chance to disappear into my favorite little place again.
In later years, I of course not only physically outgrew the ability to fit in that small space but also outgrew the child’s privilege of not having to give a fuck about anybody’s happiness but my own. After my mother died, there was an unspoken understanding that I was expected to take her place as my father’s confidante and copilot. My siblings and I argued about who would get to sit in the front seat, like all siblings do, but it defaulted to me more often than not. (I was kind of snotty enough to assume I just inherently deserved it since, after all, I was now saddled with so much unwanted emotional responsibility. Like any asshole first child, I can get very rigid about pecking-order dynamics, especially when they’re set up to work in my favor.) The front seat brought pleasures of its own—watching the world fly by through the front windows, listening to and talking about music with my dad, kicking my feet up on the dashboard, being the first to see what was coming at us around the next bend in the road.
It was from that vantage point that I learned to love the small, temporary societies that emerged within the confines of a moving vehicle. I saw that it was possible for a whole world to be created in a car when you were settled in for a drive of any significant length. A cozy, often mute togetherness would descend, uniting the travelers, even when already genetically related, in a bond of deep care.
And it was more than just an acknowledgement that, yes, we’re all stuck here together until we get where we’re going. Despite the fact that we were very visibly traveling through a specific landscape, making progress that could be tracked on a map, there was also a feeling, oddly, of stasis. Being confined to the car, especially in those days before smart phones and GPS, actually kind of paradoxically made the world disappear. It was like the weird emotional truth of disaster movies—the people you were stuck with in these small spaces became your allies in a deeper, more intimate way than you usually had access to during the humdrum routines of everyday life.
Handing a bottle of water or a granola bar across the length of the vehicle to one of your fellow travelers took on a delicate intimacy that felt more like true generosity, honoring someone’s very human, immediate hunger or thirst. Because, after all, when are you ever more conscious of other people’s bodies in space and time than when you’re stuck in a somewhat cramped space with them? I think that’s part of what also makes a road trip feel like this tribal journey; you’re all literally, physically heading in the same direction, as a unit, everyone privy to each individual’s snores and farts and motion sickness and smelly feet as part of your unignorable collective experience.
I got my own driver’s license pretty much the moment I turned sixteen. The logic was that it would eliminate the need for me to beg rides home from friends’ parents after all my extracurricular activities, as well as allow me to run to the grocery store and help out with other chores that my dad otherwise couldn’t take care of until he was able to commute home from his job in downtown Chicago. And, yes, of course, being dutiful and obsequious to a fault (as I learned to be as a survival tactic in my family system), I ran plenty of errands and drove my siblings to and from their own extracurricular activities. But I was also suddenly…free. Free to exhale all the parts of my personality that I otherwise felt like I had to repress in order to make myself the model student, the model daughter. I now had the means to call the shots, and to build my own little motley society in the car with me.
Between the ages of 16 and 18, and even after that when I was home from college for summer and winter breaks, that car felt like my everything. It was the place where I listened to my favorite music (and sang along to it, loudly), exchanged heartfelt confidences with my dearest friends, made out for hours with my boyfriend, and wolfed down fast food on my way home from late-night theater rehearsals.
With gas prices still being relatively reasonable in the mid/late ’90s, I would often also just drive for the sake of driving.
I’d pick an arbitrary destination (often just some wide-open stretch along southbound Route 41 where it was easy to do a U-turn and head back home again), and I’d revel in the sense of purposeful aimlessness. I’d listen to music and allow my brain to simmer down from whatever full-throttle obsession it might have gotten stuck in, whether related to friends or family or school or my seemingly unreachable general ambitions. In these days before I’d developed a more formalized meditation practice, driving was the surest way I knew to connect with an expansive grace and a neutral yet observant regard for the world around me.
I lived with my maternal grandmother for about six months right after I graduated from college (which you can read more about in my brand-new zine, Loose Ends and Loneliness), and in the last hasty update to her will that she made right before she died, she left me her burgundy Cadillac Eldorado. It was a hell of a gorgeous car that made old men weak in the knees whenever they saw me in it on the street. I dutifully registered it with the city of Chicago when I finally, officially moved here on September 2, 2002. It mostly sat, though, undriven, in the space I paid for behind my first apartment near the corner of Chicago & Damen. I found that the CTA was easier to negotiate on a daily basis and that it offered, actually, more opportunity to develop that empty-minded meditative expansiveness than the stresses of city driving did. So, I eventually had to admit it was wisest to pass the car along to my brother, who needed a more reliable set of wheels for himself at that point anyway.
Thus my mobile meditations were then transferred to the trains and busses of the city, as well as my favorite paths to walk through the neighborhoods where I lived, worked, and explored.
But I still get a surge of excitement once I’m in a car on the open road—whether that’s a simple spin down Lake Shore Drive headed to Hyde Park for the day, or a longer trek outside the city for one reason or another. On especially gorgeous evenings, when the sky is full of pink clouds and the music on the stereo sounds just right and the miles are uninterrupted by gridlocked traffic, my love of the road will get the better of me, and I’ll shriek impulsively to my boyfriend, “let’s gooooooo! Let’s drive to Milwaukee!!”
We, um, don’t, what with cats to attend to and more rigidly booked schedules to maintain and astronomical gas prices to be mindful of. But like anyone with a lapsed religious practice, my early, formative experiences of life on the road continue to color the ways that I most intimately understand myself, moving me forward even when I’m sometimes, often, not exactly sure where I’m going.
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For a long time, beginning in my teens, my signature smell was vanilla.
I’d read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for school and became obsessed with the detail that Mick Kelly would wear “a drop of vanilla” so that she would smell good in case she happened to run into John Singer.
I resolved to adopt this strategy immediately; lucky for me, vanilla perfumes had already started gaining popularity then in the early/mid-’90s, so I wouldn’t have to sneak into my family’s spice cabinet. In some way I’d hoped that the thick, rich, ambery scent of vanilla would advertise my cuteness, my sweetness, my fundamental harmlessness, while still conveying an indefinable allure. I wanted desperately to be loved and admired, without having to ask for it.
After a dalliance with the omnipresent Vanilla Fields, I became devoted to Victoria’s Secret Vanilla Lace scented body lotion. I wore the scent for years, until it was discontinued. The company briefly resuscitated it, after customer outcry, I believe, and though I tried to go back to it, the moment was over. I lived scentless for a little while, save for maybe a highly scented shower gel here or there.
For a variety of reasons, I managed not to date much throughout my twenties, but at a certain point I finally determined to have a bit of a spree to make up for lost time. The relationships, if you can call them that, were mostly light and short-term, though I eventually fell harder than expected for a long-haired artist named Jake. Most likely sensing my insta-intensity, he of course broke up with me after a little over a month. I was more crushed about it than I should have been; unreasonable expectations will do that. Knowing I could easily spiral into a dark, obsessive depression about it, I vowed to try to do something constructive with my mourning. I signed up for six weeks of sessions with a personal trainer, whom I ended up despising, and then also became obsessed with perfume. Specifically, at first, with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s oils.
In the beginning of my new infatuation, simply reading about their scent descriptions and reviews was enough. (BPAL’s online catalog is extremely extensive and borderline confusing for a newcomer; it actually kind of invites a lot of reading/research to even understand what you’re getting into.) Then, of course, I wanted to try a few samples, telling myself I mostly wanted to find a substitute vanilla scent, one that would hopefully be a little more mature but still warm and sweet and sultry. I wanted to recapture the certainty that came with slathering myself in a signature scent every morning, while imperceptibly inching toward a more refined version of myself that I felt like I’d earned by becoming a Responsible Adult with a Grown-Up Job in a Big City. Even though nothing hit the exact spot I thought I was looking for, I was kind of surprised that it ended up not mattering. I loved ordering samples and playing around with the temporary personas I felt I magically inherited with each new fragrance.
