To the best of my knowledge, In May is this: a chamber opera for one voice, its narrative unfolding as a series of letters from a youngish man dying of cancer to his father who is living in California. The songs are all titled by the dates of the letters, the time counting down to the young man’s inevitable death (um, in May). In the course of the piece you learn some facts about his life—that his (former) girlfriend’s name is Anna, that his mother is dead, that his doctor is named Eisenstein—but beyond that, it’s mostly day-to-day ruminations on his mundane activities which of course take on a sense of profundity in light of his imminent passing.
It’s also this: a collaboration between lyricist Frank Alva Buecheler and composer Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. From what I can gather, Buecheler was inspired to write the piece after visiting a friend who was dying at a young age. After first putting together a set of (fictionalized) letters in German, he had them translated into English and then approached Hannon, basically out of the blue, about contributing the music: “I told him his Divine Comedy songs were dramatic pieces—and that I thought he was an opera composer.” The piece has only been performed live a handful of times and now has been released as a new recording that was made available as part of the deluxe edition of the most recent Divine Comedy album Foreverland. As written, however, the piece is actually meant to be sung by the character of the ex-girlfriend Anna.
There are a few glancing evaluations of In May online, primarily in reviews that came out around the time that Foreverland was released. The bulk of these reviews tend to just mention Hannon’s collaboration with Buecheler or describe something of its chamber music setting of strings and piano and leave it at that. But I haven’t really seen anyone give it a proper full-length write-up or come right out and say what I overwhelmingly felt when I finally listened to the whole thing for the first time: that this is the best work Hannon has done in almost twenty years.
I’ve lived with The Divine Comedy’s music longer and cherished it more fervently than pretty much any other band I can think of, so I say this with nothing but love and admiration in my heart, but—the albums that Hannon has put out since 2001’s Regeneration have been spotty at best. There have been glorious individual compositions like “Our Mutual Friend” from 2004’s Absent Friends and “A Lady of a Certain Age” from 2006’s Victory for the Comic Muse, but too often these 21st century albums, as a whole, have had a jokey, shrugged-off quality that felt a bit like phoning it in.
Neil has said in the press that he realizes his cultural relevance is well behind him and that he enjoys the freedom that gives him. But I have to wonder how true that is, how much spin is being put on the issue, because it feels a bit like the thing he actually never recovered from was his mid-career attempt at a sonic pivot into Britrock territory.
Regeneration was released in 2001 and was produced by Nigel Godrich, who was at that point most well known for his hugely successful and influential work with Radiohead and Beck. This album was meant to help Hannon “leave behind” what he perceived as the stuffy fussiness of the suits he wore on stage and the literary pretentiousness of his songs and their arrangements. But, despite being 16 years old at this point, Regeneration actually sounds way more dated than any of the albums he made between 1993 and 1998 (the ones that were, ahem, full of literary pretentiousness and featured Hannon wearing suits on the album covers). It’s a solid album, to be sure, but I’ve always had the somewhat intuitive impression that he was surprised and disappointed that it never catapulted him into Radiohead-level success. Absent Friends, the album he made a few years after Regeneration, though delightful and lovely in its own way, always reads to me like a retreat into the familiar, a resigned sigh heaved in determination to just give the people what they want.
And while he hasn’t necessarily suffered, career-wise, from that commitment (he routinely continues to sell out tours all over Europe and is able to make new albums every few years when he feels like it), I think there’s a slight misunderstanding, on his part, of just what it is “the people” actually want. I think that he thinks, given the fairly massive UK success of his song “National Express,” that his fans want more dorky joke songs, clever lyrics, and cheeky historical references. And, yeah, all those elements are a huge part of what people came to love about The Divine Comedy. It’s a huge part of what I love about The Divine Comedy. But why were those elements so appealing? From my perspective, it’s that they were always folded in with an extremely grounded sense of mortality.
All his best songs have always been steeped in death (eg, “Lucy,” “Tonight We Fly,” “Eric the Gardener,” “Absent Friends,” etc., etc.). My favorite Divine Comedy album, Fin de Siecle, which, for a very long time I considered my favorite album full-stop, is about the death of a whole century. The joke songs were never the point of The Divine Comedy; they were merely context and contrast and comic relief to the true meat of his ruminations on life, death, the universe, and everything. In mistaking what his true gifts are, it’s almost like Hannon took the diametrically opposite path to his idol Scott Walker—rather than veering hard into nearly unlistenable experimentation and impenetrable high-art conceptualism, he went toward softball/cheeseball/cornball dork-pop.
Happily, though, In May is a return to form. Maybe it’s that he was freed from the pressures of writing “clever” lyrics since he was only responsible for the music; maybe it’s due to the fact that his own father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s while he was working on the piece; maybe it’s because he’s also getting on in age. Whatever the case, he’s finally given me the album I’ve, in many ways, been waiting for him to do since I first heard Fin de Siecle.
While certainly not a perfect album, especially with nearly twenty years of hindsight, Fin de Siecle has always appealed to me for its combination of gigantic orchestral arrangements, Hannon’s delightfully cheeky baritone croon at the peak of its richness and clarity, and lyrics surveying a panorama of late 20th century white Western middle class concerns and observations (from newspaper scandals and gossip and the romance of public transportation to disease, environmental collapse, technological dystopia, war, and death). For me it’s always hit a sweet spot of sounding amazing and being fun to listen to while dealing with serious subject matter with a thoughtfully light touch, while also still being capable of smashing your heart into a million pieces with the melancholy dance-tronica of “Eric the Gardener” or Neil’s first explicit reference to having grown up in Northern Ireland in album-closer “Sunrise.”
Bringing all these elements together so seamlessly and effectively was a delicate balancing act, one that he’d seemingly built up to over the course of his three and half previous albums. It would have been impossible to sustain or repeat. I’ve always thought that the song “Too Young to Die,” which was recorded for his singles collection A Secret History, was a fairly bald-faced admission that he didn’t even want to try to replicate it, that he felt he was too young to allow himself to remain aesthetically pigeonholed. In some sense, it was no wonder that Regeneration sounded the way it did; it was a necessary palate cleanser, a way of honoring just how special Fin de Siecle was by leaving it standing as its own monumental achievement, by going off in a totally different direction.
