Kate Christensen and the Art of Truth

Over on Tumblr, I’ve spoken about my esteem for the writer Kate Christensen and her recently published memoir Blue Plate Special.

I can’t remember exactly how I got turned on to her writing. My best guess is that it was through Jami Attenberg’s blog or Twitter. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed Christensen’s food blogging for quite some time now, especially for the way it allows her to tell deeply intimate stories about her personal life. (This essay about traveling to Mexico as she and her then-husband were breaking up always sticks out in my mind.)

I found a used copy of her novel The Great Man at Open Books a couple years ago and quite enjoyed it, though I’ve always liked her nonfiction best.

The Great Man

Thus, I absolutely devoured Blue Plate Special when it came out last year, not just for its exceptional writing and fearless truth-telling but also (gag) for the implicit permission I feel it gives me to reach for a similar level of craft and honesty in my own work.

Let me just pause here, though, and say that I totally bristle at the now widely disseminated platitude that speaking our truth gives other people permission to do the same. It’s not that I don’t believe that it’s true, to some extent, in some situations, it’s just that I don’t think it’s the sole justification for writing, especially women’s writing.

I mean, his depression notwithstanding, do you think anyone ever told David Foster Wallace that writing his truth gave other people permission to do the same? Was his bold insistence on writing about complex mathematical concepts in Everything and More giving anyone permission to do anything? No, his mind-boggling intellect and gift for expression was surely justification enough for that book to exist.

Everything and More

There has to be room for writing (even blog writing) to be smart, well-crafted, unique, challenging, even visionary. I want more for my own work than just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

Even though—don’t get me wrong—I love reading other people’s stories! That’s one of my favorite things about the internet, this sanctioned eavesdropping on other people’s lives. I’m just still trying to figure out, for my own self, what makes one story intriguing while another is merely a recitation of facts that doesn’t hold my interest. It’s probably something really obvious that I’m just too daft to see.

Anyway!

All this is to say that I was blown away by Christensen’s recent essay for Elle detailing how her book helped bring to justice a former teacher from her high school that had been a serial molester of teenage girls throughout the ’70s and ’80s. I urge you to read it. Not just for the police procedural aspects that allow us the satisfaction of seeing a criminal caught after so many years, but also for the way she skillfully interrogates how her teenage experiences of abuse have informed her own sexuality and psychology.

Beyond the fact that, yes, literally, her writing served to help heal a whole community of people who had suffered in silence for decades, I was dazzled by the catharsis that her writing and self-exposure afforded her.

Reading it, I allowed myself to believe, for probably the first time ever, that really writing about the meat of my life—the darkness and the fear and the wounds that I’ve been futilely trying to protect or cover or distract from—might actually be useful. Not just for myself, but, like my experience of reading Christensen’s essay, for someone who might feel a kinship with my narration of my own life events, finding power in their disclosure.

I tend to flatter myself that I’m an open book, that my emotions are immediately perceptible to anyone with a modicum of sensitivity or powers of observation. But what I discount, at my peril, is the dark side of this truth—that everyone does see me and, with that, sees my fear, my death grip on my sanitized self-presentation.

I’m not entirely sure of everything that I’m hiding and why, but, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic about it, I am sure that I’m tired of hiding in general.

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A Handful of Birthdays

Turning 35, just a month ago yesterday, has turned out to be a much bigger deal than I was expecting it to.

There’s the well-known Patton Oswalt bit from his Werewolves & Lollipops comedy album about the handful of birthdays that you should be allowed to celebrate.

There’s only about 20 birthdays you should be allowed to celebrate. And the others? You’re wasting cake and paper…Here are the 20 you can celebrate: 1 through 9 you get a birthday. Cos you’re a little kid! A little kid gets a birthday. 10, you get a birthday. Now you’re in the double digits. Something’s different…13, you get a birthday. Now you’re a teenager….16 you get a birthday, cos now you can drive…18? Awesome birthday, cos you can buy a gun and vote…When you’re 19, you get a birthday, because it’s your last year as a teenager…When you’re 20, you get a birthday. Any time you enter a new set of tens: 20, 30, 40, 50, you get a birthday. 21, you get an awesome birthday. And then, THAT’S IT. A birthday every ten years. “I’m 26!” Great, go to work. Who gives a shit?”

In a much more self-serious way, my birthdays, for much of my life, were freighted with the knowledge that I was counting them against the years of my mother’s life.

19 when she married my father. Just shy of 23 when I was born. Just shy of 26 when my brother was born. 29 when my sister was born. 31 when she died of breast cancer.

A handful of birthdays.

My own 30th birthday was much harder than I expected it to be. I hadn’t exactly relished my 20s, so I was looking forward to finally shaking that decade off. But I found myself surprised by the sudden, encroaching dread that I was also walking straight into the equivalent of my mother’s last year alive. It felt like I was gearing up for some sort of grim scavenger hunt, or my own personal yearlong perambulation of her Stations of the Cross.

I threw myself a memorable birthday party at a local bar, and the rest of the year actually proceeded with a fairly epic amount of adventure.

I traveled around the country and to Canada, officially dedicated myself to my Buddhist practice, attended numerous concerts, experienced romance and heartbreak, received my first-ever clairvoyant reading (which set in motion my personal path to exploring my own psychic abilities), met my current boyfriend for the first time, and started playing music again.

After all of that, finally hitting 31, the actual age at which my mother died, didn’t feel like quite such a big deal.

32 was its own mild brand of unusual. I’d officially outlived my mother and had no more years of hers to compare myself against. It was like being reborn into my own life, in media res.

But 35 felt suddenly . . . serious. Weighty. Real. But not in any doom-and-gloom kind of way. It was more like taking another step toward embodying my word for 2014—BUILD. Though I hadn’t exactly felt disempowered previously, turning 35 infused me with a palpable sense of empowerment. It suddenly seemed like my ability to make my life into something magical was much more achievable, and much more imperative, than I’d previously allowed myself to believe.

Now Let Us Praise Counting Crows

During my teen years in the ’90s, I wasn’t terribly tuned into contemporary music.

Grunge just totally left me cold, and I didn’t realize it was possible to seek out anything, like Riot Grrl, that would have been considered indie or underground—not that it would have mattered. My tastes at that time simply did not run toward much of anything that was loud, or guitar-oriented, or that existed primarily to express angst.

I listened to a lot of show tunes, and jazz, and even piano music that would be considered easy listening or new age, and to Sting’s solo stuff, which makes perfect sense in that context.

But, as my teen years wore on, my first boyfriend introduced me to the music of Sophie B. Hawkins, so I started listening to her first two albums relentlessly, mostly because I missed him so much while he was in California.

