Mark Knopfler’s TRACKER and Art in Present Time

As a bookwormy kid, I was, of course, very comfortable and conversant with the past.

With the exception of The Baby-Sitters Club series, which released new books periodically that I would greedily read in one sitting once I got them home from the Waldenbooks in the mall, a good chunk of what I chose to read for my own enjoyment or was assigned to read in school was old. From the ’70s trashy VC Andrews stuff I snuck from my own babysitter to, later, the Fitzgerald and Hemingway I came to adore in high school, it just seemed a given that books = the past.

I suppose learning about the past is an inescapable part of most kids’ education, both formal—historic dates, classic texts, facts and figures that had been safely proven and deemed true long ago—and informal—family stories that get repeated over and over, solidifying the sense of This is Who We Art and This Is Where We Came From.

open book

Photo by Alejandro Escamilia

My dad in particular, though, always seemed intensely invested in preserving the past. Though that tendency was definitely exacerbated by my mom’s death in 1987, even before her cancer showed up, he relished showing family movies on 8mm film, listening to cassette tape recordings of former musical triumphs (most notably the recording of a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar that he conducted the pit band for in the summer of ’79), and telling stories of his (extremely mild and benign!) college exploits. Family vacations rarely deviated from the predictable routes to the same destinations we drove and redrove around the Midwest every spring break, summer vacation, and winter holiday we had free.

Perhaps that’s why, aside from other obvious reasons, my mother’s death was so intensely shocking and disruptive to our family system—it was a thing that was unavoidably happening in the Present. Her illness interrupted our preferred location in the past tense.

And then as I unconsciously tried to heal the grief of everyone around me, always aiming to be both a model student and a model daughter, I dove into the past with alacrity. “These are the things that YOU used to like? These are the things that were vital and important and current for YOU? Great, then they shall be my favorites, too.”

Ah yes, the glory days of Book-It!

I only bring up these details to contextualize the disproportionate and late-blooming shock I felt after reading Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (twice, back-to-back) in the summer of 2001 when I realized, “holy shit—he just wrote this. This is new.”

Like, of course I knew that there were new books being written by still-living authors all the time. I guess, as a young woman in her late teens and early 20s living in Indiana, I just didn’t have the sense that any of it was for me. I was snobby enough, too, to have assumed that all the good work had somehow already been used up by authors of the past.

“I just don’t really like much of anything written after the 1920s,” I was known to simper, when I would even give the 20th century the time of day at all.

What can I say, I was tons of fun throughout high school and college.

And yet, only a few months after I graduated from Indiana University, I had this Eggers book in my hands. It was full of pyrotechnic wordsmithery, pop culture references, and postmodern meta-level tweaking of the very form of a memoir, but was also aching with trauma as it recounted the deaths of his parents and the responsibility he had to assume for his kid brother. Not to mention, the author was barely that much older than I was and had, like me, grown up just outside Chicago. It was all so exciting! I very, very self-consciously thought to myself, with something akin to mystical reverence, that surely this is what it must have felt like to have been alive when Fitzgerald had first published This Side of Paradise.

I haven’t reread A Heartbreaking Work in quite a long while, so I have no idea what I’d think of it now, but I don’t care. I loved it then and it woke me up to the idea that it was possible for good art, art that would be important to me, to be made right now.

As the years went on and I became more conversant with a tiny fraction of the new fiction being published, as well as music and movies, of course, I became consumed with the thought that, in all likelihood, someone out there was currently busy writing a book, or recording a song, or scribbling a screenplay, that would come to mean the world to me a year later, maybe even ten years later. That, while I was folding laundry or otherwise going about the mundane business of my daily life, someone out there was making something that would catch up with me in the future, that would be profoundly meaningful both for the way it touched my heart and for the fact that it, in some respect, was new enough to still have the stardust of its own inspiration and creation on it.

Like, currently, Mark Knopfler’s Tracker.

Mark Knopfler,

I’ve never really known the music of Dire Straits and was only relatively recently introduced to Knopfler’s solo work by my boyfriend. I started to joke with him a year or two ago that I knew he was really getting down to business with his own writing projects when Shangri-La started going into heavy rotation on the stereo. So, though I expected to hear Tracker on in the background while we were making dinner or reading before bedtime, it came as pretty much a complete surprise when it started to dominate my own precious listening time on morning and evening train commutes.