However, with In May, Hannon has finally worked himself back up to an equal pitch (over the course of, yes, three more albums and a handful of side projects). Except here he’s working not at the scale of a whole century but instead in miniature—within the sonic limitations of a string quartet, single piano, one voice, and someone else’s lyrics (lyrics which narrate just six months of one man’s life, in an environment limited to the man’s house, mind, and very immediate surroundings).
The musical reference points in In May’s compositions range from familiar Hannon touchstones like Scott Walker and Michael Nyman to English musical theater composers like Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Bart but also, crucially, The Divine Comedy itself. Freed to shop his own back catalog, presumably by the assumption that the theatrical audience for In May wouldn’t necessarily cross over to his own fanbase, he’s able to lift familiar little idiosyncratic intervals and motifs that are most recognizable from the Divine Comedy’s heyday. There’s Promenade’s urgent, sawing string parts, A Short Album About Love’s down-tempo grandeur, and Liberation’s deep sense of place and space.
All those elements would of course be present in any production of the show, wherever it might be staged. But in this specific recording, there’s also Hannon’s use of his own speaking voice. He’s always been a bit actor-y in his music, slipping into the characters he’s invented for his songs, but usually with a heavy dose of wink-wink, nudge-nudge archness. At last, here he’s allowed himself abandon that hammy self-consciousness and to just breathe through the material. And I really mean breathe–just listen to when he sighs, “oh, my lovely feet!” in “3rd of January,” when his voice cracks on the word feet.
There’s no wink, no quote marks around it, no referring back to well-known podiatric literary references of the Western canon. It’s simple, intimate, honest, and completely soul-stirring.
The soaring perfect fifth at the conclusion of the whole piece, that big “your son!” at the end of “31st of May”, is the same interval as the one at the end of Fin de Siecle’s album closer “Sunrise.”
Sonically linking his hope for peace and reconciliation after The Troubles to a man’s final goodbyes to his loved ones after a rapidly progressing terminal illness is, when you take the long view, just a completely brilliant encapsulation of The Divine Comedy itself—his ability to marry the inevitability of darkness and death to a defiantly buoyant embrace of hope and beauty through the interplay of words and music.
But I think it also points, again, to the strengths that I don’t think Hannon even realizes he has. While he’s busy assuring everyone “I’m just basically a show off,” it’s his ability to craft these intensely personal, intimate, honest, unadorned moments that has fueled my love of his music for close to twenty years. Hearing him finally embrace this, at length, without apology, is enormously heartening. After all the musical deaths of 2016, how wonderful that no one actually had to literally die here in order for a great burst of life to be breathed back into the whole project of The Divine Comedy.
Early my sophomore year at Indiana University, I went to an orientation session for students who were interested in volunteering at the campus radio station.
In my typically over-serious fashion, I was worried that I hadn’t sufficiently taken advantage of the many social and extracurricular activities at the school during my first year there, and so this was one of my attempts to address that perceived lack.
I’d spent my four years of high school ensconced in the music and drama departments and made most of my friends that way. (Well, I guess it wasn’t so much “making friends” as “spending all my waking hours outside class with a certain cross-section of people who became my closest friends by fortunate default.”) But since I had no intention of pursuing performance at the university or professional level, I suddenly found myself adrift without a scene or (I feared) an identity. The radio station seemed like an ideal place to bridge my interests and concerns—listening to and appreciating music, yes, but also performing that appreciation by talking about music on the air, and hopefully also meeting other music obsessives who might want to be my friend.
I dutifully filled out the form applying for my own show and indicated that I’d also be happy to be part of the committee who would review incoming CDs. (That job mostly entailed listening to music and then noting which songs were interesting and cool and worth listening to, but also, crucially, which contained swear words that couldn’t be broadcast on the air.) I, like the asshole English major I was, corrected a bunch of typos on the intake form. Despite being that girl, when the station manager sent out assignments subsequently, he granted me a two-hour on-air placement—which he took the liberty of dubbing “The Grammar Rodeo.” (It was literally years before I found out that that was actually a Simpsons reference.)
The kicker, though, was that my show was scheduled for 4-6am on Tuesday mornings, pretty much the worst time slot imaginable—too late for most night owls to still be awake, but also too early for early risers to be getting up. But, Monday nights I’d do my best to get a few hours of sleep, then peel myself out of bed around 3:15 so that I could set off on foot across campus around 3:30, so I could get to the station in time to take over at 4 for the guys who were on the air before me.
This was, perhaps needless to say, not the ideal time slot for socializing and making friends—no one else was ever at the station during those hours, for obvious reasons. (This would have been the fall of 1998, and thus the infancy of widespread internet use, though, so the station actually had an online feed that broadcast the shows from their website. This enabled a dear friend of mine who was attending the University of Southern California to be able to listen to my show during his own late-night study sessions, which was one of the nicest things that anyone had ever done for me at that point.) But, thanks to my solitude, it was at least a great time to nerd out and listen to music for two hours straight.
At some point that semester, I had reviewed and put into rotation an album called Adventure by a group I’d never heard of called Furslide.
As I’ve written about before, I’d never had that much interest in electric guitars. (This was right on the cusp of my burgeoning obsession with Jimi Hendrix.) My dad was a piano player and trumpet aficionado, and, good girl that I was, my tastes had followed suit—I liked anything that was “jazzy” or that hearkened to the show tunes that I’d spent my life listening to and performing. I was way too square and sheltered to have had any interest in Riot Grrl in the early ’90s, and I generally sniffed my nose at most of the more mainstream, Lilith Fair-approved artists as well. All of which is to say, if I’d not been assigned, at random, to review the Furslide album, there’s very little chance I ever would have encountered it otherwise.
But, oh, how fortuitous! I fell head over heels in love with Adventure.
Unbeknowst to me at the time, Furslide’s lead singer and guitarist, Jen Turner, was already something of a legend among guitar nerds for her work on Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, especially “Carnival.”
But, similar to how I came to love Jimi Hendrix’s vocals as much as his guitar playing, I was first and foremost bowled over by Turner’s voice.
As a musician myself, I always paid extra attention to any woman vocalists who were doing stuff that I couldn’t replicate while singing along with them in the privacy of my car—whether that was Tracey Thorn’s soulful croon on Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart or Alanis Morissette’s stratospheric yelp on the ubiquitous Jagged Little Pill. With Turner, it was that shred at the top of her range that really killed me. Check out what she does when she really gets cranking at around 2:59 in the song “Shallow” and you’ll hear what I mean:
And even though I willfully harbored an almost complete blind spot for most contemporary electric guitar playing, I couldn’t deny how much I loved the punch and crunch of her sound. It was playful yet edgy, somehow spacious inside its laser-sharp rhythmic dexterity and sonic density.