If a boy you have a crush on plays this for you, the hidden message is not exactly subtle.

I’d developed an affection for PM Dawn at some point, so The Bliss Album…? and later Jesus Wept got a lot of play during those years.

This one hasn't aged quite as well for my ears, personally.

A friend from my high school theater department who’d graduated a few years ahead of me turned me on to Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart, and that made me dive headlong into the glory of Tracey Thorn’s voice for a while.

This one's still terrific, too.

But, that was about the scope of it for what seems like a long time.

Crash

Oh God, and there was the Dave Matthews Band too, I guess. But I’ll even defend that on account of their chops as musicians.

But as my senior year in high school droned on, I somehow started getting keyed into more of what was being played on the radio, and though I can’t remember exactly why, I picked up the Counting Crows album Recovering the Satellites at some point in early ’97. My best guess is that I was probably responding to the current ubiquity of “A Long December,” but even that would have been slightly out of character for me, buying a full-length album solely on the strength of its big hit single. Regardless, the album (on cassette) went into heavy rotation in my life, mostly on the car stereo of my white Chevy Lumina.

I remember driving somewhere with my friend Casey, the album on quietly in the background, and he asked me, somewhat incredulously, “you like this?” in response to one of their big noisy guitar freak-outs, probably the one at the end of “I’m Not Sleeping.”

He’d tried to turn me on to Weezer at some point, making an argument for the tunefulness of the melodies and the wit of the lyrics, and I think he was confused as to why I couldn’t stand that stuff but was newly obsessed with Counting Crows, which didn’t seem, to his ears anyway, that far afield from it. I shrugged and tried to explain that the build at the end of “I’m Not Sleeping” felt like it had been earned, that the song started small and crescendoed logically, giving the whole thing room to grow.

(My father always taught me that, when playing or singing, you shouldn’t give away everything you’ve got right at the beginning or there’s nowhere interesting left to go. That was part of what I didn’t quite get about Weezer; the guitars started off so loud and distorted that there was no sonic narrative left to develop. I guess maybe that feels cool, emotionally, when you’re a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boy, but to me, it was just like, “ugh, this is making me uncomfortable, please make it stop.” Also, I came to realize in my twenties and early thirties, Weezer kind of sucks anyway.)

And so, Recovering the Satellites is indelibly linked to that time in my life, that final semester of high school and first summer before college.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I realized that the album turns out to still be terrific. I can’t remember when I first pulled it (now on compact disk) back out of my collection for a spin, but every so often since then I get a craving to hear it and am bowled over by the fact that it holds up so well, totally beyond any nostalgia factor.

@afelus, 16 November 2012

The melodies are lovely, and Adam Duritz is actually a really interesting singer, and the playing is top notch. When my boyfriend first put The Jayhawks on for me a little while ago, I kind of sniffed and said, “yeah, OK, but I’d really rather just be listening to Counting Crows.”

I used to be embarrassed about how much I loved this album (probably because of stuff like this), but I care so much less about coolness now. Especially given that I can actually discern, after all this time, that my enjoyment truly stems from the music itself and not its popularity. It’s almost the opposite of the phenomenon of sending love to myself backward into the past; I have to give my eighteen-year-old self credit for locking into this thing that continues to bring me joy a full seventeen years later.

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The Spirituality of Air Travel

A couple years ago, while I was still in clairvoyant training, I was preparing to take a quick trip to Spokane, Washington, to visit some friends for a long weekend. I asked a couple different teachers if they had any pointers for navigating the airport as a psychic.

I was secretly hoping I’d get some fancy tips on manifesting a first-class upgrade, sailing through security, or simply creating a vibe where I could have more fun with the experience.

Oh, the Places You'll Go

“Just don’t go into resistance,” nearly all of them told me.

Meaning, don’t get mad, don’t try to control what’s happening, don’t try to force your own agenda into the energies of the space, don’t get miffed if the TSA agents are rude or if the people in line around you are snotty, don’t go into a huff if the schedule gets out of whack. Just go with the flow, as it were. Maintain the integrity of your own energetic space without allowing it to get mixed up with whatever craziness may be occurring around you.

I was subtly disappointed by this commonsense advice, but—I still think about it every time I go to the airport now.

*

Though an infrequent flyer overall, I’ve always had what I took to calling Good Airport Karma. Nothing fancy, no red carpet treatment—just smoothness and ease.

For a long stretch of time, whenever I would have an opportunity to travel by plane, everything went my way. On-time departures and sometimes even early arrivals. Never lost a piece of luggage. No chatty seatmates oversharing intimate details about their lives. No canceled flights because of bad weather and no getting bumped because of overbooking.

On Vacation Around the World

Granted, I traveled seldom enough that the odds were generally in my favor, especially considering most of my trips were taken during off-peak times of year.

But it felt like more than that. It was like, simply because I was confident that I could get in, get out, and get on with my life without any strain or struggle . . . I did.

The shadow version of this theory could be interpreted as things going smoothly for me because they had to. It was nonnegotiable. My inability to deal with anything more chaotic or difficult would have sent me into a spiral of failure and panic (picking up, in some sense, where my father’s inability to deal with out-of-left-field contingencies and mix-ups left off).  So, somehow, somewhere, a wise and benevolent force in the universe made sure that my plans came together like clockwork. Taking pity on me, giving me the easy way out.

But choosing to look at it from a more forgiving perspective, I see that it was probably more my pure joy in getting to go out and have an adventure that set the tone for so many years of happy experiences.

Elsa Chang, Space Unicorn and Space Cat!

Until recently. As I’ve energetically bought into the post-9/11 notion that air travel is utterly lacking in glamour, convenience, and ease, I’ve found myself starting to get a bit queasy about trips to the airport.

In the days and weeks before a trip, my thoughts about the imminent departure would start to get polluted by dread. Dread of the indignities of security screenings. Of increasing anxiety about my physical safety while in the air. Of the great, heaving irritation that comes with forced physical proximity to people whose conversations I didn’t want to be obliged to overhear or whose knees I didn’t want to feel through the seatback behind me.

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that the delays and hassles that I’ve encountered have increased accordingly. As the energy of adventure has been sucked out of my travels, I’ve allowed the culture’s prevailing narratives of suspicion, condescension, and breakdown to set the tone for the way I move through the airport.

Ugh

And that’s why, until I can truly reclaim my own magical ability fly with freedom and joie de vivre, I’ve really clung to this helpful notion of non-resistance. It gives me more room to be in the present moment, without mentally calculating how much time I’ve wasted in line, how long it’ll be until I arrive, or how annoying it’ll be to do it all over again on my way back home.