It’s all I want to listen to right now. And, it just came out in March! His last solo album was released in 2012, so that means that while I spent the last three years taking care of my sister and starting up this blog and playing in my band, he was holed up somewhere in the UK working on this magnificent collection of songs. This obsession with simultaneity is always a sure sign that I’m really a goner for something or someone; when I start asking, “so how old were you in this year? What grade were you in at school? This is how old I was. This is what I was up to. How funny to think it was happening at the same time!” then you know I’m really smitten.

Even though I’ve just written this whole blog post in preface to talking about how much I love the album, I don’t really even want to write that much about it for fear of breaking the spell. Do you honestly need me to describe in flowery language the burnished tone of Knopfler’s Les Paul guitar in order for me to convey how good the album is? Do you need a track-by-track analysis of his lyrical themes, or comparisons to other songs that kinda hit a similar vibe to the one he’s bringing to life here? Truly, the most accurate description of this album, to me, is not a description of this album at all. It’s this terrific quote from Bill Murray, talking about acting in Wes Anderson’s films:

Well, it’s like if someone plays an instrument, say, a guitar. A young player can play it, and if he wants to play a high note, or a fast rhythm, it has a certain [makes twangy noise] desperate quality to it. But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find. A young player can go [makes clumsy blip sounds], whereas a real player can go [makes smooth blip sounds]. You can notice the difference, and it’s like with that fast pace of Wes’s movies. If you’re real quiet, your whole body will be quiet, and there’ll be echo, and resonance. It’s like your head, or your chest, is a guitar box.

But when you get a really sophisticated player playing those notes, he can play those same notes in a tempo where there’s space in between. You can see that there’s actually a process where his interior state is so quick, that he can find time other people can’t find.

That’s Tracker exactly. Much like my well-documented admiration for Mark Eitzel, right now Mark Knopfler and his music are fulfilling a major need for me to hear what it sounds like when highly trained, highly skilled, highly tasteful musicians make music as grown-ups, for grown-ups. It’s the sound of supreme mastery held lightly, finding time that other people can’t find. I feel oh so lucky and oh so grateful to be sharing my own time with it today.

Save

My Path to the Tarot

When I first moved to Chicago in 2002, I moved into an apartment on Chicago Avenue that was above a storefront called Beloved.

Beloved was a magic shop. Not presto-chango, rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic, but witchery. Voodoo. Gris-gris and powerful herbs in enormous glass jars. Though at the time I was just grateful to have found a place to live, now I think—of course. Of course that’s where I’d end up upon officially relocating to the city.

chicago avenue in 2002

I lived in that apartment just shy of two years. The shop eventually relocated down the street, then went out of business altogether, then briefly resurfaced online, and now has no web presence at all after some blog entries circa early 2012. The woman who owned the shop was probably not that much older than I was, wore her hair in soft dark dreadlocks, and had an adorable spitfire of a young daughter.

In the time that we shared the same building, I not only often stopped in at the shop just to chat and say hi, but also took kundalini yoga there a few times, asked her for a spell that would help clear out the bad vibes after a particularly disagreeable roommate moved out of the apartment’s third bedroom (which involved me and my remaining roommate smashing open a coconut at the Chicago and Damen intersection late one gorgeous summer evening), and got a couple tarot readings from her.

Rider Waite Magician

Despite having developed a fascination with energy work in my early teens, I was never really exposed to, or gravitated to, tarot. The Craft-esque idea of groups of teenage witch girls summoning spirits, playing Ouija, or dressing up in Stevie Nicks-style shawls and capes could not have been further from my personal experience. Aside from attending some karate classes at a local rec center that first introduced me to the whole concept of being able to consciously direct and influence energy in and with my body, I mostly studied these things on my own. Plus, thanks to that karate class, I was initially more interested in Eastern religions anyway, preferring to read about Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism rather than Wicca or herbalism.