Much like how my love for Counting Crows confounded friends who didn’t understand how or why I could like that band’s noisier moments, even I had trouble defending and defining for myself what it was about her sound that I loved so much, or why it was that I loved her playing and specifically didn’t like the playing in, oh, Weezer or Nirvana or Pearl Jam or dozens of other beloved guitar rock bands.
Even though I probably wouldn’t have understood it as such at the time, I think I needed that little bit of inscrutability in my life. I’d always attempted to make myself as legible and understandable as possible, assuming that, even if I were “quirky,” as long as people essentially could get where I was coming from, I’d be easier to love. But silently, unconsciously, I think I was already starting to realize how exhausting that attempt to art-direct my own image was. I was allowed to have a little bit of privacy, to maintain a little bit of mystery, to cultivate a degree of unpredictability.
Not unlike my wandering around an all-but-abandoned campus in the middle of the night in an effort to find a place where I belonged, Turner’s music was something of an island unto itself in the mid to late ’90s. Goddesslike to those in the know, but easily overlooked by those who weren’t, as she sang herself in the song “Hawaii,” “everyone is looking for that fine, fine line / between contentment and the troubled mind of genius.” She, I would argue, found that line on an underappreciated album released in 1998, which gave me a nice little nudge in the right direction to keep looking for my own.
To learn more about Jen Turner and her various other musical projects, check out this great short blog post, which seems to be updated periodically.
For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve Done Stuff to my hair.
I got my first perm in something like first or second grade (which seems insane to me now—all those chemicals!); I got my last perm in the summer of ’93 right before I took my first international trip to France with a group of students and teachers from the high school that I’d be entering that fall. Thinking that I wouldn’t have to futz with my hair too much while traveling, that the curls would render it already “done,” I didn’t anticipate that all the walking around in the sunshine in early August would work its own magic on my chemically treated hair and so I returned home with an incredible mop of orange frizz.
After those curls finally grew out and/or got cut away, I went through a few years with my natural brown hair either in a simple bob with bangs or in a short pixie-esque crop.
And then I went blonde for the first time.
I was a junior in high school in Northwest Indiana and the choir director had taken two of the upper level groups on a trip to sing at some sort of event in Atlanta. One of the first nights there in the hotel, my gorgeous friend Rhonda convinced me to buy a highlighting kit at a nearby drugstore. Thinking I’d just end up with a few tastefully sun-kissed light brown streaks in my hair, we spent the next few hours pulling strands through the plastic cap and baking my head with the bleach mixture we’d mixed up in the hotel bathroom. Well, surprise surprise, I of course came out of the experience a genuine bottle blonde. And I fucking loved it.
Throughout my remaining teen years and early 20s, I would play with various drugstore hair colors, never settling on a cut or color for longer than a few months. I’ve always been extremely bad at predicting my own body’s needs–hunger usually takes me by surprise, resulting in an immediate decree that I have to eat NOW, and it’s pretty much the same with my hair. Especially at that point in my life, I never had the good sense to predict that, yes, after about six to eight weeks, I would need to get some sort of trim or reshaping, so I never settled down with one hair dresser. All my haircuts happened in desperate trips to “walk-ins welcome” chain salons or in poorly lit bathrooms at the mercy of girlfriends with shaky hands and dull scissors.
A couple years after I moved to Chicago, though, I knew it was finally time to find a big-girl salon, to graduate to a real, skilled hair stylist that I could come to rely on, one who would really get to know my hair, help guide me to flattering cuts, and safely apply good-quality color.
He was initially recommended to me by a friend at work who’d gotten an amazing asymmetrical cut from him that was somehow incredibly punk yet still chic enough to be workplace appropriate.
I don’t remember the first few haircuts that I got from Bobby, but I do remember the first (and last) time that I showed up for an appointment after having unsuccessfully bleached my own hair at home to an unflattering brassy yellow rather than the sunny, shiny blonde I’d been hoping for. It had been several months since I’d had my last cut, and my hair was grown out and shapeless, but I was too embarrassed to show up at the salon with my self-administered terrible dye job. When I couldn’t take it any longer and finally came in for a long overdue trim, I sheepishly admitted that I’d been hesitant to come in because I didn’t want him to yell at me for messing up my hair. He looked me up and down and drawled, in his inimitable Texan way, “girl, I’m not going to yell at you, but . . . do you want me to tone that?!” I think that was really the moment that solidified both our friendship and our working relationship.
The salon where Bobby slings beauty is on Clark Street, just a couple blocks south of Wrigley Field. As the neighborhood and the salon’s clientele grew ever more conservative, I grew more and more bold. As the type of women who wanted crazy cuts and extreme colors moved to other neighborhoods, I became something of a unicorn, the weird one who was more than open to experimenting and having fun.
The first really incredible dye job that I got from him was just before the ombre trend became ubiquitous, so the fact that he deliberately dyed my roots a dark, deep purple while the length was streaked to look like a glowing autumnal forest fire full of reds and glimmering soft browns was like this insane magic trick that left me feeling like I’d literally been transformed into a work of art.
In subsequent years he’s given me varying shades of pink, purple, blonde, blue, and green, many of which elicit gasps of delight from strangers on the street or in the grocery store, who beg to know where I get my hair done.
Currently, I’m rocking a dark purple streaked with one bold orange chunk.
And even though he teases me and calls me Lola Granola when, every once in a while, I feel the need to chop everything off and go completely natural just to give my head a break from all the chemical punishment (and check out how much of my grey has grown in), he always makes me look my best even when I know he’s disappointed that he won’t have the chance to do something fun.
Bobby is nothing short of a hair wizard. And game recognizes game—a dear friend was dating a fancy hair stylist several years ago, and I’ll never forget the time the boyfriend calmly and coldly assessed my hair for a few moments before declaring, “that’s a good hair cut.”
I’ve recommended Bobby’s services to dozens of friends and acquaintances over the years, many of whom he still remembers and asks me about years after they’ve moved to other parts of the country. He’s the consummate professional who makes what he does look easy, who never takes more time than he needs, and who never forces his tastes onto clients and always gives them the best possible version of what they’ve asked for.