It also helps me interact with airport personnel and even my fellow travelers with more compassion; if I’m less focused on my own irritation and agenda, I can meet others from a place of friendliness and empathy, rather than viewing them all as jerks that I want to dissociate myself from.

767 Rainbow Takeoff, Adam Christensen

I still struggle more than I’d like to admit with doubting the rightness of my own thoughts, feelings, opinions, and worldview. If challenged (or even if I’m just imagining being challenged) in regard to something I’ve said or something I’ve expressed an interest in doing, my instant default is never to stick up for myself or defend my position—it’s to assume that I’m wrong and that the person doing the questioning is right.

The assumption becomes that they can see something about my stance that I can’t and are therefore correcting a mistake I’m making before it turns into some cataclysmic blunder. (You can see how this lead to an increasing hum of anxiety during my service at the Buddhist temple where correction was a constant fact of life that could never be questioned.)

And so that’s why the slow creep of pessimism into my inherent talent for travel has been so pernicious. Without consciously realizing it, I’ve traded my own effortless grace for someone else’s sense of struggle and tension, under the guise of accepting “well, that’s just the way things are.”

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to reassert the fact that I’m actually not wrong for having the ability to coast through travel situations that can be stressful for other people. It’s time for me to remember that on the other side of non-resistance is the ability to clear competing narratives out of my energy field in order to make space for my own truth to take me where I want to go.

I Guess I'm on My Way Home

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Sensitivity Strategy

As I mentioned back at the end of December, I’ve amassed a substantial collection of perfume over the past few years, thanks to reading blog reviews and books and purchasing samples from a variety of online shops.

A selection of my perfume stash

Choosing a perfume to set or enhance the tone for my day has become just about my favorite thing to do in the morning. If I’m desiring courage, romance, comfort, playfulness, sensuality, grounding, authority, mystery, or countless other qualities, there’s probably something in my stash that’ll help me achieve the effect I’m looking for.

On days when I’m called to run a meeting at work or otherwise need to feel more powerful, I’ll choose something commanding but a little austere, perhaps with a prominent vetiver note like Chanel Sycomore or Hermes Terre d’Hermes, or perhaps something incensey like Neela Vermeire Trayee or Comme des Garcons Avignon. If I really need to amp up the take-no-prisoners attitude, I’ll opt for something almost smouldering, like Profumum Fumidus or Bulgari Black—sending out a not-so-subtle cue to stand the fuck back.

Bulgari BlackLast week I was a nervous wreck about my appointment at the bank to set up a special needs trust for my autistic sister. Though my amazing lawyers had helped me get all my ducks in a row beforehand, I was still feeling anxious about going in there alone. For days beforehand, I dithered about the paperwork, wondering if I would have all the information that I needed, hoping not to make a fool out of myself or irrevocably mess up something legally or financially.

The morning of the appointment, before I even got out of bed, I started mentally going through my roster of perfumes, making a list of the most warlike things I had in my collection. I wanted to find something that would, I dunno, strike fear into the hearts of the bankers or help me assert my dominance over this small chunk of money that felt like it had been holding me hostage. I considered all of the perfumes mentioned above and more, but nothing felt right. Nothing felt like it would possibly be strong enough.

Dior Eau Sauvage

So I changed tack. I thought maybe I should wear my father’s favorite scent, Dior Eau Sauvage. I’d worn it to his wake and funeral, both as a tribute to the little joys in his life and so that I wouldn’t ruin one of my own perfumes by forever associating it with that sad occasion. Now I was going to be closing yet another chapter on his legal affairs by taking this small bit of money he’d been able to leave for us and making sure a portion of it would be protected for my sister’s future use. It seemed like wearing that perfume might be a fitting gesture. But it too felt wrong. There still wasn’t enough me in the equation.

And that’s when I realized my fundamental error in judgment with this—I didn’t need something that made me feel more like some marauding warrior or that hearkened back to the past. I needed something that made me feel more gentle, more forgiving, more free.

Go femme. Go soft. This is your power, I heard something whisper to me intuitively.Like having one of those dreams where you discover a door that leads to a previously undiscovered room in your house, I suddenly remembered to connect to the so-often ignored power of my own femininity. I surprise myself again and again these days by bringing myself back to the simple truth that I am a woman and that I have permission to explore how that affects the way I move through the world in my body. I can allow the essence of my womanliness to inform my life and my decisions rather than fighting and fighting and fighting to form myself into some kind of sexless powerbot trying to chart my course solely by the rules and expectations of men.

So I clothed myself in a soft grey sweater dress and applied dewy, shimmery makeup, ever so slightly steering myself away from the monochromatic black shirts and black leggings and harsh, saturated eyeshadows that I’ve been gravitating to recently. And I instantly knew that my scent had to be Guerlain L’Heure Bleue.

L'Heure Bleue

I liberally doused myself with what remained of my small sample of the eau de parfum and almost literally could feel the tension dropping from my shoulders, my blood pressure ebbing back from its previous mission-critical spike. The perfume helped me remember that there wasn’t actually anything to fight here, that if I was presented with a question I couldn’t answer, I could just be honest about it rather than blustering along with a hedged response, hoping to save face.

The perfume also helped bring me back to the remembrance that I was unequivocally doing a Good Thing by jumping through all these legal and financial hoops—I was disconnecting myself and my siblings from my father’s toxic failure narrative that he hadn’t been able to provide for us “like a man.” I was also demonstrating for my incredibly anxiety-ridden sister that she doesn’t have to live in fear of being abandoned.

The meeting itself ended up going swimmingly. The two women helping me set up the account could not have been more helpful or easy to work with. They went to great lengths to let me know that if I needed any subsequent help, they would be ready and available to assist with whatever I could possibly need. I left the bank branch with a palpable feeling of relief, and of having reset the tone for my financial future, and my sister’s, away from combat and insecurity, and toward a place of love and quiet confidence.

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On The Divine Comedy and Mingling with Artists

Neil Hannon

For a good fifteen years now, whenever people have asked me what my favorite band is, I usually say The Divine Comedy.

I attempted to oeuvreblog them a few years ago and wrote an introductory essay laying out many of the reasons why. Though the blog project stalled out after only a few entries, I’ve never really thought of it as failed, merely as on hiatus. I’ll get back to it at some point eventually.

And though I’m happy to see Neil Hannon continuing to collaborate with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash on their “cricket pop” project The Duckworth Lewis Method and working under his own name on live musical/opera projects like Swallows and Amazons and Sevastopol, my primary interest in his creative output remains The Divine Comedy. Though his post-Regeneration albums have become increasingly spotty as far as their being consistently listenable from start to finish, they always have at least one corker of a song that really makes me marvel at his skill as a lyricist. (And I say this as someone who’s notorious for not always listening to the lyrics of pop songs.) It’s rare that I don’t have at least one of his albums on my iPod at any given time.