For a long time, despite my scented attempts to tell a story about who I really was, I never actually felt like a solid person. I always was sort of waiting to connect with something external that would somehow solve the problem of my personhood for me. (In a recent reading with her, the wonderful astrologer Aeolian Heart chalked this up to my sun sign being in Aquarius on the cusp of Pisces, an astrological placement that she says is considered weak in terms of its ability to fully express an ego identity, but not in its abilities to study, contemplate, meditate, and investigate Mysteries.) A new activity or interest was always redolent with the promise that maybe some latent part of me would be activated in a way that would draw together the disparate parts of my life into a suddenly unified, cohesive whole that finally made sense.
This is partly, of course, the seduction of consumer capitalism, but I think it was also just an extension of the way I’d always felt obliged to make other people happy, always contorting myself into shapes that were meant to gain approval and approbation; if I was responsible for other people’s happiness, safety, and well-being, then surely someone or something was responsible for mine, right? No one ever really pointed out to me that there was maybe an overlap between the two—that it was possible to self-actualize in ways that would connect with and inspire other people’s own self-actualization in ways that weren’t so co-dependent.
At any rate, as I experimented with the temporary personas that arose from my smelling like, say, graveyard dirt, a burnt-out candle, a jewel-toned vase full of rotting flowers, or a strong cup of tea surrounded by sugar cookies, I realized I was also developing the more long-term persona of a Perfume Person. The message board connected to the main Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab site was frequented by other smell obsessives, and though I never developed the kind of deep friendships through that space that I know plenty of other people have, I enjoyed lurking and eavesdropping, especially on reviews of new scents that I hadn’t had a chance to try yet. The written descriptions of how strong the notes were, what emotions and flights of fancy they inspired, and how they were similar (or not) to other scents delighted my imagination and often evoked my writer’s envy.
Naturally, of course, I eventually stumbled upon Turin & Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which dealt with mainstream classics and niche perfumery. Aside from having known that my dad’s signature scent had been Eau Sauvage, I’d never really previously considered exploring, you know, actual perfume. Reading that book, though, led me to the decant sites like Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court and The Posh Peasant, where I could buy tiny samples of all these famous perfumes I was newly discovering, which then led me to the profusion of perfume review blogs, which led me to Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu’s books, which led me back to the decant sites, and on and on.
If I really became enamored of a particular scent, I would likely upgrade from a 1 ml decant to a 3 or 5 ml. But I instinctively shied away from full-bottle purchases. Full bottles were far too expensive, especially given that I knew my tastes would continue to be promiscuous and that I’d inevitably get bored before I had a chance to drain any of them. I was also suddenly scared of being tied down to one idea of myself. I wanted the permission to change who I was at the drop of the hat, as easily as I could spray on a new perfume every morning.
But even though the idea of finding a replacement signature scent had definitely fallen by the wayside, I found myself circling certain scent categories again and again—sweet scents of course, but also vetivers, cologne-y citruses, leathers, musks, incenses, and what I thought of as “grown-up lady” florals (the apotheosis of which, for me, was Neela Vermeire’s heavenly rose perfume Mohur . . . which is actually more of a gourmand scent anyway).
But then one category I would have never expected started dominating my preferences without my consciously realizing it: wet wood.
Yes, specifically wet-smelling wood scents.
I’m not joking—dry woods were often too screechy on me, and anything just straight-up aquatic was, of course, anathema after my teenage memories of the Cool Water and Aqua di Gio overdoses of the ’90s. But somehow the exact combination of wet wood drew me back to certain perfumes over and over again: Profumi del Forte’s Tirrenico, Byredo’s Encens Chembur, and Comme des Garcon’s Hinoki.
Hinoki was a recent find, so I feel like I know it the least well at this point. It’s fairly light, the way so many of the Comme des Garcons scents are on me, but surprisingly tenacious. It smells, not unpleasantly, of an unmistakably musty humidity, like it’s a stormy midsummer day and you’ve just come home to an un-air-conditioned house and made your way directly to the basement, where condensation is lightly stippling the grey-painted concrete walls and the wooden beams of the ceiling swell and creak with all the moisture in the air, where maybe the dusty old couch that’s been sitting down there forever exhales a cloud of sweet dust whenever anyone sinks into the cushions. I’m making it sound horribly creepy and claustrophobic and dank, but it’s incredibly light and comforting to me.
Encens Chembur, on the other hand, is much more spacious. Perfumer Ben Gorham’s ostensible inspiration for the scent was a park in India near where his mother grew up, and I’ve willingly let that description affect my perception of it. There is of course incense in it, but not in an overpowering way, like gales of smoke. It’s more like the ambient sweet spiciness that infuses the walls of your standard Indian buffet restaurant. Here the wet wood aspect is sweeter and warmer, like a sun-warmed dock extending out into a small lake, its continually soaked planks exhaling fresh dampness as the sun hits them, almost shaking the fragrance out of its very grain like an enthusiastic dog. For all its spaciousness and exuberance, though, it’s a soft scent on me that stays quietly close to my skin.
Tirrenico, though, is my absolute favorite. I first discovered it thanks to my subscription to beloved monthly perfume sample service Olfactif. I savored the small sample that came to me in the summer of 2014, and ordered a second smaller sample from Lucky Scent some time later, and then finally ponied up for a full bottle once it seemed like it was becoming more difficult to find online, for fear of its being discontinued and disappearing entirely. The initial blast is a bitter exhalation of licorice (or, if you really scrutinize it, more likely fennel). As the scent begins to evolve on my skin, it becomes downright briny—like oily, washed-up seaweed curlicuing along a desolate stretch of sandy beach. The bitterness eventually fades back enough to reveal, as befitting the scene, a creamy, bleached-out driftwood, as if the stumps are dotting the shoreline like wise old troll spirits, while salty mist dances fairy-like above it all. It’s the strongest of the three scents, with the most shifts and surprises. It’s an almost entirely different perfume by the end of the day, when the strong, dark chewiness of the opening is a distant memory and all I can smell are the fresh, open spaces between mineral-heavy stony cliffs.
I grew up a land-locked Midwesterner and have little to no experience with coastal life. But, I did spend many happy summers at my great-aunt and -uncle’s lake house in Michigan, and as a teenager I of course spent more than enough time in various musty basements of my various dirtbag friends, so I feel like my emotional entry point into these perfumes is mostly private, rather than performative.
It’s somewhat of a cliché these days to say, “I wear make-up for me!” or “I dress this way because I like it; I don’t care what other people think!” but perfume actually is one of the few areas of my life where I feel like I can get away with this kind of attitude. (People, I’ve worn Absolue Pour le Soir to my day job before. Not the best idea I’ve ever had in my life, but still—my perfume really and truly is for me.)
So I guess it only makes sense that I would gravitate so readily to these odd, atmospheric scents, as I continue to investigate the Mystery of my own selfhood, in true Aquarian fashion. In so many unexpected ways, I find that they in fact allow me access to the memories and emotions of the person I actually was during all those years I was attempting to hide my own odd, atmospheric weirdness in a cloud of misguidedly benign vanilla sweetness.
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OK, wow, my extreme, deep, immediate love for this video of the band White Denim playing a cover of the Steely Dan song “Peg” puts me right at the center of a Venn diagram that I previously wouldn’t have ever considered I’d need to talk about. Where do I even start to connect the dots?
I’ve written a bit before about how during the bulk of my 20s when I wasn’t, for various reasons, making that much of my own music, I compensated for that lack by listening to and exploring a ton of other artists’ stuff—mostly new, mostly “indie.” I wrote about the music I was hearing and the concerts I was attending a lot on my old blog and at some point parlayed that into a brief stint reviewing albums and live shows for Daytrotter.
I am a terrible, terrible journalistic writer—I have no head for, like, narrative or facts, just wild associations and strongly voiced opinions—so this was really mostly a way for me to try to get my writing in front of more eyeballs and to maybe get into some shows I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. (For a stretch of time when I was single in my late 20s, I used a similar, in-through-the-side-door approach to look for tickets to sold-out or expensive shows on Craigslist—instead of checking the for-sale section, I would comb through the M4F dating sections, looking for guys who had optimistically bought two tickets and turned out not to have found anyone else who wanted to go to the show with them. I went to a handful of concerts and even one opera, for free, that way.) Anyway, one of the best events I attended while I was writing for Daytrotter was the two or three day stretch of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival when it was still being booked solely at Schubas.