My maternal grandmother was a hair stylist long before I was born, long before she went to work as a radio dispatcher at our small town’s police station, though she still kept a hair washing sink and an old-fashioned chair hair dryer in her basement. It was one of the great, glorious pleasures of my young life to have her wash my hair or give my bangs a trim when they needed it, especially when she would also tell me stories of how scandalous it was that she bleached a big strawberry blonde streak into her nearly black hair in the 1940s, when she was a glamorous habituée at all the local dance halls. Maybe an instinctive knowledge of and respect for the transformative power of a good hair cut is in my blood; maybe it’s simply nostalgia for the familial comforts of my early childhood. What I do know is that Bobby Paul gives the best hair cuts in the city of Chicago, and it’s nothing but a complete delight to be remade by his artistry on a regular basis.
Orbit Salon is located at 3481 North Clark Street; call 773-883-1166 to make an appointment.
Leaving my office for a quick walk to get some fresh air and clear my head after lunch, I eschew my usual path, heading east on busy Chicago Avenue rather than north up relatively quiet Franklin. I don’t put my headphones on like I normally do. I cross the intersection at Wells. About half way up the next block, I see a man stumbling as he walks across the middle of the street. He raises his right foot to the curb but loses his balance and falls back into the street, flat, prone. Instinctively I call out, “can I give you a hand?!” and hear a guy’s voice a few paces behind me ask the same almost simultaneously.
I also hear my mother’s voice, in memory. I see her the way I saw her as a tiny child, opening the driver’s side door of our van while we’re stopped at a stoplight, yelling across the street to a man crossing on foot at the intersection, asking if he needs help. After a few moments, she ducks back into the vehicle and closes her door. “Why did you do that? Did you know him?” I ask. “He’s blind,” she says, her moral compass firm and direct.
The guy and I rush into the street and each grab one of the man’s hands. We help him to his feet and walk him slowly up onto the sidewalk and get him leaning, then sitting, against the wall of the building on the corner. A third man sees all this happening and approaches us, asking if he should call 911. While he does that, we ask the man if he’s OK, if he needs anything. He mumbles, and I can’t understand what he’s saying. I don’t know how to help. It’s cold, and I’m bundled in my overcoat, hat, scarf, and gloves; the man has a hoodie on underneath his jacket but no gloves. He’s wearing a Streetwise ID on a lanyard. His head slumps against his chest as he dozes off or passes out.
The man with the phone says 911 is sending a squad car to the scene, and I blanch inwardly a bit. It’s Chicago. I wish there were some other option available besides the cops. The first guy makes a move to keep going on his way, and, glancing back down at the man on the sidewalk before walking away, he sagely intones to me, “probably heroin.” I’m taken aback by this confident assumption. Maybe he knows more about drug symptoms than I do, and yes, there’s a methadone clinic up the street, but . . . to just jump right to that conclusion?
The man with the phone says he’s going to wait until the police arrive; I say that I’ll stand and wait with him too. A tall man walks past us and then turns around and looks down at the man on the sidewalk. “Adrian, is that you?” he asks, stooping down to flip over the Streetwise ID dangling at his midsection. “I know him,” he tells us, and we give a short narration of what happened. “Probably drunk,” the tall man shrugs and walks away.
The man with the phone and I make polite chit-chat as we scan Chicago Avenue for the arrival of the police cruiser. He asks if I’m a student at Moody Bible Institute; I say, no, that I work at an office down the street and was just out for a walk. He says he was doing the same. I don’t tell him that I actually recognize him from the train; I see him periodically getting off the brown line around the same time as I do in the morning. He says how not that long ago he and his wife had called 911 to report something happening in their neighborhood, but that by the time anyone drove up, it was quiet again. I’ve definitely called 911 before in response to noises that sounded like gunshots or other violent altercations, so I get it, I do, but the assumption that the police are automatically the right people to call when things go bump in the night is . . . complicated. His trust seems, yes, privileged, but also naïve, suburban. Which, I suppose, can be much the same thing. I benignly assent that, yes, sometimes the cops are overworked and can’t get to all their calls in a timely manner.
A young woman approaches us and asks, in a heavy accent, where a certain address is. He and I stammer a bit while we mentally orient ourselves on the grid, trying to figure out if it’s walkable or not, and which direction she should head in. “You should get on this bus,” the man instructs her as the 66 pulls up in front of us, into the spot where the man had tumbled just a few minutes earlier. The bus door opens and the woman shouts her question to the driver; she gets on and I can see them trying to communicate as the bus pulls off. “I think she’s gotta go all the way to, like, Ashland,” I say to the man with the phone, recalling the address that she was asking us about. “That’s way too far to walk from here, especially in the cold.”
We hear a siren in the distance, approaching rapidly. It speeds past and turns a corner a block west of us. A second cruiser blows a stoplight and turns to follow. Then a police van trundles by going in the other direction, driving past us as well. We nervously check the time, wondering if we’ve been blown off. The man is still sitting slumped against the wall, though he’s starting to stir and incoherently mumble again. Neither of us try to engage him, nor does he seem particularly aware of our presence. Another crowd gathers at the bus stop. Another bus pulls up to load them all on.
Finally we see a cop car slow down across the street from us. We wave to them and then they turn around and park in the bus stop. An older woman who’d been intermittently pacing the sidewalk in front of us suddenly stops and asks if we’ve seen her keys. I guess we seemed legitimate now that the police were approaching us.
The cops were both African American women and I felt a small twinge of relief, hopeful that they probably weren’t going to rough this guy up or otherwise unduly hassle him. I also wondered, though, about how they’re treated on the job. Does their supervisor send them out on calls like this that are perceived to be relatively unimportant? Do they get sent out to calls that need “a woman’s touch”?
The man with the phone immediately begins explaining to one of the cops what happened, and I stand by attentively to be sure he’s getting all the details right. The second cop approaches the man sitting on the ground, who by this time had pulled his hoodie up over his head. “Let me see your face, sir,” she asks him, with something like a sense of humor in her voice. Drunk or high as he was, he’s almost acting like a child.
Once we explain to the first officer what happened, and once it seems like I probably won’t be witnessing any human rights violations, the man and I start to walk our separate ways. I thank him for calling 911, he thanks me for sticking around. Genuinely, warmly. I wonder what the social contract between us will be when and if we ever notice each other on the train platform in the future.