Absent Friends

Coming home from work on the train a few nights ago, “Our Mutual Friend,” one of his post-Regeneration masterpieces off the album Absent Friends, came up on shuffle. As usual, I was in complete awe of its narrative complexity and efficiency, then had the strange thought, out of nowhere, that I actually have no desire to ever meet Neil Hannon.

When I was more avidly going to rock shows in my twenties, I fairly regularly had run-ins with musicians after their gigs, usually just hailing them with a quick “good show” as they brushed through the crowd on their way to the green room or maybe a slightly longer but still informal chat at the merch table. With my combination of extreme excitability and extreme self-consciousness, there was only a brief window of time, between the moment when the opportunity for personal interaction presented itself and when my adrenaline completely pushed my nervous system so far into the red that it became impossible for me not to turn into an insanely spazzy mess, when I actually remained cool enough to have a coherent conversation. (I wrote about this phenomenon way back in 2005 over at my old blog.)

One of my more (relatively) successful encounters was in the fall of ’02 when The Divine Comedy played a full-band show in Chicago at Martyrs.

What Martyrs used to look like

I’d only moved to the city two months earlier and wasn’t yet comfortable enough going to shows by myself, so I, strangely, bought three tickets. One was for me and one was for my good friend Casey, with whom I’d always bonded over The Divine Comedy’s music. We’d even seen them together about a year and a half earlier when we took a spring break trip to London and took a train to the University of Southampton to catch one of their performances at what was probably the student union. When I couldn’t think of anyone else to give the third ticket to, I ended up giving it to my dad.

My memories of the show itself have become fuzzy, though I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking they’d chosen an agreeable selection of songs from their older albums for the setlist. Neil disappeared backstage as soon as the lights came up, but the rest of the band lingered, packing up their own gear onstage, and I spontaneously declared that I was going over to chat them up.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad noted to Casey that I was just like my mother in this regard. My dad sometimes told stories of my mother effortlessly charming her way backstage when they went to concerts together early in their marriage. It was never any kind of groupie thing with her; it was sheer curiosity about interesting people coupled with her own intense, instant likeability and warmth. If I have even a fraction of her boldness and charisma, I consider it truly inherited on a genetic level since these outings occurred way before I was born and were never described to me until many years later.

My Mom (1974)

In a strange way, I often forget that it’s even possible for my mom to have influenced my life at all, since she died when I was only eight. So throughout my life, my heart has always leapt a little in surprise whenever someone would say that I did something “just like Sharon.” It was never surprising when I heard that I looked just like her since, based on photographs, I know that I did. But when it came to behavioral things or mannerisms, that always delighted me most because I knew it was totally unconscious on my part, because it somehow proved that she really was my mother, that she was really part of my body on a level I couldn’t deny.

So, sidling up to the edge of the stage at Martyrs, I chatted with the drummer (I think?) for a bit, and mentioned how I’d been at that show at the University of Southhampton. It was a pleasant enough exchange, and, like I say, one of my more relatively successful as far as playing it cool, though I retroactively have to believe that he was probably more than a bit taken aback by being accosted by this loud American girl when his brain was probably barely coasting along on post-show fumes.

Even at the time, though, I think I was secretly relieved that Neil had made himself scarce, eliminating all possibility that I would be tempted to try to interact with him. Because really, what would there be for me to say to him? Other than expressing gratitude for the years of joy that his music has brought me, I can’t think of anything I’d want to talk to him about. Unlike, say, Robert Fripp, whose brain I would love to dive into and swim around in for a while, I don’t need much more from Neil Hannon than what he’s already given me in his music.

Robert Fripp!

I recognize now that so many of the wearying behaviors of my twenties—like forcing myself into conversations with musicians after gigs—were misguided attempts to assure myself of my own internal worth and viability as a creative person. What I was actually trying to replicate in trying to talk to my indie rock heroes after small club shows was the way my father, not my mother, would have conversations with musicians and actors that he already knew after we went to local theater performances when I was a child.

The glamor of hanging around the auditorium after the house lights came up, standing at his elbow as he laughed and kibitzed with his friends and creative comrades who only moments earlier had been in the spotlight singing and playing for a large crowd, will always inform my idea of what it means to be a part of a larger creative community. And not only to be a part of that community but to be valued for one’s contributions to it. Even when my father didn’t know someone personally, he or she inevitably knew him by reputation as a talented musician and tough but enthusiastic critic and received his praise accordingly.

It’s as if I thought I’d not only permanently inherited his notoriety by association but that it would transfer behind the Northwest Indiana theater community as well. I think at some level I was still operating out of a “don’t they know who I am?” internal programming, even when I was, say, trying to chat up Andrew Bird after a show at the Hideout, like he would have any reason to care that I thought his then-most recent album was his personal best.

As I said last week about learning to reappreciate Phil Collins, there was a point in my life when my sense of my own identity became confused, when I suddenly wasn’t sure if, at base, I was a musician or an amateur music critic. I often still struggle to align myself with what I’ve taken to calling “level zero” of creation, instead of the “level one” of commentary about someone else’s creation. But now that I find myself in a romantic relationship with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite songwriters, and now that I play in a band with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite poets, I’ve had the satisfaction of forming my own creative cohort well outside the bounds of my father’s influence.

More important than even that is the (re)discovery that the pleasure of knowing them actually has nothing to do what they’ve achieved or how our friendship reflects back on me. The success, and the satisfaction, that I’ve so longed for comes not in talking about it after it’s all over, but in living beside and caring for one another as the doing of the thing knits itself into the reality of how we show up for ourselves as creators every day.

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The Winter, the Moon, the Darkness, the Space

"Emperor's Corridor, Prachov Rocks (Prachovské Skály)" by Steve Coleman

I don’t deny or minimize that this has been an exceptionally difficult winter.

The snow. The cold. The stir-craziness. The SAD. The coughs and sniffles and sore throats. The crazy drivers on the unplowed streets. The extra bodies squeezed onto too few train cars. The relentlessness of it all.

"Brown Line" by Kevin Klima

It’s hard. It affects me too.

But walking home from the train after work a week or two ago, looking up into the inky black sky of, oh, 6 pm, I glanced at the moon and suddenly remembered.

The moon. The dark. The cold.

It’s all very much the yin to the sunny, bright warmth of summer’s yang.

Or, from a more mystical perspective, it’s the feminine half of the year counterbalancing the masculine half. It’s the season when we’re invited to slow down — a lot. And look at what a struggle it’s been for so many of us.