My editor put my name on the guest list and I did my due diligence in the days leading up to the festival, trying to listen to as many of the new-to-me bands as I could, so I could at least feign some sort of awareness of these acts before I started attempting to evaluate what they were doing live. I was introduced to so much incredible music in that short stretch of time: Baby Teeth, White Rabbits, Illinois, the Redwalls, Bon Iver (!), and White Denim.
I believe you can still read some of my original write-ups of this festival via the sidebar of my old blog (in the event that the URLs are still even active), and I could of course go on at length about my memories of all this. 2008 doesn’t feel that long ago to me, yet I know it sorta is at this point.
Anyway, I pretty instantly fell in love with White Denim, both thanks to their chaotic, frenetic EP Let’s Talk About It and subsequently their funny, ferocious live set.
Side note on funny bands—god bless ’em. I will always have a soft spot for a funny band. Not like a ha-ha-funny jokey novelty band, but a band full of performers who have a sense of humor about themselves, life, and the whole endeavor of being in a rock band. This is what initially drew me to Baby Teeth, and I’ve always held that Dan Bejar/Destroyer is WAY funnier than anyone gives him credit for being. It’s a rare, underappreciated skill.
Because of the way that I grew up around musicians, I’ve always been pretty fearless about marching up to them after shows to at least say “good set,” no matter how nervous or excited I might be about it on the inside. Musician to musician, that’s just what you do, even though of course these random bands would have no idea that I played and sang too (especially in those days when I was actively doing neither). But to me, at some level it was a participation in the wider project of honoring music itself, of paying obeisance to the greater spirit of the thing that we were all, ultimately, in service to. I can’t remember anymore which of the guys from White Denim I happened to run into that night, while the club was still, frankly, kinda empty, but I raved “GREAT SET!” emphatically at him in passing, trying not to seem awkward or pushy while still conveying my sincere enthusiasm. He responded, “yeah, I could see you grinnin’ out there!” which made me feel like a total Band-Aid in the best way possible. It was a perfectly heart-swelling Almost Famous moment of the purest reciprocity one could hope for in that specific environment.
At the end of that year, I put “Mess Your Hair Up” on my Best of 2008 mix, citing its “itchy post-punk pleasure that surprises and delights me every moment that it doesn’t just completely fall apart.” (Dear Lord, save me from the acute pain of reading through my own archives.) As I recall, it was kind of hard to find their subsequent full-length releases, and since this was in that weird window of time when artists weren’t required to have quite as strong a presence on social media, I kind of lost track of them for a while, though I did finally hunt down a digital copy of their album Exposion.
Just before my current boyfriend and I started officially dating, I made him a mix CD with “Migration Wind” on it, and I was thrilled when he told me that it was one of his favorite tracks on there, especially since that song seemed like such a departure from what I’d loved about the EP, and in some ways, an even bolder stylistic choice for the band. The band was confident enough in itself to say, “yep, we’re going to hit you with some Doobie Brothers-level AM radio gold right now.” Since I’d become sort of ashamed of my true tastes and preferences, and was in the process of easing myself out of a phase of chronically attempting to present myself as somehow cooler or into more edgy art than I actually was, this felt like an extremely, attractively radical stance.
And, that was it for a while. I clung to that small batch of songs and stopped tracking new music as avidly while I got back into making more of my own.
Until, I guess, late 2013 when my boyfriend told me about this great new song that he’d heard on the radio, which the DJ announced was by White Denim, the same band, he realized, that had done that song “Migration Wind.” I got super excited when I realized the band was still together, and got even more excited when I finally heard “Pretty Green,” the first single off their album Corsicana Lemonade.
They’d apparently gone even further down the choogle hole in the intervening years and had reemerged as this incredibly tight, incredibly skilled yet still incredibly fun and funny band, with James Petralli ultimately becoming the most charismatic frontman I’d heard in ages.
The album has not, I think, left my iPhone in the last two and a half years. It’s become one of the rare albums that I don’t have to be in a specific mood to listen to. It’s not bound to a season or a state of mind, the way that, say, The National’s Alligator and The Clientele’s Strange Geometry will always feel like wintertime albums to me, or Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs and Duncan Sheik’s Humming are usually my go-tos in early spring. It just makes me happy whenever I hear it. The musicianship is impeccable, each song is killer, and there’s absolutely no dead weight. Pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to an album these days is if it’s something I would actively rather listen to straight through instead of just putting a playlist on shuffle.
Part of the reason I love that album and love them as a band so much is that their goodness is legible to me. By which I mean, I love what they do because I respect what they’re doing because I understand the mechanics by which they’re doing it. I hear these tricky guitar lines and hooky melodies and propulsive song structures and recognize the perfectly balanced combination of chops and smarts, and it feels relatable to me. Like, I recognize how good they are because I recognize that their skills are in line with what I also aim to do musically. It’s just that they’re a couple notches away as far as how deeply and thoroughly they’ve been able to accomplish this. I say this neither to be self-aggrandizing nor self-deprecating; I’m just saying I recognize the continuum they’re on because in some ways it’s the same one that I’m on. Like, for as much as I love and respect, say, Iggy Pop, I have no access to the continuum he’s on. I recognize his genius, but I don’t relate to it, as such. It doesn’t feel “close” to what I know how to do musically.
But anyway, the closeness I feel to White Denim’s music also feels something like having bet on the right horse. Having so embraced their early stuff, and then coming back around after a bit of a gap in time to see their subsequent progress and expanded prowess feels like seeing the compound interest in my 401k starting to accrue. Like, I made a good decision by being at the right place at the right time, having a bit of taste and a bit of luck, and now it’s paying off. Lots of the bands I first saw at that Tomorrow Never Knows festival have since split up or disappeared or become uninteresting to me for whatever reason, so it just feels really satisfying to know that White Denim are not only still around but are also at the top of their game. I freaked out when I realized that they were going to be releasing a new album this spring, Stiff, and to a certain degree, I feel like it even has surpassed what they achieved with Corsicana Lemonade. It’s more soulful and more confident in ways that I’m still getting to know, but impossible not to be instantly moved and excited by.
My love for Steely Dan, then, is both incredibly prosaic and incredibly specific. It’s prosaic in the sense that they’re hugely famous and successful; their talent is obvious and unsurprising. That I enjoy their music so much is in no way special or unique. But, my window onto their work, specifically Aja, feels really bound to that mode of online music criticism that I was steeped in from about 2004 to 2009.
As I started consuming more of that kind of writing on Pitchfork and Stereogum and a variety of music blogs, it was impossible to ignore many of these (mostly dude) writers’ attitudes toward Steely Dan. The attitude was simultaneously reverent, in-jokey, holier-than-thou, and deeply nerdy. I mean, the very nature of the band itself basically invites that kind of conflicted response, but for a time, loving Steely Dan in a very specifically bloggy way felt very secret-handshakey. And, more than anything else, it really revolved around the cult of “Peg.”
Which was really the cult of that guitar solo, which was really the cult of the knowledge of what a notorious industry legend had arisen around that guitar solo, which was really the cult of having your cake and eating it too—being able to deeply enjoy a thing at the same time you could get WAY insider-baseball about its technical details and other trivia. I mean, I’ve watched and linked to this video I don’t know how many times; I’ve read the Don Breithaupt book. All this behind-the-scenes info genuinely satisfies the part of me that always longs to know the more technical aspects of how any given piece of art gets made.
But, as I said above, and as I’ve written about in other posts here, that period of music consumption, while extremely fun and informative and fulfilling in many ways, was also pretty deeply marked by shame for me.
I was ashamed that I no longer felt like a real musician. I was ashamed that though I’d auditioned for a handful of bands after moving to Chicago, none of them seemed to want me to sing with them. I was ashamed that those rejections led me to rack up a chunk of credit card debt as I shelled out money I didn’t really have for a series of classes and lessons I couldn’t really afford because I couldn’t otherwise figure out how to be actively involved in making music on a semi-regular basis.