Anyway, I’m not sure at what point I even learned what tarot was. But, after I graduated from college, when I was the primary caretaker for my maternal grandmother as she was dying of lung cancer, I somehow stumbled upon a set of Titania’s Fortune Cards. The deck had far fewer cards than a traditional tarot deck and the imagery immediately resonated with me—there were boldly colored images of a house, a four-leaf clover, a heart, a book, a tree, and other iconic, solitary objects.

titania's cards

The deck of course came with a guidebook to the symbols, which I pored over, trying to force my brain and hands into a fluidity with their meanings—but also secretly hoping that the cards would reveal my own magical identity to me, that in laying them down, I would suddenly read the Cinderella-like truth of my power, my imminent rescue from the depressing circumstances of my life, and my assured destiny as someone very talented, very powerful, very appreciated, and abundantly loved. I don’t think I ever really got the answers I was looking for, and the deck was eventually tucked away on the bottom of a bookshelf.

I also have to believe that some of the distance I felt from that deck and from tarot in general is that they just seemed like so much damn work. Learning the intricacies of the symbolism of the cards, how the cards relate to each other when juxtaposed, then the various elaborate layouts giving structure and narrative to a reading—it just all seemed so much like math. I wanted to talk about emotions and relationships and memories—stumbling through a guidebook to learn all these esoteric meanings seemed like it would take an awful lot of time and effort and discipline to get to the good stuff.

I am not a very patient person.

And though of course I worked hard during my clairvoyant training to learn various methods and techniques for giving aura readings and energy healings, I had such an immediate sense of familiarity with what I was learning there that it rarely felt like work. It just felt like a clarifying of instincts that I already knew I had, rather than stuffing new information into my brain that would need to be slowly processed and assimilated.

By Thunderwing Studio of Design

By Thunderwing Studio of Design

That being said, my natural, voracious curiosity trumps even my aversion to the idea of strenuous effort, so I’ve been recently trying to familiarize myself with some tarot basics. I have some card apps on my iPhone, I received a Tarot de Marseille deck last Christmas as a gift from my boyfriend, and I recently ordered a Spirit Speak deck on the recommendation of the marvelous babes who run Spinning Wheel Apothecary. (I seriously regret having missed out on the last printing of The Collective Tarot, which is powerfully and brilliantly put together.)

Though I don’t think I’ll ever feel adept enough to give tarot readings to others in the same way that I give psychic readings and energy healings, I have to believe it’s useful for me to at least have a passing familiarity with how the deck works, especially since “tarot” is the first thing that people probably think of when a woman about my age has witchy, energy-working tendencies.

More than that, though, I’m actually enjoying just having this new toy that I can play around with. I’m such a perfectionist in so many areas of my life that it’s enormously freeing to look at this one thing where I can tell myself, “you know what—there’s absolutely no way you’re going to master this, so just enjoy it to the degree that you can manage.” Giving myself a break in this way, these days, is just about the most magical thing I can do for myself.

titania star

PS! If you’ve read this far and now are jonesing for a tarot reading of your own, let me unreservedly recommend Angie Yingst. Though she’s physically located in Pennsylvania and gives in-person crystal healings and leads workshops at the Alta View Wellness Center, she does have an option in her online shop for tarot readings done via e-mail. I’ve gotten readings from her for my past two birthdays. She lays a spread out for you using her own intuition for the card pulls, then sends a written PDF report detailing everything that came through. The information she brings in is so rich that the energy seriously lasts me the entire year—I frequently go back and reread mine to reconnect with her inspiration and wisdom. Her readings speak straight to my heart thanks to her abundant intelligence, good humor, and great sensitivity. I highly recommend her blog as well.

Save

Pet Theories Recording Diary–Day 2

Well, it’s definitely not an important large-scale creative endeavor if there’s not one major oh shit moment!

Tony at the sound board

After tracking vocals all morning and into the early afternoon on Sunday, my band Pet Theories and our audio engineer Kevin headed out for a late lunch, giddy and high from the accomplishment of a lot of really awesome work. Back at the studio about an hour later, we settled in for guitar overdubs and other miscellaneous finesse parts that would be folded into and around the basic guitar, keyboard, drums, and vocal tracks.

I grabbed a chair in the recording booth, eager to hear the waves of feedback and elegant countermelody lines I was waiting for Brian to unleash on the guitar. As playback began on the first song, something felt . . . off. Less than off, even; just . . . untasteful. I thought maybe I was just hearing things more soberly with a belly full of rice noodles and broccoli. Maybe the vocals had been rougher than I’d realized in the first flush of accomplishment.

But no—about 30 seconds later, Brian frantically waved his hands on the other side of the control room glass.