Our overdriven impulse to keep producing and participating at top speed is in direct opposition to how nature itself is compelling us to feel and behave. We grimace and complain about how hard it is to get up in the morning or how little we want to do in our spare time on nights and weekends. As if any of that is a problem! This has always been the time of year for rest and introspection and solitude. We do ourselves a disservice to fight it.

We do ourselves a disservice when we ignore the call to be still, to live in the mystery.

Even in such a seemingly small way, it’s important to push back as much as we can against the pervasive cultural imperative to privilege the more traditionally masculine modes of expression and behavior. If left unexamined, it’s easy to fear the power of darkness because it’s so feminine, so elusive. But, our worth and our priorities can’t be exclusively tied to how much we can do, how much we can achieve. These qualities have to be balanced with a healthy respect for quiet receptivity and an intentional honoring of the times when we’re not doing much of anything at all.

Susie Bick by Solve Sundsbo

So I’m trying to be mindful of all that myself right now. Instead of resisting the slower pace and colder temperatures and lack of visible progress in my life, I’m doing my best to notice the moments when my body wants to stop moving, when my mind wants to wander off into uncharted territory. I’m making more space to be OK with my life feeling a little mysterious, even a little unhinged. There will be plenty of time in months to come to reengage with achievement and activity, when progress seems easier to manifest.

But for now I am claiming space for sleep, for contemplation, for my darker emotions, for my ability to let thoughts and fancies percolate below the threshold of my conscious awareness.

*

I recently attended an astral body healing workshop, and the instructor told us that she’d left her day job not too long ago. I forget now the exact words that she used, but she said something to the effect that she did so in order to have more time to care for things.

Stone & Clay

And that phrase hit me like a ton of bricks.

The notion of having more time in one’s day in order to more deeply care for things just sounded like the most obvious, sanest, richest way to live.

Like so many people, I’m prone to overwork. This fact is also exacerbated by my tendency to feel overly responsible for other people and their agendas instead of my own. And when my schedule starts getting packed and the pace of my daily life gets frantic, I find that I start to half-ass things.

And I don’t just mean that I start making silly mistakes, like typos and miscalculations (though that’s certainly a part of it). I also mean that I start half-assing my interactions with other people. I don’t attend deeply enough to conversations, I don’t take the time to remember to be kind, I spend less time interacting with any one person, instead spreading my attention out to perhaps dozens of people so that no one ends up feeling a sense of satisfaction about our encounters (least of all me).

It’s a quietly soul-deadening way to live.

I am an ambitious, multitalented person, so it’s in my nature to want to do a lot of different things. (Not for nothing do my personal business cards read “writer, editor, musician, clairvoyant.”) So, clearly, I’m in no way advocating, least of all for myself, a life of unstructured wandering.

EB White

But this idea of having time to care for things suggests a different kind of spaciousness. It’s a spaciousness that somehow feels directly related to whatever sense of mission I may have on this planet—which, as close as I can tell, is just to love. To spread love, to experience love, to cultivate love, to shower people and things with love, to be love.

Like I’ve mentioned previously, I operate as an empath, so that desire to love more deeply can often get used against me if I’m not mindful of separating myself out from other people’s thoughts and emotions and energies. It’s easy for me to get sucked into providing advice, support, and resources in ways that leave me feeling drained, mistaking those efforts for love. (I’m reading Doreen Virtue’s book Assertiveness for Earth Angels: How to Be Loving Instead of “Too Nice” right now, and it’s promising to be a game-changer for me.)

But when I’m operating from my own personal power, and not acting as a doormat, it stands to reason that I would be able to make good use of some more time and space to care for things in the ways that I genuinely want to. It’s the best argument I’ve heard yet for saying no to activities, invitations, expectations, and commitments that are well and truly optional.

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I Wanna Be a Grandma

Old lady in training

Even as a young girl, I always had the sense that I was going to be an awesome old lady.

Perhaps a weird thing for a 10 year old to think, but after my mom died, my primary female role models were my two grandmothers, so that was who I spent the most time around, other than my school friends and cousins around my same age.

It’s probably telling that “woman” was not really a phase of life that I ever much considered or aspired to. It was like, in my brain, I would go straight from being a little girl (or maybe, if I really strained the limits of my imagination, a teenager) to being elderly. The whole vast range of experience of being an adult female was invisible to me.

My great-grandmother Helen

It just goes to show how ridiculously formative family-of-origin issues can be. I was obviously surrounded by plenty of adult women—aunts and neighbors and teachers and my dad’s friends’ wives—but I never thought to imagine myself into their shoes. There was just enough distance between us that I couldn’t fathom it.

Of course, in many ways, I had already fashioned myself into some kind of juvenile burlesque of a grown woman. “Mature for her age” or “wise beyond her years” or whatever other euphemisms were used to describe the fact that, without an awful lot of consent on my part, I was thrust into the position of being a confidante for my father and a mini-mother for my siblings. Strongly empathic long before I’d ever even heard the term, I instinctively “knew” that I had to help out, had to pitch in, had to keep the routine of daily life running as smoothly as possible.

As the years progressed, it became more and more difficult for me to find much common ground with girls my age. I faked it well enough, and was never exactly lacking for friends, but there was always a weird shadow dogging me that made me question the veracity of my own emotional experiences. Getting upset about a boy or a snub from a popular girl, or coveting some then-stylish brand of clothing or shoe that we weren’t really able to afford, I could hear a whisper in the back of my mind, “Isn’t this a little ridiculous? Isn’t this kind of beneath you? Aren’t you supposed to be better than this?” So I taught myself to deny my feelings as frivolous or inconvenient.

And I know that so many other girls felt this way too! Patriarchy does not exactly allow a lot of room for displays of “girlish” emotion . . . or grown women’s “shrewish” emotions for that matter.

My maternal grandmother

Nevertheless, perhaps this is why I longed to project myself into an early old age. Even though my own grandmothers were hard-ass bitches in their own ways, I still though of them as essentially mild, beyond reproach for their occasional outbursts of frustration. They’d seen it all and then some, so if they were mad at us—or at anything—surely they had a good reason for it. But they were also representative of surpassing softness and indulgence and mirth.

My childhood vision of what I’d be like as an old lady was probably something like the Chinese figure of Budai, the Laughing Buddha, all giggles and potbelly. There’s freedom and wisdom to be had in this guise, of course—but I know now that the sweetness of it can only come after genuinely experiencing, feeling, and learning from the extravagant messes of being a woman, through and through, first.

Budai

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Talking to Phil Collins’s People

“So if you’re looking for your big, breakout single, you might wanna put a bid on this one tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Because we are talking to Phil Collins’s people, right? But then again . . . aren’t we all?”