“I love you too,” the second cop says back to the man on the ground, and I finally feel OK enough to walk away.
Heading out for a walk after lunch another day, I point myself in the direction of a raw food restaurant a couple blocks away from my office where I want to get something to drink. I leave my headphones off again. I cut down to Superior via Wells, and I feel sad that the old Howard Johnson diner has been knocked down and replaced by an enormous high rise. The last time I ate there was the Fourth of July in 2012 when Brian and I were on our way to see the first Magic Mike in the theater. I had a BLT with real B that day, because freedom. Now there’s gonna be some kind of smoothie place on the ground floor of the building, which, frankly, I’m not not looking forward to. I admit I’m fancy enough to get excited about convenient access to health food.
As I approach LaSalle, I see a line of people on the sidewalk waiting outside the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I’m pretty sure they run a midday soup kitchen or food pantry there. I often see a line stretching around the corner when I’m out running errands on my lunch hour. I continue walking east on Superior toward Clark. I see two men walking toward me from the far end of the block, and a dude comes up behind me and zips past, continuing toward them at a much faster pace. As he gets to the end of the block, one of the men asks him something that I can’t hear, and the dude blatantly ignores them and continues walking. When I finally approach them, I smile. About a beat later, just as they’ve walked past me, one of them asks, “are you smiling at my husband or are you smiling at me?” I turn around and chirp, “I was smiling at you both!” The second man continues walking, but I can hear him laughing, which makes the man who called out to me laugh too.
“I don’t know why I said that,” he says to me, trying to pull himself together. “He’s laughing,” he says, looking back at his friend.
“And now you’re laughing too,” I say.
“All we need is a cigarette,” he implores me with a smile on his face.
“Oh, I don’t smoke,” I say lightly, as if it just occurred to me.
“Can I have a hug then?” he asks.
If I were in a worse mood, or if I’d felt threatened at all by the interaction, this would have become complicated. Could this be considered harassment? I realize I do feel slightly pressured not to say no, but I also don’t in any way feel endangered by the request. I wonder if I’m setting a bad precedent, allowing this guy to think he can just ask women on the street for hugs whenever he wants, like their physical affection and attention is owed to him. But also, I feel like, as a human, who asks for a hug unless they just really, really need a hug? And I am nothing if not an enthusiastic hugger. In the split second that it takes me to scan through that analysis mentally, I say, “of course” and reach up to wrap my arms around his shoulders.
“Good luck,” I say to him, in the neutral way I try to end most of my interactions with strangers who stop to ask me for directions or other information.
As we part, he shouts back one more time, “who do you think is going to win—the Bulls or the Bulls?”
Remembering my youthful pride at living in the suburbs of Chicago during Michael Jordan’s heyday, one of the only times in my life that I took any remote interest in sports, I call back, “the Bulls, of course!”
“Duh!” he shouts in response, slightly teasing my girlish affect.
I round the corner onto Clark, heading south, and see a guy who works in my building standing in the middle of the next intersection, leaning into the open window of a fancy car idling at the stoplight. “Congratulations!” he shouts in to driver and other passenger.
At the conclusion of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany writes,
Interclass contact conducted in a mode of good will is the locus of democracy as visible social drama, a drama that must be supported and sustained by political, education, medical, job, and cultural equality of opportunity if democracy is to mean to most people any more than an annual or quatra-annual visit to a voting booth; if democracy is to animate both infrastructure and superstructure. . . . It is not too much to say, then, that contact—interclass contact—is the lymphatic system of a democratic metropolis. . . . Contact fights the networking notion that the only “safe” friends we can ever have must be met through school, work, or preselected special interest groups: from gyms and health clubs to reading groups and volunteer work. Contact and its human rewards are fundamental to cosmopolitan culture, to its art and its literature, to its politics and its economics; to its quality of life.
I’ve often spoken about how I feel myself to be a committed city person, but lately I’ve felt ground down by urban life. Not because it’s dirty or because there’s no privacy or because it’s simply too much; because it’s become too clean and because people are too isolated and because certain areas are becoming too much the same. The building where my beloved Thai restaurant Panang used to be is now being converted into Flats apartments; fancy people at Whole Foods would rather avoid eye contact and literally reach around my physical body rather than acknowledging my existence and simply saying “excuse me” as they grab a box of gluten-free crackers.
The city is mutable; of course I know that and of course it has to be. But when I examine my heart for any patriotic impulse and can’t seem to find one, I find in its place a devotion to people. And I cling to an expectation that cities are the best and most reliable places where I can practice my devotion. When my ability to feel connected to the pulse of city life feels compromised for whatever reason, I feel not only concerned, but unmoored. And that’s what I find myself hungering for, as I launch myself back out into the city streets seeking to redress that lack and enjoy what remains.
When I was more actively pop culture blogging in my 20s, the end-of-year reports were obviously one of the big highlights.
What was the best music? What were the best movies?
Much of this list-making was performative and ego-based, of course—wanting to appear to have seen and heard the smartest and coolest stuff, to have the “right” opinions on it all, to be unassailably in-the-know, to be safely elevated as some kind of taste-maker even if it was just to my tiny band of followers and friends.
The ego of this wasn’t only to receive praise, to want to, as our dear departed Carrie Fisher once put it, “be the greatest person you ever met…to explode in the night sky of your approval.” There was also the ego-based need to assert some kind of usefulness in the world, to make myself somehow indispensable so that I wouldn’t be so easily cast aside and forgotten.
If you’d asked me at the time about why I wrote about the stuff I wrote about, I probably would have said something to the effect that I just hoped my reviews would be useful to someone, that I hoped they might introduce someone to a piece of art that they would deeply connect with and love, or that I might steer them away from something that would offend, disturb, or disappoint them.
The thing that I never could have admitted, though, was that I also wanted desperately to be given credit, forever, for that service. I wanted to be assured of my worth, to essentially be some kind of helper animal wearing a t-shirt or harness announcing my centrality to the smooth working of the world around me, announcing that I was engaged in doing a very important job, so that I could combat my terrified suspicion that I was, in fact, inconsequential, not only to the wider world but also to those who were kindly but most likely lying about loving me.
Come for the pithy one-liners about George Clooney, stay for the darkly desperate tap-dancing for validation!