“Can you stop the playback in my headphones? Something’s out of synch.”

Brian with his pedals

A tense few minutes passed as our engineer discovered that the vocals on every track we’d recorded that day were coming in a fraction of a beat too quickly. He tried to bump it back in ProTools several times to no avail. On every hopeful replay, the vocals were still rushing in, making us sound like inelegant, or possibly drunk, karaoke singers.

The fraction of time was so slight, it was impossible to even count. It wasn’t like we were coming in on beat 1 when we were supposed to come in on beat 2. It was more like coming in on beat 1.996 instead of beat 2. In other words, hard to point to with precision, but impossible not to feel.

My stomach began doing flip-flops and my throat dried up.

Were we going to have to start the vocals from scratch? Was any of it repairable? Would attempts to manipulate a timing glitch that subtle in ProTools just make everything sound alien and sterile?

The Peavey

Though my initial instinct was to freak out and panic, I recalled an anecdote from Hawaiian shaman Serge Kahili King’s book Changing Reality that I love. When he and his wife were once attempting a major trip overseas, they’d arrived at the airport to discover that their itinerary was completely missing from the airline’s computer records:

We both stayed perfectly calm and vocally thanked and complimented the ticket agent for every small positive thing she did, at the same time ignoring everything that did not seem to work out. Inwardly, we passively, but consistently, blessed with images and silent words all the personnel involved, all the computers and electrical connections, all the planes that might be part of our trip, and everything good we could think of. The agent went more and more out of her way to help us, and so did the people she was dealing with. In about an hour we had a better itinerary than our original one—with first-class seats thrown in as a bonus.

Inspired by this story, I started mentally praising the soundboard for all its beautiful, hard work for us that day, and energetically beamed appreciation and encouragement at Kevin for all his technical smarts and creative aptitude.

A Tiger Nugget is a blessing, right?

Before too long, he discovered that two internal clocks in the hardware had somehow gotten out of phase with each other—one was set to 48 and one was set to 44, forever dooming half the tracks to chase the other half at an infinitesimally slight delay. A total system reboot, while time consuming, was basically all it took to get everything set right again.

The Bowie candle has been commandeered

This was a perfect lesson for me, in so many ways, since I so often struggle with impatience. I saw that speeding through things does not usually give me the results that I want when I’m insistent upon something I desire happening now-now-now. When shifts occur before they’re supposed to, they’ll likely feel forced or rushed or just in subtly indefinable bad taste.

It also felt like a metaphor for everything we’re trying to accomplish as a band, and with this recording. The sounds that we make might not sound like much to someone who’s not paying attention. But we hope that the people who will appreciate the infinitesimally subtle shifts that we’re bringing to the creation of our own unique sound will hear what we’re doing and be moved to respond.

Uphill Recording at Night

Thank you so much for joining us on this stage of our journey! We can’t wait to share the final tracks with you. You can keep up with the band and our whereabouts on Facebook and Soundcloud. You can find more information about our most excellent engineer, Kevin Tabisz, and his stellar studio, Uphill Recording, on Facebook and Soundcloud as well.

Save

Pet Theories Recording Diary–Day 1

With one full day of recording behind us, we’re elated, and exhausted.

As I said close to the end of today’s session, I don’t know how bands who hate each other get through this process in one piece. It’s tough enough work with a bunch of folks you get along quite well with.

Which is not to say it’s hard, necessarily. Recording just takes everything you have available to give it. And we gave a lot today.

Here’s some of what’s going into the music you’ll hopefully be hearing soon.


























Save

Pet Theories Recording Diary—Day 0

When I tell people that my dad was a musician, it’s often hard for me to explain what it was, exactly, that he did.

The first assumption is usually that he played in a rock band. That he wrote and played original material. That he toured. That he had aspirations of “making it.” That, living an hour outside Chicago, he must have been frustrated by his proximity to an urban metropolis where he could have been schmoozing and connecting with other players if he hadn’t had to raise three kids as a single parent and keep a steady job.

Other guesses might include that, as a piano player, he was classically trained and played in orchestras. Or that he was some kind of session musician, popping in and out of recording sessions, sprinkling some cool sounds on other people’s songs. Or that he was a mere hobbyist, playing front porches and backyards for the sheer love of it.