As I mentioned in the notes that I wrote over on Tumblr to accompany my Best of 2013 mix, in recent years I’ve distanced myself from the Pitchfork-approved musical hype machine and have tried to reconnect with artists that genuinely bring me pleasure. And part of the pleasure of this shift has been to honor my instinct to privilege musical skill over enthusiastic ineptitude. (I am the daughter of a former music teacher, after all.)

The more and more of the indie stuff I listened to, the more and more I realized that no one really knows how to write songs anymore. Sure, it’s possible to isolate catchy hooks here and there, but I’m talking about legible, satisfying harmonic and melodic structure. (And yes, I realize that this puts me firmly in the crabby old lady realm of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”)

@maura, Maura Johnston

Nevertheless, one of the unexpected results of my refocusing on craft is my rediscovery of Phil Collins.

Phil Collins

I know that, post-American Psycho and in the hopefully waning days of hipsters’ kitschy obsession with so-called yacht rock, there’s almost no musician as ready-made for sneering punchlines as Phil Collins. And I would have been ready for a quick takedown myself in years past.

After my back went out for the second time in college, a dear friend made me a “get well soon” mix CD that unironically included “I Can’t Dance” on it, and I was secretly embarrassed for him about it for months. How hopelessly uncool, I thought.

Another friend of mine, who’d spent a couple summers during college painting houses, used to like to say that the best days were when, listening to the local soft rock radio station for hours on end, he would hear a Rod with a Phil chaser. I loved this anecdote because it exemplified exactly what kind of radio station that was and because, at the end of the ’90s, anything that smacked of ’80s culture was immediately suspect, immediately to be derided.

So, it’s been quite a shock to me in the last few years when I’ve heard a Phil Collins or Genesis song on the radio in a public space and realized, “wait a minute—this stuff actually sounds terrific.” As their former ubiquity has diminished and as we’ve now graduated to making fun of the popular sounds of the ’90s and ’00s (have you listened to Interpol lately? It sounds absurd), it’s finally possible to hear those Collins songs for the impeccable pop songcraft that they represent.

@afelus

And yes, there appears to be a small groundswell currently advocating for a reappraisal of Collins’s work. A quick Google today turned up a couple pieces: “Is Phil Collins the Godfather of Popular Culture?”; “We Will Rock You: A Spirited Defense of Phil Collins, Part 2: The Reckoning”; “Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers.” I’m sure there will be others soon enough.

It’s safest, of course, to say “hey, his early stuff with Genesis is actually really cool and sonically challenging” or “do you realize that he played drums on a handful of Brian Eno’s legendary solo albums?” as a way of distancing oneself from the still-tainted ’80s pop hits. But, fuck it, I’ll speak up in favor of those pop hits.

Though at a certain level I understand that familiarity breeds contempt and that people (especially self-styled cultural critics) hate nothing so much as massive mainstream success, I’ll never understand why catchy pop songs get such a bad rap. Do people not realize how difficult it is to write something that sounds so simple and connects with so many people?

Take “That’s All,” for example.

For whatever reason, it’s the song that always comes to mind now when I want to build a case for Collins’s unique genius. (I know it’s a Genesis song, and was coauthored by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, but it’s clearly of a piece with the poppier direction that Collins was taking the band in the post-Peter Gabriel/prog rock days.) He’s mentioned that this song was an attempt to write something straightforward and Beatles-y, and it succeeds marvelously without sounding like a straightforward Beatles homage the way countless power pop acts do. Plus, the reference is not just sound; it’s not just relying on certain guitar effects or vocal processes to indicate its influences/inspirations. There’s an honest-to-God song in there, too, packed with satisfying hooks and hummable melodies.

The combination of the opening piano riff and the dead-simple kick drum/high hat combo sets the stage for the most immediately memorable part of the song, that “A” section. Collins sings the melody through the first time down one octave, giving a slow burn quality to a song that, intentionally, starts out with a lot of air in it. For a band that’s notorious for their complexity and precision (and, again, often mocked for it), there’s a looseness here that really makes you, as a listener, lean into the groove, seduced by where it could possible go next.

The B section of the song shifts to a major key, with a kind of oompah rhythm in the bass line and a calliope-esque keyboard part that establishes a neat tension with the minor-key A section sandwiched around it. And with the return of the A form that we heard at the top of the song, Collins takes the melody up an octave, which, as it strains the upper limit of his vocal range, lends that immediately identifiable, shouty intensity that he’s perhaps best known for as a singer. Snuck in underneath that signature sound, however, is, as Brian pointed out to me, the elaboration of an increasingly Ringo Starr-esque drum part (especially check out the fill before they go back into the major-key B part, and the fill that takes them back out of it).

The C section/bridge is perhaps the most ’80s-ish part of the song, with the slightly bigger drums fills between phrases and slightly more R&B-inflected vocal runs in the melody line. It whizzes by in a flash, though, bringing us to Banks’s keyboard solo over the chords from the A section. He embroiders the basic melody tastefully, never letting the filigree distract too long from the hooks. And the keyboard sound itself is delightfully, bizarrely reedy.

The rest of the song repeats the familiar form that’s been established—BACA—before letting Rutherford solo out over the remaining ABA fade. And though the form remains consistent, the accompaniment gets a little more frenetic with the addition of a tambourine, handclaps, more backing “oohs” and “aahs”, a repetition of the basic melody line on the keyboard, one startlingly big cymbal crash as the volume starts to cut out, and one last one for good measure right as it’s fading down to nothing.

The very clear structure here is incredibly satisfying, giving you as a listener just enough repetition without ever letting you feel bored or lulled into sing-songy sameness. It also takes incredible restraint to let a song build so incrementally over the course of four and a half minutes, without blowing its wad too soon or too dramatically. It’s just incredibly sophisticated musicianship all around.

So, I’m happy to be in a place personally where I don’t feel beholden to any cool factor when it comes to really grooving on the things that sound good to me at any given moment. I think a lot about something that Travis Morrison said in an interview with Vice last summer. When asked if there was ever a time when he felt self-conscious about his musical taste, he responded: “Not really, no. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t think musicians think like that. Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste, if that makes sense.”

I suppose that’s the conflict at the heart of what I guess I’d call the tourism I was participating in through music blogs ten years ago. I was trying to consume like a Music Person, rather than letting the bedrock of my own musicianship inform my ability to listen, appreciate, and fall in love with the sounds and songs that spoke to my heart.

The Times That We Met Before We Met

Rob Mulholland, "Vestige"

We all have those splinter spots in our lives where, if we’d gone in another direction, the trajectory of our lives would have been radically different.

It’s the butterfly effect or the Sliding Doors principle or whatever.