Not dissimilarly, as far as searching for my unique place in the cosmos, this year-end list-making always had a touch of the metaphysical or mystical to it. (Perhaps invisibly, but it was folded in there for me at least.) Somehow I thought that the art that I’d consumed over the past twelve months was some sort of oracle that, when regarded as a whole, could teach me about myself, where I’d come from and where I was headed.
I think it’s no coincidence that I eventually ended up in a clairvoyant training program whose whole method entailed teaching students to describe the pictures that they saw in their own minds’ eyes. I think this must be why I took to my psychic abilities so naturally—seeing and reporting on the details and vividness of clairvoyantly received images was, for me, basically exactly like seeing and reporting on the details and vividness of scenes in a movie.
As a film student and amateur critic, I never had a head for plot. Logical contradictions or absurd suspensions of disbelief or internal consistency meant nothing to me. It was all about vibe, emotion, meaningful rhymes with other films in the genre or director’s body of work, subtle betrayals of stated meaning revealed by a carelessly chosen bit of mise en scene or dialogue.
Almost as soon as I recognized this, I shut that blog down.
Partly, yes, it was because I’d been writing there for nearly six years and was simply getting bored with it. Partly it was because my life had become busy in a way that didn’t afford me the time to write there on any kind of regular basis anymore. Partly it was because that busyness also meant that I didn’t have time to see as many movies or go to as many concerts as I used to, hence eliminating the fodder I would have written about anyway. Partly it was because I was finally ensconced in several communities where I had actual, real people to talk to on a regular basis so that I didn’t have to shout into the void of the internet as desperately in order to feel like I had someone, anyone, to communicate with.
But, undeniably, partly it was also because I was getting a purer hit of the drug, so to speak—rather than reading pictures at a remove via a director’s art, I could read the pictures that I was seeing with my own inner vision just by being awake and alive in my own everyday life.
All that being said, it blows my mind a bit that I’ve seen so few films this year. (Or in the past several years, really.) I still get a huge thrill out of going to the movies; I still treasure them as an art form that even well-regarded serial television will never duplicate or replace; their visuals, at their best, still enhance and inform my own inner visions. Even though the stuff I have seen would hardly be considered important or essential or somehow defining of the year just passed, I greedily treasure every moment that I spent dreaming, wide awake, in the dark.
To the best of my record-keeping ability, I’m pretty sure this is everything I saw since January, both first run and revival:
Chimes at Midnight
Superman vs. Batman
Born to Be Blue
Captain America: Civil War
The Seventh Seal
Love and Friendship
Stranger than Paradise
The Red Shoes
Older than Ireland
Star Trek Beyond
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
The Magnificent Seven (2016, dir. Antoine Fuqua)
Queen of Katwe
I think a lot about an interview that Quentin Tarantino gave a little over a decade ago where he said,
A movie doesn’t have to do everything. A movie just has to do a couple of things. If it does those well and gives you a cool experience, a cool night at the movies, an emotion, that’s good enough, man. But movies that get it all right are few and far between. It got to a point in the ’80s when you didn’t even hold a bad ending against a movie, because every movie had a cop-out ending. If you were going to hold bad endings against movies you’d never have liked anything.
Maybe I’d always agreed with that assessment without having had the words to say so. Or maybe I just read that quote at the right moment, while my own tastes and filters were still at the outside edge of being moldable. Nevertheless, I deeply agree. And I make it a point to try to identify those couple of things that a movie does well every time I watch something. Both so that I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time and money if I happen to see a movie that didn’t particularly appeal to me, and, more cosmically, so that I feel like I’ve made some small attempt, in my own way, to honor the time, effort, and talent that went into making even a subpar film.
Here, then, are a couple of things that have stuck with me the most, from the small selection of what I’ve listed above.
“No! For sport!”
Werner Herzog, at this point, is not only a complete parody of himself but also one of the few remaining directors whose films I will see without question, regardless of whether I’m inherently interested in the subject matter or not. Lo and Behold was tremendously spotty, thanks to both his own pushy first-person intrusions and a few of the vignettes that devolved into holier-than-thou condescension (the bits featuring the family who professed that the internet was the work of the devil and the kids in the rehab facility for game addiction most especially).
But, as ever, there were beautiful moments of humanity revealed. Ted Nelson’s glee near the beginning when Herzog credits him for the elegance of his conception of how hypertext links should have worked was breathtaking in its innocence. But the moment I find myself replaying in my mind again and again is when notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick is concluding his story about worming his way into a major communications company, basically just by making a series of exceedingly polite telephone calls. Herzog asks him something to the effect of, “why did you do this? For malicious reasons?” And Mitnick instantly shouts back, “No! For sport!” with a passionate purity that totally knocked me out. That, to me, is on a par with Philippe Petit walking between the towers of the World Trade Center on a high wire, just for the useless beauty of it, just because he, alone, could.
The last three minutes of “The Magnificent Seven”
Embarrassing admission time: I’ve never seen The Seven Samurai nor John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. But, I had an unexpected evening to spare this fall and the 2016 Magnificent Seven remake by Antoine Fuqua happened to be playing at the movie theater around the corner from my apartment and I liked the casting enough that I figured why not catch it. So, though the film student in me is dying a humiliating little death right now that I can’t do a proper compare/contrast with the older versions, I’ll just say that the whole point of this particular movie was its final (approximate) three minutes.
After the savagery of the final gun battle, who remained? Among a town now populated and left to be led solely by women, children, and old or somehow infirm men, one young (white) boy looks up to watch the heroes of the day riding off into the horizon. And who were those heroes? A black man, a Mexican man, and a Native American man. This is what I mean about the power of movies to inspire, enhance, and inform our own inner visions—I want to live in that world. I perceive the necessary inevitability of that world. A world where it is unquestionable that young white children should be able to see and know, at an early and formative age, men of color who are heroic, who are depicted as survivors, as powerful, as worthy of emulation and inspiration.
“I shall remember this hour of peace, the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk.”
Further embarrassing former film student admissions: I’d somehow never seen The Seventh Seal before this year. But, as I am lucky to live near the Music Box Theatre, where I can easily see classic films, on a big screen, on a regular basis, I was able to catch it at a matinee with some friends over Memorial Day weekend.
No one ever told me how genuinely funny this movie is! Having only seen Persona in a feminist film class at Indiana University, I was in no way prepared for the genuine delight woven throughout what popular wisdom led me to believe would be another Very Serious and Important Art Film. (No one ever told me what a babe young Max von Sydow is either.)