I was ashamed of my self-described “barfy” taste in popular music. (Guys, I own several Dave Matthews Band CDs. My justification for liking them because I respected their musicianship always reminds me of that Patton Oswalt bit about Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required being “pretty fuckin’ dark!” [Even though, let me not hesitate to remind everyone, I love Phil Collins.]) I was ashamed of the way that not only did I not know anything about cool current music, I also didn’t know anything about the reference points these reviewers had to cool music of the recent past, so I, filled with the shame of my ignorance, rushed to fill the gaps in my knowledge of Pixies, Pavement, The Smiths, and a bunch of others. (Real talk now, OK? I hate Pixies, Pavement, and The Smiths. I mean, sure, there’s a handful of their songs that I genuinely enjoy, and I get why they’re popular and beloved. They’re just mostly not for me, and it was starting to get exhausting to pretend otherwise.)
And so, I tried to navigate this new world of music nerdery, which seemed like it should have been similar to the way I grew up loving and learning about music from my dad and his fellow musician friends. But instead, it just made me feel like I had to abdicate anything I actually knew or liked from those first two decades of my life because it didn’t fit the mode of discourse that was deemed acceptable. Thus, Steely Dan felt extremely confusing to me. Like, here was this band that I could recognize as being “good” on a continuum that I inherently understood (jazz chords! literate lyrics!) that was also somehow acceptable under the terms of this rockist worldview I was straining myself to adopt.
So, I think I dove into proclaiming my love for Steely Dan as something of a talisman to protect myself against any hypothetical, imaginary charges that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that I didn’t belong at the cool kids’ table. It was like I’d found a wormhole that allowed me to slip into this other dimension that I’d been trying to get myself into with varying degrees of prior success. But, I don’t think I really even wanted to be at the cool kids’ table because I actually cared about being cool; it was just the only space I could see at the time that felt like it connected to my passion for music. It was less that I wanted to be cool for the sake of being cool; I mostly just wanted to feel like I had the permission to openly express my tastes, to have a legitimated platform for spouting off about the stuff that I so deeply cared about. Which was music. Appreciating it, getting inside of it, living with it, connecting to grace through it.
That being said, none of that at all diminishes how much I do genuinely love Aja! I remember, when I first started really getting into it, the brown line stop at Rockwell nearest my apartment was closed for construction, so I had an extra seven-to-nine-minute walk to the next one at Western on my way to work in the morning, which got me through “Black Cow” and a chunk of the title track. I can remember standing at the Western station waiting for the train to pull in and just totally nerding out on that ending freakout of “Aja.” And then, once I was eventually on the train, by the time we were pulling into Belmont, I was usually toward the middle or end of “Peg,” just inwardly losing my shit over, of all things, the elegance of Rick Marotta’s ride cymbal work as the song plays and fades out.
I love the album’s elegantly knowing cynicism the way I love the hyper-intelligent, intricately wrought, stylish nihilism of Kubrick’s films. Any music that so instantly and intensely conveys that level of louche exasperation with, you know, the business of being alive at the same time that it revels in the exactitude of its own artifice is just infinitely OK by me.
My friend Ben and I will still occasionally text each other if we’re out and about and happen to hear “Deacon Blues” playing on the sound system of a restaurant or store. It’s one of those friendship shorthands that has long since lost its original reference point but still remains an active, potent way of conveying “I love you and I’m thinking about you.” I hope to eventually have a chance to see Steely Dan in concert before they stop touring so I can add them to my list of beloved classic artists I can say I’ve seen perform live at least once. I will sometimes say “they never knew it went down! They never knew it,” a la Chuck Rainey, when I feel like I’m getting away with a bit of benign mischief.
My boyfriend and I will go through phases of listening to Steely Dan’s greatest hits CD Showbiz Kids every once in a while, and I have a handful of their other proper albums in my collection, but honestly nothing of theirs has ever captured my brain and heart and ears the way that Aja did that spring a decade ago. So I just allow myself to be open to loving “Peg” whenever I hear it, which is fairly often given its massive, continued popular success (as well as its prominence as a five-starred song in my iTunes library), hoping in some indefinable way that the music’s own paradoxes will give me the courage to stand firm in my own.
“Holy shit!! The harmonies aren’t really all the way there (you can’t step to McDonald), but White Denim just did a super, super, super respectable job covering ‘Peg.’ Bold move, guys!!!”
This is what I e-mailed my boyfriend, with the link to the YouTube video, immediately after I saw the White Denim Facebook fan page mention that it had been posted. This was the only way that my brain could manage, in the heat of the moment, with the implied weight of everything I’ve been discussing above, to convey my excitement about what had just unfolded in front of me like some kind of hyper-personalized cosmic gift.
In 2013 and 2014, my band participated in a year-end holiday fundraiser event (at Schubas, appropriately enough) called Covers for Cover. The concept is that bands play cover songs to raise money for various shelters in the area (ie, for cover). The first year we played all animal-themed songs (to connect with our band’s name, Pet Theories) and the second year we did a set as The Police.
None of us are the types of musicians who would insist on getting these covers too “right” in the sense of note-for-note accuracy or anything like that. As long as the song was mostly recognizable, we felt comfortable adapting the arrangements so that they were more “us.” Not quite as far afield as something like a punk band doing a cover of “The Rainbow Connection,” but also not, y’know, at the level of The Fab Faux or one of those bands that specifically exists in order to present itself as as close to the real deal as you’re gonna get.
Anyway, my whole point is that I’ve had a little experience recently in learning to play cover songs, so I can appreciate the thought process that must have gone into White Denim deciding they were gonna bust out a cover of “Peg.” There’s this delicate nexus of “shit, can we pull this off?” / “what’s something recognizable but not too overdone?” / “what’s something that sounds a bit like us without being too obvious as a reference point?” / “what’s a song we love enough to deconstruct that we won’t subsequently ruin for ourselves through repetition?” The fact that any band would spit “Peg” out at the end of this chain of questioning is so incredibly ballsy that, truly, the only proper response is to laugh with utterly delighted incredulity the way that you can hear Petralli doing just before the camera cuts away to commercial. It’s the laugh of, “yep, we really did just do that; can you believe it? Wasn’t it absurd? And wasn’t it awesome?”
Because, playing a cover of “Peg” is in no way, of course, just playing a cover of “Peg.” It’s referencing all that deep music-nerd knowledge of Steely Dan as these legendarily exacting players. It’s having the chops to actually pull it off. It’s gesturing toward the music people who will get the reference and understand the complexity of the choice and be duly surprised and impressed by it. It’s having a solid enough identity as a band that the song comes off as affectionate rather than ironic. It’s operating at a level of success where all these factors add up to, like, just a fun thing to try to do if you happen to be touring behind a new album anyway.
And, holy crap, it works! I mean, for me, given all of the above, it so works.
I have STRONG feelings about Petralli honestly being one of the best rock vocalists working right now. On White Denim’s proper recordings, he simultaneously manages to have great intonation and soulfulness while pushing the emotional content of his singing beyond just, I dunno, the standard romantic angst or exhaustingly hip self-regard. One of my favorite moments of any rock song in recent memory is toward the middle of “Let It Feel Good (My Eagles)” on Corsicana Lemonade where he laughs a little bit at the end of a phrase and then his articulation changes because you can actually hear him still smiling on the other end of the microphone. Like, the honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, and generosity of allowing that take to stay on the track just astounds me.
You definitely get some of that quality in this live version of “Peg” too. I mean, I have similarly strong feelings about the glorious sneering irony of Donald Fagen’s vocals on the original (if you don’t believe in the singularity of Fagen’s voice, just listen to David Palmer’s lamely vanilla singing on Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and tell me he in any way advances the band’s sensibility), and it’s a testament to his musical intelligence that Petralli manages not to make me miss Fagen at all, through either imitation or by somehow misguidedly trying to outdo him.