None of that is really true. Or maybe some of it is? Parts of all those different narratives got combined into a weird amalgam that’s so unique that it disappears through my fingers when I try to hold it for someone else to observe and comprehend.

Terry 1955

Born in 1949 to first-generation Polish parents, he began playing the accordion as a young child, and eventually was able to transfer the right-hand keyboard skills to piano. (He always rued that his left hand dexterity was underdeveloped because of this early training on buttons instead of keys.) He played keyboards in bands throughout high school and college, though he also entered Indiana University as a French horn player, since he wanted to go into music education and he needed a band instrument to do so. He also learned to play a bit of violin, I’m told, though I never saw him demonstrate it.

The Terry Felus Trio

The summers during college, and then in the years afterward, he played with his own trio, a hilariously oddball group made up of him on Cordovox (basically an electric accordion), a singing drummer, and his best friend on vibes. Sheer, total bonkers instrumentation—and three of the most talented, tasteful musicians I can think of, even now. They played mostly cover songs and polkas, and were booked for wedding receptions, anniversary parties, high school banquets, and other large gatherings in the days before DJs were de rigueur. The line-up fluctuated in subsequent years after the vibes player moved to California, with the addition of a trumpet-playing friend, another keyboard, and a female vocalist for a time, before they eventually called it quits after my mother’s death in 1987.

high school band

He taught high school band for a few years in his late 20s and early 30s, grudgingly leading the marching band but preferring to conduct the pit band for musical theater performances. When he left education for a 9-to-5 office job that would afford him a better paycheck and more free time on nights and weekends for his own projects (and growing family), he continued writing instrumentation and conducting pit bands for musical theater productions throughout Northwest Indiana.

After the dissolution of his own band in the late ’80s, he also had more time to devote to playing music at church. Then, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, he connected with a female vocalist who gigged throughout the region and often let other musicians sit in with her band for a few songs throughout the night, and he became a regular fixture at her gigs in various restaurants and bars until he had the stroke that put him in a nursing home in the summer of 2004.

album rack

And not only did he play, he was also a voracious music listener and appreciator. Though he was a jazz musician, his favorites weren’t John Coltrane or Miles Davis—he loved trumpet players like Maynard Ferguson and Don Ellis and Allen Vizzutti.

Terry Felus with Allen Vizzutti

He loved Huey Lewis and the News and Lionel Richie and Gloria Estefan in the ’80s. He went through a massively obsessive phase for weird old doo-wop recordings. Of course musical theater was a constant presence—he preferred Les Miz to Phantom, but loved the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse stuff most of all, thanks to fond memories of his own high school’s production of The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd. And even though he wasn’t super into the rock music of his generation (I don’t have the Beatles or Stones love that many kids of my generation do because their parents were avid fans), he knocked me out one time when, as I was learning more about the ’70s New York punk scene, he casually mentioned how he’d always really liked Tom Verlaine’s playing. He didn’t quite understand what I liked about OK Computer, but Jeff Buckley’s vocal calisthenics at the end of “Grace” earned his unreserved admiration.

I never once heard him talk about “doing” anything with his music. He did it, and that was all that mattered. I’m sure there was probably some part of him that wished he could have played more, or that he could have found some musical day job that would have paid well enough to survive on, but I literally never heard him mention it or complain about it. At his wake in late 2012, one of his friends said that my dad was made of music. That’s as true to the spirit of how essential it was to his identity as any other description I’ve ever heard.

I only bring this history up to contextualize the fact that my currently playing in a rock band is not actually an obvious thing for me to be doing. The years that I spent performing both on stage and in the pit bands for local musical theater productions—that was obvious. My voice lessons in my early 20s at the Bloom School of Jazz—that was obvious.

Allison at the Green Mill

But this weird thing that I’ve been doing since early 2010, singing and now playing keyboard in a band in Chicago, performing mostly original material with a few covers thrown in on occasion, is something that doesn’t really find a template in what I learned from my father growing up.

Pet Theories on stage

Except, of course, for the camaraderie. Genre to genre, and format to format, that doesn’t really change much. And so I know I’m genuinely happy when my rehearsals with my band Pet Theories start to tickle my memories of how I remember my dad laughing his ass off about something with his drummer, or picking apart an awesome solo off some newfound recording around the dinner table with his trumpet-playing friend. Or even my own memories of giddy, exhausted late-night rehearsals at the theater in high school, or the surprised pleasure I felt the first time I actually heard a well-recorded take of my own isolated vocals on an arrangement of “More Than You Know.”