And of course the hinge on which the film rests is the incredibly tender strawberries and milk scene.
In about nine short minutes it manages to hit all of my emotional buttons in the way that it celebrates an ephemeral moment of beauty and intimacy among an improvised group of friends and chosen family.
In that spirit, I thank you for sharing time and sweetness, even for just a few moments, with me here.
1. Rock music has, stylistically and technically, never moved beyond Jimi Hendrix. Fact.
2. My dad was a keyboard player with a trumpet fetish who mainly listened to jazz, show tunes, and doo-wop around the house, so I actually grew up hearing very little guitar-centric music. The hair metal bands of the ’80s were mainly heard through maxed-out sound systems in cars speeding past the busy intersection where our home was located. As a child, I found those sounds off-putting, if not downright frightening. The ’90s grunge bands, to me, were even worse, all the moreso because my angsty younger brother adopted Nirvana as his band and would play their albums at deafening volumes in his room. Prissy teenage do-gooder that I was, I fucking haaaaated it. In subsequent years, my brother was eventually inspired to pick up an electric guitar of his own, and my dad optimistically viewed this as their chance to bond over music the way he and I had previously bonded over the piano. In one of his finer and more sensitive moments of parenting, he chose not to criticize the grunge that my brother loved but instead attempted to merely enhance his CD collection with recordings of other great electric guitar players. To this end he’d purchased a copy of the Hendrix compilation Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience for my brother at some point, but for whatever reason, I dubbed it onto cassette and adopted it as my own.
3. Mainly, I remember driving myself back to Indiana University after some vacation or other and listening to the tape in the car on my way down. The comp is paced really thoughtfully, and I remember getting toward the end and hearing his live recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in its entirety for what was probably the first time. I was stuck in traffic somewhere on I-465 and just sat there sobbing my eyes out.
4. After college graduation, I spent a few months bumming around Seattle, living with a dear friend who’d recently moved there for a job as a sales rep with Samsonite. The Experience Music Project Museum (now officially known as MoPOP, I guess) had just recently opened and we were eager to check it out. In one of the first exhibits that we walked through, there was a display featuring Jimi’s handwritten lyrics for “Angel.” I cried standing there in front of it.
5. Thanks to all this, it got to the point where I both considered myself and was known as A Jimi Hendrix Fan.
6. Another good friend gave me a couple Hendrix CDs for either my birthday or Christmas one year. He was a devotee of Eric Clapton and so affixed handwritten speech bubbles onto the covers that said things like, “Allison! Hey, baby. I’m just practicin’ to get better than that dandy Clapton.”
It was cute and it made me laugh but was also one of those does-not-compute moments for me. Like, literally? There are people in the world who actively prefer Clapton to Hendrix? And not only just “people” in the abstract, but one of my best friends?? How is there any contest or comparison between them at all? As Charles Shaar Murray puts it in his book Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop:
Eric Clapton, on the other hand, played the blues something like Vladimir Nabokov wrote English: with the masterful formal grasp of one who has studied so intensely that he learns the rules of his chosen language or discipline to a far greater extent than many who have always simply assumed them and instinctively operated within them. Like Nabokov—and, for that matter, like Joseph Conrad and Jack Kerouac, both of whom came to English from, respectively, Polish and French—what Clapton was able to create and express through his acquired outlet was both a revelation to and an influence on many native “speakers.” Yet the cultural distance which provides perspective also imposes isolation; and in an art form where nuance is all, sterility is the almost inevitable result.
7. Stupidly, though, I think there were times that I actually forgot Hendrix was primarily revered as a guitar player. Because I actually really loved his singing voice. I know he didn’t consider himself much of a singer and credited Bob Dylan with giving him the courage to utilize his own perfectly imperfect vocals. But, partially because I was a singer myself and partially because I didn’t have much frame of reference for what made him such a uniquely gifted guitarist, I really gravitated and responded to the good humor, ease, and mysticism in his voice.
8. In my early days working as the editorial assistant at my day job, I found myself doing some light production work on Greg Tate’s book Midnight Lightning.
Tate’s writing totally blew my mind, but the bit that really knocked me out was this quote from Albert Allen about Hendrix’s death:
While the other type of sleep, the light sleep is coming upon you, there’s two sockets where you can go into. One socket is death and one socket is the socket to live. I think they call that an “alpha-jerk.” An alpha-jerk is—have you ever felt as though, “Oh wow, I’m going into the wrong hole here”? And you really feel funny, like that’s possibly the hole to die. And the other side is to go ahead and sleep and get into your subconscious and whatnot, which we normally go into. I believe that Jimi, possibly, could have got into his alpha-jerk field and it kind of felt groovy to him because he was high, slightly high, and he said, “Damn, I’m Jimi Hendrix, I wonder if I can die?” And the alpha-jerk came on him and he just said, Fuck it, let me try the alpha, and slipped on out.
9. In early 2011, I’d been singing with the band Tiny Magnets for about a year. In part because we were such a guitar-driven band, I found myself, perhaps naturally, listening to a lot of Hendrix. I’d dump a couple of different comps and maybe Are You Experienced into a playlist on my iPhone and would set the tracks to shuffle. One day on my commute to work, “Can You See Me” somehow came up twice. And then a day or two later, I went to see a friend’s band play at the Empty Bottle and one of the other bands on the bill covered “Can You See Me.” “That’s weird,” the bass player in my band—another huge Hendrix fan—laughed. “That’s not really one of his songs that gets played that often.” We left rehearsal together one night soon thereafter and saw, in an otherwise un-graffiti’d alley, a stencil of Jimi’s face on the garage door across from where we were parked.
11. I was about six months into my formal training as a clairvoyant at that point, so I had no choice but to go into psychic meditation about all these signs and coincidences. And I discovered, with no small amount of incredulity, that Jimi kept showing up because he wanted to be my spirit guide (or tutelary ghost companion). “Hi, Jimi,” I welcomed him, deciding it was best not to let my own energetic signature slip into fawning fan girl mode. He came and sought me out, after all; I thought it was only polite to stay cool, acknowledge his presence, and carry on as equals.
12. Mostly, I called on his spirit whenever I went to band practice. He, quite naturally, loved the noise, loved the energy, and I felt that he just really missed the vibe and camaraderie that arose when a group of people were assembled to play, loudly, in a room together. It was a pleasure to invite his spirit to be present with us. We played really well that spring and through the summer when we recorded and released our album Time to Try.