My dad was a legendarily excitable guy. People used to dryly poke fun at him, “gee, Terry, don’t you ever get excited about anything?” when he’d be shouting and getting red in the face about some new thing that had caught his fancy. I’ve definitely inherited this tendency and often find myself trying to temper my enthusiasm, assuming that, I dunno, if everything is so exciting then maybe nothing is? But, I don’t know how much I actually believe that. The obsessive excitement itself may be fleeting, but to me, it always points to a richer story, with far deeper roots, in a specific context, that’s trying to be told. Thanks for sitting with me while I got excited enough to tell this one.
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I can’t remember when I first started dreaming about architecture.
Was it as early as middle school? Later in high school or even college? Regardless, I’ve always been intensely interested in my dreams, and at some point I made the connection that the closest I ever got to having recurring dreams was the fact that place was usually the most vivid aspect of them. (This was even something “quirky” about me that I highlighted in the bio section of my first blog.) Sometimes I would dream about specific places that I’d end up seeing later in my waking life, but more often it was just a strong sense that I’d very clearly visited a very particular location and had soaked up a ton of information about its layout, floor plan, expansiveness, the way it smelled, etc. It was the first and earliest way I developed an inkling that my psychic perception was tuned perhaps just a bit higher than the average person’s.
(Funny story—a few years ago, when I was formally studying my ability to work with and in my dreams in a class on astral body healing, I had a dream that I was watching a coworker and his husband hang a large piece of art in their home, which I’ve never been to or seen pictures of. The next day at work, I told my extremely logical, agnostic/atheist coworker friend about this, mostly as a joke, and he sort of softly blanched and told me they actually had been hanging up a new piece of artwork the night before. I brushed it off in the moment with him as a funny coincidence but howled with laughter about it later with my psychic classmates, wondering, self-deprecatingly, why I apparently didn’t have anything better to do in the vastness of my dreamworld than fucking watch people redecorate.)
I have very little interest in actually studying architecture, so I’ve never felt like this was some kind of latent hobby trying to express itself through my dreams. The importance of it as a pattern for me was more in the way it provided a container through which I could receive a lot of sensory information, almost like the memory palace mnemonic device in reverse.
This ability to describe the details of these kinds of elaborately rendered mental images ended up being a boon to the eventual conscious development of my psychic abilities when I was repeatedly exhorted by my teachers to just describe whatever pictures came to mind when I was in psychic meditation or giving a clairvoyant reading. I took to the technique quickly and easily, not because I’m so extra magical, but just because it felt similar to the highly detailed dream recall that I’d already been doing for myself for years.
A new friend recently asked me what it’s like to be psychic, and I verbally swam around and around in circles, flailing through anecdotes and explanations, not really knowing how to most simply and effectively get to the bottom of how utterly non-special the whole thing is. Well, non-special to me, inside my own brain, that is. I’ve given enough successful readings by now to know that they can be profoundly moving and touching for people who are being read by me, and I’ve of course received my own share of magical, transformative, right-on-the-money readings from other psychics and healers. But, much in the same way that it can be super boring to hear the details of someone else’s dream, I feel like it can be super boring for me to try to describe, rationally or intellectually, what getting, or giving, a psychic reading is like. It’s best to just experience one.
I’ve recently been revisiting the writings of one of my favorite mystics, Simone Weil, and was totally tripping out on the brilliance of her “Spiritual Autobiography,” and especially loved this bit:
“[T]here are two languages that are quite distinct although made up of the same words; there is the collective language and there is the individual one. The Comforter whom Christ sends us, the Spirit of truth, speaks one or other of these languages, whichever circumstances demand, and by a necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them.”
By necessity of their nature there is not agreement between them. I feel like this sums up so much about the way I communicate, and so much of what was at the heart of my difficulty describing how I give a psychic reading.
I used to have this whole elaborate theory about what I would tell different people when they asked me what my favorite movie was—to a little kid I’d say Toy Story 2 whereas I might say Back to the Future to one of my dad’s friends or Eyes Wide Shut to a particular kind of film-nerd peer. But, I recently read a short blog post saying that you shouldn’t temper your responses to different audiences because it marks you as an annoyingly inconsistent people-pleaser, that you should give people the chance to experience “the real you” and be OK with not being liked by everyone.
And I felt ashamed of myself when I read that, since I so admittedly do have people-pleasing tendencies that stem from growing up in an emotionally abusive household where it was easier to agree with the existing power structure in order to remain safe rather than risk a controversial statement that would result in my getting screamed at. Now, long since removed from the source of and reason for that defense mechanism, I know that I can still default to giving people the answers they want to hear, just because the energy of disagreement is still so exhausting to me, even though my safety is not necessarily in question. I often feel guilty about not standing up for my own likes, preferences, and opinions more avidly, since I feel like it’s a sign of weakness and lack of character, and that blog post certainly played right into all those fears I have about myself.
But the more I continued to consider it, the more I couldn’t convince myself that I’m actually wrong about it at all. There’s some kind of highly conceptual and philosophical interplay between the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and non-self and this Christian mystical idea of the fundamental incompatibility of public versus private language at play for me here. My people-pleasing habits notwithstanding, I am a different person around different people. Certain aspects of my likes and preferences do feel stronger around different people (I’m not wholesale lying about liking any of those movies). The way that I portray myself in the context of a group is of course different from the way I operate in an intimate conversation with one or two other people, which is of course also different from the way I communicate with myself inside my own head.
So anyway, this is kind of a long, digressive way of getting myself OK with the fact that even though I’ve been wanting to write more about my psychic services and psychic experiences, I’ve been running into trouble figuring out how to split the difference between the private revelations that happen during these magical conversations (and that includes the magic of dreamtime) and the publicly straightforward and expressive way I always try to write here on my blog. (My Gemini Rising in my astrological chart certainly both helps and hinders me here as well—it makes me want to communicate all the time, but I also, always, perpetually see all the different angles, often to the detriment of my ability to squeak anything meaningful out onto the page without completely torturing myself, and my loved ones, about it.)
I love to write! And I also love to talk. I’m incredibly glad that you’ve spent time with me here on my blog, and I would also be happy to talk to you in the context of a psychic reading or healing some time. My Mercurial zippiness is really only sated and balanced when I’m doing both.
After I’d been living in Chicago long enough to see, with my own eyes, the neighborhoods start changing due to new construction (and, yes, gentrification), I started to realize that though we tend to think of cities as being unchanging and solid, they’re actually completely mutable. (Which is why we marvel at these kinds of before-and-now photo essays, right?) Such is the preciousness of our dreams as well. So seemingly solid in so many ways, but also so ephemeral, charged only with the meanings and memories we choose to assign them.
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As I’ve written about elsewhere, the summer that I graduated from Indiana University, I ended up staying in Bloomington a few months longer because I had the opportunity to housesit for two married professors who had gone out of town on a research trip.
I was mainly only responsible for feeding their two cats Bato and Santewa (whom my younger sister renamed Bono and Santana when she came to visit me for a few days), so, other than the few hours a week I spent working a temp gig in a storage facility on the edge of town helping the university catalog the contents of a newly acquired film archive, I had a lot of time left over to sit around and write in my journal.
Obviously, I had just completed the four years of my undergraduate degree (which the student loan center tells me I will finally be finished paying for by the end of 2016, at long last), so even though it’s my nature to think Big Thoughts about most changing phases of life, this felt even more momentous than usual. I had finally finished school! I was becoming an adult! I was entering the Real World! There was lots to journal about.
Of course, top of the list was figuring out what I was going to do, professionally, which in turn, I silently assumed was going to dictate who I was going to become. I had accidentally stumbled into a great internship the summer before while I was studying abroad in London, so I had a vague sense I should probably get another one that related more closely to . . . whatever it was I thought I wanted to be employed doing. Luckily at that point in 2001, there wasn’t quite the professional tyranny of the internship the way there is now, so even though I didn’t have anything lined up, it also didn’t really signal a career death knell the way it would if I were in that situation today.