Brian recording a Pet Theories demo

My band goes into the recording studio tomorrow to start laying down basic tracks for what will hopefully become our first full-length album. We’ve been playing some of these songs together for years; some of them we just started arranging less than two months ago.

And much like how, just now, I needed hundreds of words across about a dozen paragraphs to describe just what kind of musician my dad was, I’d probably need the same amount of space to describe what we sound like, the way that our disparate influences shape what we do and why it works as well as it does.

Maybe there’s an obvious referent for what we do that I just can’t hear because I’m so close to it. But I don’t think so. For a long time, I found it easy to tell people that we sound like The Police. (We even learned to play a handful of Police cover songs for a fundraiser at Schubas in December 2014.)

But even that doesn’t seem accurate anymore, now that we’re all growing more comfortable with each other and with what we each contribute to the overall sound.

I’m excited to hear what comes of the sessions this weekend, and hope to bring you all along for the ride. And even though being in a studio won’t necessarily make me think of my dad, finding time in my busy schedule to make music together with people I respect and admire and adore definitely does.

Save

Peach Buzz: Bad Wolf Coffee

Peach Buzz!

I’ve written here before about my love/hate relationship with coffee.

I find myself firmly on the “love” side of the divide these days and, as ever, am trying to figure out what that means to me and why.

I’m constantly torn between a desire for solitude and a desire to feel a sense of connection and belonging to other people. In years past, I felt lonely and bereft of companionship, so I’d have to invent reasons and occasions to gather with others–whether it was internet dating, regular outings with girlfriends to visit weird places around the city, serving on the advisory council of my Buddhist temple, or joining a rock band.

These days I’m firmly ensconced in groups of all sorts that demand my attention in a number of ways–working 40 hours a week in an office with an open floor plan and the corresponding expectation for collaboration and conversation at the drop of a hat, weekly rehearsals with my band Pet Theories, caring for my younger autistic sister, living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend and our two cats, not to mention being tethered to the Internet through this blog, my Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and the various other tendrils of digital life.

Though these relationships fulfill and sustain me in marvelous way, I do find that I still need to counterbalance all that togetherness with moments of solitude wherever I can carve them out. Reliably, those moments happen during meditation in the morning and zone-out time with my headphones on while commuting to work on the CTA. Increasingly, though, I find that making and/or drinking coffee is actually an important ritual that I perform just for me.

At the risk of sounding like some cheesy commercial from the ’80s extolling the virtues of a coffee break for a busy professional woman such as myself, I do find that having a cup of coffee is a reliable indication of “me time.” My boyfriend can’t drink caffeine, so when I make it at home, the whole elaborate ritual of putting together a pour-over cup for myself marks the kitchen as my space for a precious few minutes (despite our cat Rosie’s very loud insistence that she be given her fair share of coconut cream as an even exchange for her not murdering us while we sleep).

I’ve never been a smoker but have always been envious of the socially sanctioned smoke break, where a person just has permission to quietly hang out, doing nothing but letting the world go by for a few minutes. I know the habit is expensive and that there’s an increasing crackdown on places where people are allowed to smoke peacefully and comfortably in the city, but my romantic vision of this ritual remains. Happily, I find that I get some of the same no-questions-asked latitude for time away from my desk when I declare that I need to get a cup of coffee. Office lunchroom coffee is, of course, terrible–but the stolen moments that belong to me are delicious. And increasingly necessary.

Sunday mornings currently provide my favorite one-two punch of alone time–after the morning meditation service at the Zen Buddhist Temple, I make my way across the street to Bad Wolf Coffee.

I am completely in love with this place and its no-bullshit approach to what it does. You can read plenty about owner Jonathan Ory’s bona fides and background on various culinary sites around the internet. I’m certainly no foodie so I can’t really chime in on all that, but I so appreciate the vibe that he’s created at the shop.