13. As thanks and tribute to his spiritual influence on my life, I bought this gorgeous necklace to wear to my clairvoyant graduation:
14. My clairvoyant training ended in late September 2011, and Jimi’s energy kind of dissipated from my life after that. My band then ended up playing what would be our last gig in that four-piece configuration in late October.
15. I somehow don’t think the two of those things were unrelated. As much as we might long for him to stick around, Jimi always knows when it’s time to make an exit.
The building that my boyfriend and I moved into a little over a year ago houses an incredibly tight-knit little community.
A bunch of the folks who live there have owned their condos for years, if not decades, and we’re lucky to rent our place from a lovely couple who live just a short distance away in a different building that’s more convenient for them. They and the other long-time residents have welcomed us with incredible openness and for that we are grateful.
One of their most beloved events is the yearly summer barbecue that’s held in the backyard. A couple of the residents are majorly talented and dedicated gardeners, so in addition to the backyard simply being a lovely place to sit for a few hours on a weekend afternoon, many of the dishes made to share invariably include fresh vegetables grown on the premises—kale for salads, a variety of pestos and caprese salads made with recently picked basil, etc. Everyone usually invites over a few friends and other neighbors from nearby buildings for a true community-style gathering.
This year, we met a couple, mostly in passing, who live just around the corner. “By the way,” one of our downstairs neighbors nudged us emphatically, “they sell honey made by the bees they keep in their yard. Some of the pollen they gather probably came from the plants in this garden. If you see the ‘for sale’ sign in their yard, just ring the bell and they’ll sell some to you.” Our eyes grew big and greedy in our heads and we nearly started salivating at the idea of this fabulous-sounding treat.
For what felt like weeks after, we’d find any excuse to walk past the couple’s magical little home, hoping to see the “honey for sale” sign in the yard, to no avail. We were worried we’d missed out on the surplus completely. But one particularly gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I was coming home from getting my hair cut, and even though my route back from the train didn’t take me past their house, I felt the intuitive pull to go out of my way. As usual, my intuition was right on the money—the elusive sign was out front at last. I even had extra cash in my purse left over from the amount I’d pulled out of the ATM earlier in order to tip my hair stylist.
Barbara met me at the door after I rang the bell and she offered me a choice of different size jars and a choice of creamed or liquid honey. I happily opted for the biggest possible jar of the creamed honey and practically threw my money at her, so happy was I that she was home, that we’d finally connected, and that she was keeping freaking bees in the first place.
“Guess what I just did!” I howled in triumph as I walked into my apartment, raising the golden jar over my head like a trophy for my boyfriend to admire. We instantly headed to the kitchen and set upon the jar with teaspoons. It was, quite literally, the best honey I’ve ever had in my life. It’s delicately floral in a way that I’d never tasted before, even with other local honeys that I’ve bought or tried from the farmers’ market. And of course there’s that indefinable something that flavored it even more subtly, considering that the bees who made it did probably visit our yard and garden on their flights of pollination and considering that I’d just shaken the (sticky) hand of the woman who helped make it all possible.
Y’all, I fucking love living in Rogers Park, if that’s not already abundantly apparent.
So, in the spirit of that local honey, I’m just gathering some bits of sweetness for you this month, hoping the combination of it all might add up to something similarly surprising and nourishing.
I subscribe to a lot of newsletters and I buy a lot of natural products, but I could probably easily eliminate most of them as long as I got to keep Kings Road Apothecary. The newsletter that shopkeeper Rebecca Altman sends out on the weekends is beautifully written and filled with keen insights and observations about the natural world and our relationship to it.
The products she creates—teas, tinctures, body oils, and whatnot—are a joy to use. Not to mention her monthly surprise boxes, based around a theme or specific ingredient, are one of the remaining subscription-style delivery services that I happily continue to spend money on on a regular basis. This stuff is the real deal—sustainably harvested, organic healing wisdom. I’m super nerdy about how much I love her stuff and everyone else I’ve ever introduced to her work has become similarly obsessed. Catch her on Instagram to start and allow yourself to become smitten.
Earlier this fall I started singing with the Chicago Artists Chorale, and I forgot how much my brain and ears change when I’m regularly reading music, singing in four (or more) part harmony, and following the guidance of a genius conductor (in this case, the inestimable Tom Vendafreddo). Recorded music always just sounds different after I’ve been in that choral headspace for a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal, so when I’m taking the train home afterwards, I don’t want to squander that heightened aural sensitivity on the same old indie rock stuff I listen to most mornings on my commute to work. After a recent rehearsal, I decided to really sink my ears into local jazz guitarist John Moulder’s album Bifröst.
I must have listened to the title track at least two times in a row, if not three, and I’m usually not the type of person to put a song on repeat. It’s a stunning pas de deux between Moulder on electric guitar and Bendik Hofseth on tenor sax, which rides a tight groove for most of its eight minutes before exploding into an incredibly exciting freak-out at the end. Over the next few days, I kept demanding my boyfriend listen back to the track with me and help me pick apart all the technical nuances of what Moulder was playing. “Did you hear that? How did he do that dive bomb thing??” My ears keep craving the sonic intelligence of what they’re doing together. Fantastic stuff.
Whenever the weather starts to shift and the cooler temperatures start to blow in, I get excited about being able to reach for my dense, sweet, and warm perfumes again. In this kind of mood, sometimes I want my vanilla perfumes, sometimes amber, sometimes incense; right now, I want chocolate. An initial idle grab for my decant of Cadavre Exquis somehow turned into a full-blown chocolate obsession.
My Olympic Orchids scents are the first obvious ones I pull out: California Chocolate, Seattle Chocolate, and Cafe V. But Orto Parisi’s Boccanera got a rave compliment from my boss as I was walking past her desk. (I felt almost embarrassed to send her the link to the fragrance’s description on Lucky Scent’s website: “Boccanera means ‘dark mouth’ in Italian. Nature offers dark holes that express sensuality in an erotic dark way, and this fragrance is no exception.” Yikes!) Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Centzon Totochtin is an old favorite that I’d nearly forgotten about, and Keith Urban’s Phoenix is a cheap thrill that always delights me. Haus of Gloi’s Dank Chocolate scented pumpkin body butter is an insanely rich treat after a shower or just before bed. Now I just need to order a new decant of Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis and I’ll be completely armed for a delicious smelling autumn.
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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