I felt pretty confident that I might want to become a film critic—it combined two of my major loves, movies and writing—so I applied to the internship program at Entertainment Weekly magazine and they sort of halfheartedly wait-listed me, telling me I should be sure to stop by the office if I ever found myself in New York. This small bit of encouragement of course immediately precipitated my first-ever trip to Manhattan, which had been scheduled for something like September 22, 2001, but that’s another story for another time.
But in the course of my journaling about the shape my life might take going forward, one of the best and funniest things I ended up writing down for some insane reason was a list of all the things I would never do or be by the time I turned 21, since I had already blown past that milestone a year back.
I guess maybe I considered it some sort of gesture toward the process of elimination? Like, if I could just get out of my brain all the things I’d never do and never be, it might somehow help me discover all the things I could do and might be? I need to scrounge up that old notebook at some point to see what I actually put on the list, but as I recall it was mostly things with physical impossibilities—I’d never be a dancer or a gymnast or an athlete. But, I’d also never be precociously successful—I’d never release an album of immaculately wrought chamber pop to critical acclaim by the time I turned 21.
See, I’d recently become obsessed with Neil Hannon of the band The Divine Comedy, and I loved his album Liberation, which he released when he was 23, so much that I probably would have physically ingested it if I could have figured out a way to bake the CD into a pie. So this was definitely some sort of morosely self-deprecating reference to my regret that, despite the fact that I’d never written an original song in my life, I hadn’t managed to make any music as brilliant as his by that point (even if he has disowned the first-ever album he made when he was 20).
As I’ve said before, I have always had an obsession with simultaneity—wanting to know what someone was doing at the same time I was doing something else, somewhere else. But the dark side of what’s usually just a fun, friendly, getting-to-know-you kinda cocktail party conversation is when I start trying to measure myself against someone else’s life journey. I used to measure myself, emotionally, against my father’s life path, telling myself that if he could handle something challenging, then I should be able to handle it too. But I also used to do it, chronologically, with my mother.
I know it’s not uncommon for people who have lost a family member at a young age to feel the rest of their lives ticking along a secret clock counting down to the age their relative was when they passed away. My mom was only 31 when she died, so the chunk of time I had to work with was not only pretty small but also neatly coincided with the years that fucking everything feels most urgent and dramatic in a person’s life.
In high school, I wondered if I was destined to fall in love with a student teacher, the way my mom and dad had met and fallen in love through the theater department.
When I turned 19, I realized there was no way I was going to end up married young, like she had, seeing as how, after I’d broken up with my high school boyfriend, I wouldn’t end up dating anyone at all again (unbeknownst to me at that point) until my late 20s.
When I turned 23, I was extremely glad I was not giving birth to my first child.
But 30, though, I had a slightly tougher time with. For whatever reason, 31, the actual age that she was when she died, wasn’t that big a problem for me. But in the last few months of my 20s, leading up to my 30th birthday, I found myself jangling with nervousness.
It felt trivializing and banal when people tried to joke with me that I was just stressing the carefree end of my 20s, that it was a right of passage that everyone goes through when they realize they have to really get down to the business of making a life for themselves in their 30s. “Ha ha, yeah, I’m sure getting old!” I would meekly joke, while I had this goddamn countdown timer that no one else could see or hear, insistently reminding me of loss, and death, and irrevocable change, constantly buzzing just at the threshold of my awareness.
It’s not that I thought I was going to die too, necessarily. It’s more that I was scared that I wasn’t going to know how to live my life if I didn’t have someone to emulate.
When I finally turned 31 and there were no more of my mother’s milestones to measure myself against, I wish I could say I felt a tremendous surge of liberation. That I finally dropped into my body and into an awareness of my own life force, that I stepped out onto the street, reborn into my own wholeness, like at the end of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Though I may not have consciously felt it as a surge, it . . . actually kinda did happen, almost in spite of myself. I closed down the blog that I’d been keeping since my mid-20s that was initially designed as a way for me to pretend that I actually had become the film critic I’d aspired to be at 22. I went into training as a clairvoyant and joined a band and fell into an amazing romance. The past six years of my life have been beautiful and challenging and creatively fulfilling in ways that I never could have predicted if I were still trying to shoehorn my narrative into a sequel of my mother’s.
But, having just turned 37 a little over a week ago, I won’t pretend that I don’t still secretly kind of long for that yardstick to measure myself against. Being one’s own person is hard. Forging an independent path is scary, especially as someone with perfectionist tendencies who mostly just craves the knowledge and validation that I’m “doing it right.”
And though, yes, my ambitions are constantly driving me toward wanting to define who I am, and what I want to do, and what my path is through this world, I’ve also finally begun to realize the value of focusing on the simpler, quieter, truer, more honest, more direct, more elemental parts of myself—that I love to communicate, I love to observe, and I love to change things, particularly if they can be changed through delight. That’s a list that I’ll look forward to growing into, not out of, or away from, or alongside.
Surprise! 2015 is the bonus-track year!
As I’ve documented before elsewhere, I started making year-end mixes back in 2004 as a way to avoid spending a ton of money on Christmas presents and to share some of my favorite new-to-me music with my pals.
As the years went on, though, and my mode of consuming new music changed quite a bit, I started secretly thinking that I’d call it quits after 10 years. A decade’s worth of mixes seemed like a more than respectable project. Who could possibly argue with my changing priorities, with my decision to step away from making what started to feel like little dollhouses full of adorable but non-functional furniture?
But, well, see, the one thing that doesn’t really change, though, is the fact that I love music.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my relationship to music and how much I’ve completely underestimated the way that performing has always informed the way I approach art. It’s honestly been such a huge blind spot in the way I’ve been writing about pop culture all these years! The fact that I am a musician and grew up around musicians and continue to prefer to spend time with musicians (and performers and creatives of all kinds) has been such a bedrock of my identity that it’s been completely invisible to me.
Because of it, I think I instinctively gave WAY MORE weight to various critics and bloggers and online pundits than I probably should have, since I’ve always operated from the (unexamined) assumption that people who express strong opinions about music MUST KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT.
Like, as a kid, I could listen to my dad talk about music for hours. And not because I was forced to or because he expected me to be an audience for his mansplaining or anything like that—it’s just that he, both as a musician and a music teacher, knew an awful lot about an awful lot of stuff and I learned tons and tons and tons about music from him, as long as I kept my ears open.
One of my main tenets for living on this planet is wanting to learn more, to know more about how stuff works, and the most effective way, I’ve found, to make that happen is to listen to experts who know more than me, and try to keep up.
And so, with total naivete, I just went off into the world of music criticism with the same spirit. I mean, obviously I knew what it felt like to disagree with someone’s opinion, and of course I realized that it’s very possible for non-musicians to have an exquisitely well-honed and generous approach to their ability to evaluate music. But overall, I found myself seduced into the belief that I actually didn’t know anything at all about music simply because I didn’t share a lot of contemporary reference points with these vocal, vociferous critics on the internet.
I assumed that lack of familiarity with or awareness of certain artists or albums or scenes meant that I was somehow wrong or stupid, not just that there were certain artists or albums or scenes I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet by the age of, oh, 25. Or that there might possibly be artists or albums or scenes that I knew a little bit about that others didn’t.
A lot of what I was taking for granted, though, is the way that, as a musician, I hear and understand and appreciate music a bit differently than the casual concertgoer or person with Spotify droning in the background, because I know what it takes to create it—technique-wise, yes, as well as from within, from that place of inspiration. And I think that makes me slightly more catholic in my ability to listen to pretty much anything. It’s harder for me to declare “this sucks” because I’m always going to instinctively privilege the fact that it got made at all over whether I personally happen to care for it. (I think this is something of what Travis Morrison was getting at when he said that “Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste.”)
So I would read or hear a lot of declarations about something being amazing, or something being horrible, and I learned to tap into that style of evaluation, thinking that, eventually, I would learn how to project that same amount of absolute confidence and conviction in my writing. I aped it as best I could, but, it never really led me where I actually wanted to go—which was straight into the heart of the joy of the HOW of the thing. I didn’t want to know WHY it was good or bad; I wanted to know how it came to be, how it came to sound the way it did, who made it and where all that creative energy and inspiration was coming from.