Malachite - Brookside Gardens, Wings of Fancy Exhibit

One of my favorite takes on this concept comes from Hawaiian shaman and author Serge Kahili-King. In his book Changing Reality, he talks about working with and sending healing energy to a parallel version of himself:

Just before I was discharged from the United States Marine Corps, I was confronted with two major choices: to go home to finish my education and marry the woman I loved, or to buy a boat with a friend and sail the South Pacific. Well, in this life I made the best choice and I’m still happily married. Years later I decided to explore the alternate choice in the context of a parallel life and discovered myself dead drunk in a bar in Samoa. Years later I went again and found myself dead. Years after that I went into the same parallel life a few minutes before dying, convinced myself to make some better choices, stopped drinking, and continued with a more productive life in that parallel experience.

I tend to think about my own splinter points a lot, mostly because I think they would have taken me to some similarly self-destructive places.

One of the big things I didn’t mention in my post about my long-distance relationship with my high school boyfriend who moved to L.A. is that, the year after he left, I applied to the same program that he was in. And, I got accepted. I was over the moon about the idea of skipping my senior year of high school and going to live in L.A., without really stopping to consider if, y’know, I actually wanted to go live in L.A. It was purely a means of escape. I wanted out of Indiana and out of my father’s house. I wanted into the more glamorous, worldly, sophisticated, urban life that I thought I should be living.

Marjorie Miller, Queen of the Night, 1931.

Ultimately, though, I couldn’t afford it. When I finally was able to review my financial aid package, and compared it against my own meager savings and what my father would be able to contribute to fancy out-of-state tuition, it was clear that it just wasn’t going to happen. I returned to my high school for my senior year, abashed, my tail between my legs.

Years later, when I was finally able to joke about the situation, I often liked to say that it was for the best that I never went out there, because I just would have developed an expensive drug habit. Now, aside from some very cursory and mild experimentation in my 20s and early 30s, I’ve never had much interest in drugs, so I don’t really know where that conjecture is coming from. Is it just a joke? A piss-take on what supposedly happens to innocent Midwestern girls who get taken in by the City of Angels?

Or is it an admission that some part of me knew I wouldn’t have been happy out there? A sinking feeling that if I had gone despite the money problems, I would have wound up self-medicating to manage the stress of that wrong decision? It’s probably worth a meditation or some dreamwork at some point to try to explore and discern. I have a feeling that that other version of me, wherever she is, could probably use some love and encouragement.

My other main splinter point comes just a few years later, when I’d interviewed for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City. My interview had, earlier in the summer, been scheduled for what turned out to be two weeks after 9/11. Though of course there’s the chance they wouldn’t have given it to me anyway, I sometimes fancy my chances were reduced, in that understandably hyper-I-[heart]-NY time, because I didn’t already live in the city. In the alternate reality where I did get the gig and did move to New York, though, what would have become of me?

I don’t have a funny, pat answer for this one. Mostly because, more than 10 years on, I’m relieved I didn’t end up shackling myself to the vicissitudes of entertainment journalism. (I thought I wanted to get into it to write pop film criticism, but, let’s be real—I would have been working in entertainment journalism.) As my interest in writing straight-up film, music, and TV reviews waned throughout my twenties, and as I grew more and more exhausted with the idea of keeping up with their various hype cycles, I was so glad that I had the freedom to let my essays about those things just die off naturally on my old blog, since I had no other real professional imperative to keep up with any of it.

However, I remain tantalized by the more recent revelation that I could have met my current boyfriend way back in 2001/2002 if I had moved to New York. Between his own contingent life possibility where he could have opted to go to NYU for grad school and the actual reality that, commuting back and forth from Connecticut, he was spending a lot of time in the city making art with his experimental theater friends, there’s a small but distinct possibility that we would have run into each other a good seven or eight years before we finally did in Chicago.

The possibilities multiply exponentially from there. If we had met, would we have liked and fallen for each other? Would we have tacked those extra years on to our romance? Or were the intervening years that it took for us to come together actually necessary to our development as people, so that when we finally did meet, we were really and truly ready to become such good friends and collaborators and eventually lovers? Without the benefit of the different paths we ended up taking, alone, during the bulk of the ’00s, would we just not have clicked? Would we maybe have recognized some glimmer, some spark, between us as spirits, then been unable to build on it or pursue it?

 Rob Mulholland,

Romantically, I prefer to imagine that of course we would have found a way to come together, but really, it’s anybody’s guess what might have happened, given where we both were in our lives at the time. I could just as easily have missed out on this relationship that warms my heart so much, all because I would have been in the right place for my ego but the wrong place for my soul.

Though I often give myself a hard time for what I perceive as a lack of glamor and adventure in my current life, maybe I need to make peace with the fact that this version of my life is the right one for me after all. It seems like the choices between L.A. and New York are sort of my own personal Goldilocks and the Three Bears moments—too hot, too cold—whereas Chicago has turned out to be, basically, just right.

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My Eyebrows Will Tell You Everything About Me

Like many women who were teenagers in the ‘90s, I overplucked my eyebrows.

I remember I was just shy of my sixteenth birthday when I first attacked them, after reading an article in Seventeen magazine about how best to shape a perfectly formed arch.

There were instructions for how to achieve the proper angle, by using a pencil to indicate a line from your pupil to the midpoint of your brow, but I certainly wasn’t that methodical about it. I found a small pair of tweezers from a cheap Swiss army knife (seriously–my femme skills have always left a bit to be desired) and just started thinning everything out.

Photos of my mother from when she was a teenager and in her early 20s likewise show her with…unrealistically shaped brows, shall we call them. And, I have to wonder, if she’d still been alive when I decided to take matters into my own hands, if she would have discouraged me from doing so. Or if she would have taken me to a salon where a professional might have been a bit more gentle with the approach toward reshaping them. Or if, y’know, she at least would have recommended I use a slightly nicer tool for the job.

But, since I’d committed to the endeavor with my typical never-look-back, never-say-die attitude (I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that I was terrified of looking like an idiot or that I didn’t know how to do something or even that I was completely in the dark about the so-called right way to be a girl), I just kept tweezing and tweezing and tweezing. Alone in my bedroom in the evening after school or on the weekend, I would stare into a mirror and compulsively try to straighten everything out, which of course usually only made matters worse.

My 2011 eyebrow situation

None of the older women in my life ever said anything to me about it. Maybe they didn’t notice? But, I kind of doubt it. I was simply left at sea about it, as I was in so many other areas of my life.

Throughout my twenties, I always had the nagging thought in the back of my mind that I would need to have a professional help me fix my eyebrows, as best as could be managed after so many years of overplucking. My fear, though, always got the better of me whenever I would seriously think about going anywhere. I rationalized that it would be too expensive or too painful, but I was really most afraid that I’d be laughed off the premises — for the unruly state of what was left of my natural brows or for the lamentable way that I’d maintained them, I’m not sure.