In eliminating the expected trappings of a “normal” coffee shop–like, y’know, chairs–he’s beautifully put the emphasis on his limited but exquisite menu of drinks and pastries. I very rarely drink coffee without generous quantities of cream and sugar, but here I do–it’s so rich and flavorful and smooth that it really only needs a small sprinkling of sugar granules to make it palatable to me. If it’s unexpectedly busy in the shop, or when the weather’s nice and I want to walk, I’ll get it to go, but these days I’ve been staying to drink it, extending my blissful alone time standing up at the edge of the one long table in the center of the room, maybe halfheartedly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, but mostly just zoning out, bringing myself back to the rhythms of the regular world after an hour or so at the temple.

And though I do crave my alone time, I also never want to take for granted my connection to my loved ones, so I’ve developed the habit of checking in with my boyfriend by text message, sending him a photo of what I’ve taken to calling “the weekly coffee report.” Which is exactly what it sounds like–photos snapped staring down the barrel of my coffee cup, all completely interchangeable at some level but precious to me just the same for the way they represent a certain satisfying groove of habit that’s been worn into my life of late.

Is that maybe the root of my current love affair with coffee? Its perfect balance between sameness and variation? A cup of coffee brewed at home is not a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts is not a cup of coffee from Asado, nevertheless . . .

As Adam Gopnik writes in Paris to the Moon,

Can’t repeat the past? We do it every day. We build a life, or try to, of pleasures and duties that will become routine, so that every day will be the same day, or nearly so, “the day of our life,” Randall Jarrell called it.

Of course the snob in me is torn between raving about Bad Wolf Coffee so that more people will check it out (and help it stay in business) and wanting to keep it my own little secret, a place where I can reliably go to disappear in plain sight for a short while. But I honestly love it too much to keep it to myself; I suppose there’s plenty of time for visitors in the day of my life. So if you happen to see me at the corner of the big wooden table on a Sunday morning, let us give thanks together for the bridge between the transcendent and the mundane, the solitary and the communal, offered by sharing the ritual of a really good cup of coffee.

UPDATE: Bad Wolf Coffee (sadly) officially closed its doors on September 21, 2015. Best wishes to Jonathan Ory on his new endeavors in Charleston, SC!

Save

A Christmas Carol and Much, Much More

For several years when I was about middle-school age, my family would go at Christmastime to a local church that put on an elaborately staged production of A Christmas Carol.

This production not only adapted the story into a musical, but also turned it into a musical with an explicitly evangelical Christian theme. The conceit was that Scrooge, rather than seeing the error of his miserly ways after his three ghostly visitations, instead accepts Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior and wakes up on December 25 as a born-again Christian.

Even today, as a precept-following Buddhist, I have to admit that, for its purpose and audience, it’s a pretty brilliant take on the material.

chris smith glory to god in the highest st mary of the angels chicago My father, raised Catholic by first-generation Polish parents, had at some point started attending the evangelical Christian church my mother had long belonged to. (Though I’m not sure where and how my mother got there since my maternal grandparents weren’t terribly religious.) My mother died in 1987, and I have to believe that that event wove us even more firmly into the community of that church, especially given how much they did for us during the year or two that she was dying of cancer.

My father’s brother and sister and their children—my cousins—all remained more or less devout Catholics, so my siblings and I were always slight outcasts among our clan. We didn’t get First Communion parties and were exempt from Midnight Masses. However, we never had that many friends our own age at my dad’s church, despite multiple years of attending Vacation Bible School for a week during the summers and the fits and starts of attendance at early morning Sunday school when my father, a gigging musician who often played late on Saturday nights, could get us all up early enough to ferry us there on time. The church was truly most important for my dad as a social group and support network. There was even a woman there, another single parent, whom he sort of dated for a while. Though he never defined their relationship as such to us, I hated her viciously anyway.

Church of St. Simon and St. Helen organ paval hadzinskiIn subsequent years, he became more and more involved with the worship music at Sunday services, playing keyboards in the praise band as the music choices began to drift away from more traditional hymns played on piano and organ toward the kind of light pop that called for more elaborate instrumentation. He had consummately good taste and a short-fuse temper, which was sort of a hilariously bad combination in that context. Though never the actual worship leader, he essentially ran their Wednesday night rehearsals, putting the band through its paces and cursing them out when someone was playing lazily or sloppily, the way he would with any other musician in a jazz band or musical theater orchestra. As I grew older, this behavior embarrassed me terribly on his behalf, but his fellow musicians, aside from the occasional frustrated remark or rueful shake of the head, always insisted that they appreciated his perfectionism and were grateful for his attempts to turn them into better players, so that they could then, in turn, give greater glory to God.

a merry christmas uncle! god save you

So, the fact that we made trips to see this Christian version of A Christmas Carol for so many years in a row really meant something—it meant that it was really, really well done. My father was also deeply sentimental and liked to do the same rituals over and over, year after year, so it was a given at that time in our lives that we would all attend this show as part of our holiday traditions.