Now that I’m finally starting to re-embrace the part of myself that craves that connection to creation more than feeling cool or in-the-know, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to take seriously music criticism that, while well-meaning and enthusiastic, literally doesn’t have the language to discuss what is happening sonically. Like, of course you don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy, viscerally, a certain instrument’s sound or a particular chord progression, but I’ve started to give the side-eye to so-called critics who will emptily describe a “jangly” guitar or a “jazzy” chorus. WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN. My boyfriend (who is a scary-brilliant genius guitar player and songwriter) and I will still howl with laughter when we remember that the Pitchfork review of The Clientele’s album Bonfires on the Heath describes the guitar sound as “echo-wobbly strum,” which is a non-musician’s way of describing what could much more simply, effectively, and accurately just be called tremolo.
In trying to reverse the course I’ve been on for the past 12 years, I’m probably being a bit too harsh. I’m, honestly, still just learning to trust my own heart and ears again, without trying to impress anyone or, god forbid, be some kind of self-styled arbiter of anyone else’s tastes. Sure, there’s the contrary part of me that’s sometimes still going to want to declare that someone completely unknown and obscure is THE BEST THING EVER, or the part of me that’s going to yawn dramatically when the subject of something ever-so-slightly overhyped and overexposed comes up.
But, I’m deliberately reminding myself, repeatedly, that often when things are just kind of obviously good, I’m allowed to, very simply, take pleasure in their obvious goodness.
Hey, if you’d like to take a tour through my archive of the past 12 years of best-of mixes, they can all be streamed through my page on 8tracks!
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I’ve never considered myself the biggest fan of the band U2.
I mean, I’ve always liked them well enough—the big hits never fail to get my blood pumping when I hear them on the radio—but I think I’ve only ever owned a copy of The Joshua Tree and even then have probably only listened to it about twice all the way through anyway. Nevertheless, I respect them a lot as pop culture figures and know they’re really important to a lot of people whose musical opinions I respect.
In recent years, now that I’ve stopped going to see as many ultra-hot, of-the-moment buzz bands live in concert, I’ve started to make more of a concerted effort to see legends who might not be around much longer—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell. Even though I doubt U2 will stop playing or touring anytime soon, they are getting older and so I jumped at the chance to finally see them at the United Center here in Chicago earlier this summer.
My boyfriend and I got relatively inexpensive seats with a somewhat obstructed view behind the stage. But, since the set design was basically open and allowed for the band to play to all 360 degrees of the room, it was still a totally fine place to watch the show from. Better than fine, actually, as far as I was concerned.
As covocalist in my band Pet Theories, I’m often in the position of connecting most obviously and directly with the crowd, both while I’m singing and while I’m bantering in between songs. So, once I got to my seat at the U2 gig, I quickly realized that I was going to have an awesome opportunity to get a Bono’s-eye-view of the performance space.
I’ve written before about going to concerts and psychically evaluating each player for her dominant chakra; I find it enormously helpful as both a clairvoyant and as a musician to watch the way that powerful performers set their energy. It gives me a fuller appreciation for their art and it always serves as a potent reminder that there’s no sense in trying to hide anything about myself when I’m on stage since I know the audience will feel my truth, whether they consciously realize it or not.
So all I can say is—wow. Bono is enormously skilled at handling A LOT of energy. He emanates power from his heart chakra and his throat chakra, obviously, but he also opens his crown chakra much like an orchestra conductor does, to be a beacon for everyone in the room to follow. It’s kind of a trite observation, but it’s really true in this case—he made a venue that enormous feel intimate and cozy through the sheer force of his presence.
The way I see it, when a performer is in front of a crowd that big, the energy goes both directions, right? The performer herself is obviously exposed, singularly, to all those people. But then there’s also the fact that she is receiving the expectations and communication (both spoken and unspoken) of all those people assembled together simultaneously.
Look, I’m good in front of a crowd. I’ve been performing on stage since I was a young girl and I am a notorious spotlight hog. I love being the center of attention. But being the center of that much attention? I dunno…!
Sure, Bono remains a tremendously charismatic, stirring, and appealing singer. But at this point in his career, I truly believe that pretty much the greatest thing he does is allow himself to be the focal point for that much attention. He jokes about being a megalomaniac, but like, if you’re actually capable of commanding an audience of that size…well, those aren’t really delusions of grandeur anymore, are they? That’s just straight-up grandeur.
It was transformative to watch. Not just because I was impressed by Bono’s psychic skills but also because, as embarrassing as it is to admit, it gave me this very useful yardstick to measure my own ambition against. As a writer, as a musician, as a communicator—would I be able to hold the energy of that many people without completely freaking out? It seems like a ridiculous hypothetical question for me to ask, I know (who’s got the delusions of grandeur now?), but, let me put it another way.
I remember laying in bed one night when I was a little kid. I don’t remember how old I was, but definitely no older than about 13, and probably even younger than that. And I remember consciously making the decision that if my dad could deal with the fact that his wife, my mom, had died; if he was suddenly thrust into the unwanted position of raising three young kids on his own; if he could drive to Chicago from Northwest Indiana every day and work at a job that he dutifully maintained out of financial necessity; if he could continue to find ways to make music despite all these challenges; then, by God, I would be able to handle it all too.
Whatever the “it all” was that my tiny megalomaniac self thought I would be responsible for handling, I’m not exactly sure now. An equivalent amount of hassle and despair and by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants little victories?
It was a bullshit comparison, I know that now. But, sure enough, reviewing the way that circumstances have shaken out in the years since that decision hit me out of the blue, my life does kinda resemble his in ways that I’m not sure can be chalked entirely up to simple heredity.
So, at this point, I figure if I’m inevitably going to be looking to a powerful figure to emulate, and in so doing invite similar challenges into my own life, it might as well be someone like Bono, someone who does incredibly outrageous and fascinating things that I would be thrilled to tackle in my own way.
One of the things I’ve always found most romantic about truly knowing a city is one’s ease with the mundane.
Where you go grocery shopping. Where you get your hair cut. What deli has the shortest lines and the most entertaining customer service at lunchtime.
During the summer that I studied abroad in London during college, I opted not to take as many weekend trips to out-of-town destinations as the majority of my American classmates. It was for a number of reasons, not least of which was that I didn’t care as much about the quantity of sites I could lay my eyes upon as the quality of my relative intimacy with a handful of very specific places.
That summer, I privileged wanting to know every nuance of the precise route I would walk to my local tube station and the precise shadings of light on the Thames as the sun went down well after 9:30 pm throughout the month of July. Sure, I visited Stonehenge once, and it was awesome and super-cool and of course I’m glad that I went.
But I cherish every bit as much my memory of the three-digit code I had to punch to gain access to the main hallway of the office where I unexpectedly landed an unpaid internship, and the way that hallway smelled faintly of cleaning supplies and mildew and pencil shavings, and the fact that every day I carried with me this great little satchel from Eddie Bauer, which was just big enough to fit my portable CD player and a couple CDs (primarily all the Divine Comedy albums that I’d just purchased at the HMV in Piccadilly Circus).
So, in that spirit, I would like to offer you my extremely unscientific, terribly biased, and completely un-comprehensive guide to the Best Places to Pee in the City of Chicago.
I drink a lot, constantly, all the time—water, coffee, green juice, kombucha, bubble tea, occasional beer and wine and whisky. Consequently, I have to pee a lot, often when I’m running errands or when I don’t otherwise have easy access to a bathroom. Over the years, I’ve figured out a few reliable places where I can dash in, dash out, and get on with my life. Some of them require a tiny bit of psychic armor, to make yourself blend in to places you might not 100% belong, but most of them are well and truly public.