Zoetica Ebb for Miyu Decay

I was equally afraid, though, that my oddly shaped brows were secretly earning looks of derision from fashion snobs and other beauty-conscious women that I knew or ran into on a regular basis. With something as unavoidably visible as one’s eyebrows, about the best I was able to do was draw them in a little more evenly with dark brown powder, but it wasn’t like I could exactly hide them (like one can do with most other undesirable flaws).

But for all my perception of myself as a worldly, sophisticated aesthete and intellectual, I knew I would dissolve into a puddle of shame instantly if anyone were to look askance at or make an oblique comment about my grooming. I know the secret twinge of shameful identification I feel when I look at an older woman with ridiculously shaped or drawn-in brows and think, “my god, is that how I look to everyone else around me?”

My birthday party in 2007

I eventually got up enough courage to have my eyebrows threaded at the little “Perfect Eyebrows” salon in the Century Shopping Center at Clark & Diversey. (The first time I tried to go, I tell you the truth, I got so scared that I turned around before I even entered the shop and left the building altogether. Reader, I was 33.) The woman who runs the place is completely no-nonsense, and the Yelp page for the business is full of praise for her quick treatments and low prices. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there, and though my hair grows so fast that I’m often left with bristling caterpillars on my face on the in-between weeks when I can’t make it for a treatment, my eyebrows do, in general, look a lot better than they used to.

I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’ve probably done permanent damage to the way my eyebrows will grow in for the rest of my life. I will continue to look longingly at my friends who have perfectly full, Jennifer Connelly-style brows and envy them for their teenage foresight in not messing with them.

Jennifer Connelly!

There continues to be a gap between how I see myself and how I live my life. When I think of my aspirations to be a world-traveler, and then look at the reality of how infrequently I’m on a plane these days, I have to reckon with where I’m leading myself astray. Is the miscalculation in the dream, or in the reality? The same goes for my physical presentation. If I have the desire to look a different way, yet achieve the effect only haphazardly, is the failing in my effort or in my attempt to effect the change in the first place?

But rather than stay wedded to these black-and-white distinctions, I’m trying to find a way to blend them a little more seamlessly, to approve of where I am right now so that I’m not shocked when I arrive somewhere else in the future and haven’t become a different person entirely.

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Delany and the City

Chris Smith, "Wabash Under the L"

I don’t remember when I first consciously realized it, but I am a devotee of The City.

And though of course I love my current home of Chicago, I don’t mean the Windy City exclusively.

I am devoted, and probably even addicted, to the energy of urban spaces. To the cityscape and all its people and possibilities. Any connection that I’ve felt with wild or sparsely populated areas—such as the deserts of New Mexico, the coastline of County Kerry, the mountain passes of the Cascades, and the hills of Southern Indiana—usually, ultimately, stems from the way that nature gives me the opportunity to disconnect from the things that do irritate me about city living. That cleansing then allows me to realign myself to that which truly matters to me about urban space when I finally return to it.

In my early years of living on my own in Chicago, I was always surprised by the very palpable sense of relief I would feel getting off the commuter train at the Randolph Street/Millennium Park station after spending an afternoon or weekend with my family in the suburbs of Northwest Indiana. More than just escaping poisonous and demoralizing family dynamics, my return to the city always felt like a return to a rhythm that my body intuitively understood.

Chicago Cultural Center

Emerging from the underground station to see the beautiful architecture soaring into the sky, to feel hundreds of people bustling past me without giving a damn about me one way or another, to hear the whoosh of cars and buses and the rumble of the elevated train—the embrace of all of it made me feel so comforted, so at home, so at peace. People often talk about the excitement of a city, of the sense of possibility that anything can happen here, and I’m sure that’s part of it for me. But there’s also an indefinable sense that I know how the city works.

My body understands, on some preverbal level, the way cities support, encourage, and even thrive on intensity, whether it’s the intensity of achievement, creativity, restlessness, high-stakes risks, or the ever-present opportunity to find love (be it the kind that lasts as long as a locked glance with an alluring stranger or the kind that lasts a lifetime). I resonate with the overlap of historical grandeur with of-the-minute invention, with the prosaic beauty of functional spaces like alleys and fire escapes, with the permission for hardship and breakdown to be enacted in full view of passersby, with the tenuous togetherness inspired by local sports, music, or political heroes.

Chris Smith,

My passion is mainly intuitive, so though I love reading about cities, too, I’m far from being any kind of amateur scholar of urban studies. I’ve picked my way through bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities without ever actually finishing it and am currently doing the same with Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is one of the best damn things I’ve read in the past 10 years. But I’ve never so much as picked up a copy of Devil in the White City. Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography has been on my to-read list since its release a few years back. I’ve likewise been meaning to read Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue since hearing artist and writer Edie Fake mention it last year as an important reference point for his incredibly moving gallery show Memory Palaces.

But, when I learned that Delany himself, currently Critical Inquiry‘s Winter 2014 Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, would be giving a public lecture on Friday, January 31, I thought I’d better at least dip into the book before heading down to Hyde Park. Though I’m not quite halfway through with it, it’s as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. But the joy of seeing Delany speak live belongs in a category all its own.

The fact that I even had this opportunity to attend his lecture, with only about a week’s notice, is yet another testament to the endless opportunity and variety inherent to city living. But when the man himself is such a towering figure of erudition, compassion, and radical sexual politics, I found myself moving beyond the self-satisfaction of being at the right place at the right time and into the realm of “I needed to be here today.”

It wasn’t just that I found my brain stimulated by his reflections on what his literary legacy may or may not be. It’s that I felt both inspired and privileged to behold a person so at ease with himself, in mind, body, and spirit. And it wasn’t just me—I felt a shift in the room over the course of his talk, as the audience of intellectuals realized that it’s possible to strive not just to be smarter or more widely published, but to be a better person, living a more joyful, more connected, and thus more meaningful life.

He explains in his writer’s preface to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:

I hope these two extended essays function as early steps (though by no means are they the first) in thinking through the problem of where people, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, working class and middle class, Asian and Hispanic, black and other, rural and urban, tourist and indigene, transient and permanent, with their bodily, material, sexual, and emotional needs, might discover (and even work to set up) varied and welcoming harbors for landing on our richly variegated urban shore. (p. xx)

And in the spaces between reading that, and hearing him speak, and driving home on Lake Shore Drive, with the exultation of Chicago’s skyline rising up in front of us, I was grateful to have my commitment to The City not only renewed but reinvigorated by seeing how much more there is for me to learn here.

Photo by jimkim_2000

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