The church that put on the show was maybe 25 minutes away from where we lived, in a town we didn’t have much reason to go to otherwise, so even though the drive wasn’t that long, there was always a sense of occasion to our yearly pilgrimage there.

dyer to homewood

In the early ’90s, my dad had officially given up the huge, boxy full-size van that he’d used for years to cart musical gear to and from gigs, in favor of a more manageable and comfortable minivan with sufficient seating for me and my brother and sister. Though I usually rode in the front seat if it was just the four of us traveling together, I’d have to cede the place if there was another adult, like one of my three living grandparents, coming along with us. Since my dad loved introducing people to this version of A Christmas Carol and thus we often were driving new attendees to the show, my memories of driving to and from this church are predominantly of my sitting in the inky darkness in the back of the minivan, bundled into my winter coat but still shivering against the frigid air. Christmas music would be playing softly on the stereo and whatever conversation might be occurring would feel light years away from my little nest. I would stare out the window at the passing lights of streets I only dimly recognized and would occasionally smell the heavenly scent of greasy fast food billowing on the cold night air.

snow december 2007These trips in the van always felt removed from regular life, but also curiously suspended, coherent, since they were, for a time, a yearly constant, unique unto themselves. And even though there is now scant evidence available (that I can find online, at least) that this show ever existed, and even though my own Dickensian Christmastime traditions favor Great Expectations over A Christmas Carol (that opening scene of Pip in the graveyard on Christmas Eve is as indelibly a part of me as if it had been a real life event), I find myself referring back to this cluster of memories more than I might expect. Not out of nostalgia, really; more like opening the oven door periodically to see if the muffins are done baking yet. I keep waiting for this strange combination of sense memories to cohere into something solid, something that will sustain and nourish me.

unsplash hide obaraCold air. Nighttime drives. Holiday anticipation. A warm theater. A lovingly produced performance. My father’s standards of excellence. A spiritual lens on a familiar story. Seasonal predictability. Cherished art to share with family and friends.

Is it selfish to want to form a more definite story out of these events and impressions? Is there something a little pushy about wanting to force them into some kind of digestible narrative or anecdote?

unsplash sonja langfordMaybe it’s actually OK that these memories don’t quite cohere. Maybe they’re best left as clusters, as constellations, the space between them leaving room for me to trace a line that creates a shape that exists only in my mind’s eye. Maybe this vague shape suggests, instead of a specific lesson, a useful mythology.

Save

The Heart and Voice of Mark Eitzel

mark eitzel smiling bjorn giesenbauer

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


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

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

Allison on Twitter: Allison on Twitter: I never heard back from him online, but when we got to the venue the day of the show, I almost literally ran into him as I was coming back upstairs from the bathroom. “Mark!” I accosted him. “I was the one who kept Twittering at you!” He immediately, reflexively folded me into a hug.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mark eitzel smiling bjorn giesenbauerThank you, Mark.

Help Me Plan My Next Vacation

I am very good at figuring things out.

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

tools

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

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

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

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

globe and camera

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

Chateau Chenonceau

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

horizon line

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

train tracks

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

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

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

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

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

tasmania

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

*

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

Save

Peach Buzz: Panang Noodle and Rice

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

So, welcome to Peach Buzz!

Peach Buzz!

And farewell to Panang Noodle and Rice on Chicago Avenue.

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

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

“Seattle Sunset” by Howard Ignatius

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

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

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

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

panang interior february 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

panang closing notice

Save

How Do Your Memories Smell?

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

In Remembrance

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

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

Sharon Felus

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

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

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

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

Allison with Sharon

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

Dyer to Bremen

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

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

The Farm Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mary delighed by the joke

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

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

Livin’ That No Pants Life

Suddenly: skirts!

About four years ago, I stopped wearing pants.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly: skirts!

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

From Tess Whitehurst’s “Magical Fashionista”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save