FIRST AND FOREMOST, though—a giant RIP to the bathrooms at Native Foods in Wicker Park. I always thought of them as my clever little secret, but apparently they weren’t so secret after all. One of the last times my boyfriend and I were in that neighborhood, I was utterly distraught to find a lock on the bathroom door, with a sign indicating that they were only available for paying customers. Like, of course a restaurant’s bathrooms should be primarily for paying customers. But what an incredible bummer that these animal welfare-obsessed vegans would feel the need to so suddenly, so flagrantly enforce it after several years of being groovy about leaving them open.
Is this obvious? It seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, your local Whole Foods is a pretty great place to pee when you’re out and about. Who could possibly prove that you weren’t there to shop, stopped in to pee real quick, then couldn’t find the thing you were looking for and unfortunately had to leave the store empty handed? Anyway, that’s at least the story I tell myself if I’m feeling conspicuous. Depending on the day of the week, I’m most frequently near the one on Huron in River North (I love being able to skirt back out onto the street through the door that’s supposed to be reserved for residents of One Superior Place), the one on Ashland in Lakeview (this one’s a little dodgy to get in and out of since you have to walk a gauntlet of cashiers, but the ones who work there luckily tend to be too stoned to notice), and the new one on Broadway in Edgewater (pretty sure the bathrooms and coffee shop area in this new store have their own zip code—the building is SO BIG). The dangerous part, of course, is the high likelihood of being seduced on the way in or out by gourmet chocolate bars and fancy jars of stone-ground pumpkin seed butter, thereby potentially making it an extremely expensive trip per flush.
The Food Court at the Merchandise Mart
This location is actually temporarily closed right now while they’re remodeling the main seating area of the food court. But, they’ve helpfully redirected folks to a second bathroom location just down the hall on the other side of the McDonald’s. I’d never been in these bathrooms until very recently, so I’m not sure if they’re brand-new brand-new, or just newly remodeled. At any rate, they’re top notch—very clean and spacious. I’m so rarely in that area on weekends that I can’t really vouch for their status on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the work week, this one is a no-nonsense godsend for efficiency and anonymity.
The Ground Level Shops at the Palmer House Hilton
A couple summers ago, I was in the throes of a self-diagnosed UTI that was just bad enough to be inconvenient and annoying without quite being bad enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment about, so I was self-medicating with copious quantities of cranberry juice and cranberry supplements. I’d just picked up a new bottle of capsules at Kramer’s Health Foods on Wabash and figured there would be a Starbucks in the nearby Palmer House shopping area where I could buy a bottle of water as an outwardly “official” excuse to use their bathroom. Well, as luck would have it, there’s actually a three-stall public bathroom right across the hall from the Starbucks. I love staying in hotels so much that I secretly get a big thrill out of walking through here when I need to use this bathroom. I always pretend that I’m a spy or some kind of glamorous high-profile corporate ballbuster when I go clacking down the echoing corridors.
Second Floor of the Center on Halsted
This one could technically be filed as a subheading under the Whole Foods options, but since the Center is its own entity, I’ll count it separately. Especially if you eschew the often crowded and less than well-maintained bathroom on the ground level immediately adjacent to the bakery-side entrance to the Whole Foods and head upstairs to the spacious, industrial bathrooms instead. The signage designates them for male- and female-identified people, and there are gender-neutral facilities nearby as well, which is an obvious, awesome bonus.
2828 North Clark
Don’t get on the elevators or escalators! Jog up the first set of stairs immediately in front of you, go up the ramp, and turn to the left. It’s a tiny three-stall bathroom at an awkward angle because of the weird layout of the building, and sometimes it can be less than immaculately clean, but this is a great option in this part of the city where, as things get fancier and fancier, it becomes more difficult to find a place where you can pee for free. Just be careful not to count on using it if you’re leaving a movie late at night; they lock ’em down once most of the shops have closed.
OK, Chicago—what have I missed? Let me know if you have a favorite place to pee on the sly.
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As I’ve written about before, my mom died when I was eight years old.
My dad never remarried and though we had plenty of much appreciated help from local relatives, friends, church members, and neighbors, a lot of responsibility naturally fell on my shoulders as not only the oldest child but also the oldest daughter. I was in many ways my mom’s mini-me and I learned to crave the praise and validation that came from being told I was “just like Sharon.”
As the years went by, my dad began to resist and abhor anything that broke the comfort of his routine. Regularly scheduled activities, like weekly church band rehearsal or games and practices during the years my brother played Little League baseball, were fine and posed no problem. But unexpected hassles, like doctor’s appointments or science fair projects, especially if they cost money, increasingly threatened his ability to hold on to his temper and, more than that, his ability to continue fooling himself into believing that he had a handle on, y’know, his life.
Which made Halloween, with its multiple layers of variables, a particularly stressful occasion in our household. Getting three kids dressed up in their outfits of choice was a pain in the ass; candy and costumes cost money that wasn’t always in abundance; the weather was often unpredictable; someone both had to be available to take us kids trick or treating and to give candy out at our front door. In other words, hassle upon hassle upon hassle.
In an attempt to mitigate some of this hassle, it wasn’t long before it started to make the most sense for me to stay home, giving out the candy at our front door, while my dad (if he got home from work early enough) or one of my grandparents took my brother and sister trick or treating. I still got to dress up (the year that I wore a huge, borrowed fur coat and sprayed half my hair white as Cruella de Vil got a particularly enthusiastic response), and I usually still got to go to the costume contest held annually at the middle school gymnasium down the street, so it never felt like that much of a sacrifice to me. I either ate candy from my siblings’ stash or pilfered from the bowl of whatever we were giving out, so I didn’t lose out in that respect either.
But still, I eventually felt myself adopt my dad’s point of view about the holiday—it began to seem like a ridiculous hassle that I saw the point of less and less as I got older. Never one for large parties as a teenager, or the bar scene once I hit drinking age, there seemed to be little point in even attempting to put together a costume, especially since, always self-conscious about my weight, I never felt like I would have been able to pull off the “sexy” costumes that were increasingly de rigueur for girls older than, say, about 13.
Yes, there was a lovely year in college when my best friend and her fiancé and I spent a few happy weeks leading up to the 31st carving pumpkins and watching movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula together, but the best thing about Halloween for me, after a while, was the slashed price of leftover candy at the grocery stores on November 1.
So, even now in my mid-30s, as Tumblr and Instagram begin to fill up with all manner of #spoopy enthusiasm for Halloween, I find myself slogging through a persistent, inherited, but now groundless sense of avoidance. And honestly, it bums me out that I’ve allowed myself to become so Halloween-resistant! This holiday should be right up my alley! It happens during my favorite season and it’s a significant energetic threshold for so many spiritual traditions.
Not to mention, there is almost nothing I crave more in life than being seen. I love being the center of attention. I love wearing strange or outlandish clothing and getting noticed and complimented for it. (Not for nothing did I dye my hair bright pink for several years.) So, Halloween should be a natural for me, right? A day specifically set aside for looking one’s craziest, right? Well, yeah—but I’m contrary enough that I like looking crazy on the rest of the days of the year when muggles aren’t usually competing to get in on the act as well. It’s like the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the gang learned that real demons traditionally take October 31 off. Yeah, me too.
I’d love to give you an optimistic turnaround here and say that I have plenty of things that still make October meaningful for me. But I’m not sure that’d be entirely true. Sure, I love the color of the changing leaves and the crisp air and the fall wardrobe staples and the hot coffee and early sunsets that make it a particularly sensual and invigorating month. But in terms of feeling specifically compelled to observe any kind of annual ritual honoring the slide into the dark part of the year, I sadly find myself coming up short.
Mindlessly replicating old family patterns seems a particularly ineffective and self-defeating way to justify my admittedly, unpleasantly sharp-edged, high-pitched refusal to join in on the Halloween fun. But maybe that serves, in its own perverse way, as my own method of observing the Day of the Dead—communing with the spirit of Hassle and invoking Stagnant Predictability as a way of inadvertently reminding myself that, yes, there’s plenty of darkness in my life and memories still left to explore, no matter how much I may dress myself up in optimism otherwise.