Declare Your Independence of Spirit!

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

Photo by Martin Staněk

Photo by Martin Staněk

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

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

Photo by Carli Jean Miller.

Photo by Carli Jean Miller.

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

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

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

“Secret door” by Theophilos Papadopoulos

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

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

“Many sunflower seeds” by Richard Thomas

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

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

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

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Behind the Scenes at a Small Town Police Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

death, death, death, death, murder

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

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The No-Excuses Guide to Home Recording

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

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

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

Bam.

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

[UPDATE: We rerecorded the song for the release of our debut album, so I’ve updated the sound file here accordingly, but my sentiments about the process of recording the demo still stand!]

Of course there’s backstory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Be Generous

I don’t fancy myself a crafty lady.

Never have.

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

craft jars

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

chopping vegetables

Photo by Webvilla

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

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

soundboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chocolate chip cookies

Photo by Sheila C/wizardofozgurl

“But whyyyyyyy?” I remember asking repeatedly.

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

“But whyyyyyyy?”

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

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

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

forest girl

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

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

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

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

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

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Musical Chakras

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

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

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

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

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

4th: heart–love, oneness, affinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If you are a writer, musician, or other creative type and are curious about your own dominant chakra, click here to schedule a 60-minute aura reading with me. You can find out more about my other psychic services for creatives over here. You can also join my mailing list here.

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The Worst Drummer I Have Ever Seen

A little over a week ago I went to see a jazz pianist’s trio in concert for the first time.

Note: not actual band.

Note: not actual band.

I’m not a particularly huge fan of his, but find his playing and sense of interpretation interesting. He was scheduled to perform at a local venue that I don’t love, but it’s convenient to get to and, all in all, I figured it would be an enjoyable evening.

As the daughter of a musician, an experienced performer in my own right, and a psychic to boot, I’ll admit that I’m a tough critic. I see everything; I hear everything.

I see everything.

But, I also very much want to be entertained, even transported. In many respects I am as forgiving as I am judgmental. It is always my instinct to weigh all aspects of a performance against a sympathy for the artist, especially relative to his or her open-heartedness.

So despite the venue, despite my lack of knowledge of the pianist’s body of work, I wanted to have a good time. It was Friday night; I was out with my love; I was determined to enjoy myself.

Alas, it was one of the worst shows I’ve been to in a very long time!

The pianist himself may have been interesting. I still like his touch and would be keen to see him do a solo set.

But his band was just laughably subpar. Particularly his drummer; he has to be one of the worst professional drummers I have ever seen.

Ludwig drums

His sense of time was competent, but his musicality was absolutely nil. He careened around the kit seemingly at random, never developing a musical story or other form of through-line to complement the song. His dynamic range was seemingly nonexistent. It was almost physically painful to listen to him play.

For a while, I tried listening past him, as it were, but in a trio setting, he was pretty difficult to ignore. The less said about his solos, the better.

The whole thing felt like the revenge of overly cerebral, hyper-educated, super fancy jazz training. You could hear every credit hour of conservatory work, every endless theoretical deconstruction of meter and pattern, every earnest late-night debate about the future of jazz. I’ve often been mansplained to about jazz, but this is the first time I can recall ever feeling mansplained to through the music itself. “Hello, yes, this is Very Serious Jazztimes. Please sit back and appreciate our genius. Can’t appreciate it? That’s just because you don’t understand it.”

Jazz Trio by Alessandro.Giorgi

I don’t know who these guys are; I’m sure they’re great! No aspersions cast!

As the concert wore on, the very serious crowd dutifully clapped for every solo and nodded along sagaciously with every chord inversion. It felt like a very Emperor’s New Clothes situation. It got so bad that my brain actually pushed me into relativistic philosophizing.

“Nothing matters! Quality is an illusion! Effort is for naught! If this cat is a successful, apparently lauded touring musician, then why does anyone ever attempt to critique anything? Value judgment is irrelevant!”

Which . . . actually led me to a really amazing place of self-acceptance and release.

(Totally didn’t see that coming.)

I tie myself in knots endlessly attempting to make sure any and all aspects of my creative output are “good.” I rewrite, rehash, rethink everything I put into the world to a ridiculous degree. I often abandon ideas before they’ve had half a chance to survive, simply because I think they’ll be deemed stupid or will otherwise reveal me as an utterly incompetent moron. And not just by vicious strangers on the internet; I worry that my closest friends and confidants, the people whose insight I value deeply, will secretly roll their eyes at my work, or worse, will have to take me aside for a quiet moment of realtalk: “Allison, ouch, that thing you wrote was really, really bad. I really thought you were better and smarter than that.”

I’m worried about it right now, writing this.

This self-castigation is in no way unique to me, I know, but the pain of wanting to create yet not allowing myself to, for fear of imagined judgment or ridicule, nevertheless takes up a significant amount of my brain power and life force.

My father was a perfectionist, and certainly I learned to mimic him in that. I also learned to push myself to attempted perfection in all my pursuits in order to remove one more potential stressor from our already volatile household. If I was beyond reproach in all the possible areas I could control, maybe he wouldn’t have to get mad and yell at us.

These are hard, deeply ingrained habits to break. Yet, this terrible drummer showed me some kind of a loophole.

He had nothing approaching what I would call talent or taste, but it didn’t matter what I thought. He was still playing. He was making his living as a musician. Behind all the musical mansplaining and skittery improvisational hackwork, he looked like he was even having fun. Even if, hypothetically, he’s riddled with self-doubt behind the scenes, he was still functional enough to get out in front of the crowd and play. And, the audience didn’t condemn him—quite the opposite. He was loudly applauded, praised for his effort.

The lesson, for me, couldn’t have been more simple. If I truly love what I do, and have the discipline to commit myself to it regularly–obsessively–both jeers and applause cease to matter quite as much. I will find the people who appreciate me, but more importantly, the work itself will provide its own fuel for my continuing to do it as long as I continue to love it.

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Coffee and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Yesterday morning I stopped at the Asado on Irving Park for a coffee. I was feeling crabby and unsettled, stifled in some indefinable way.

When I stepped inside, the guy behind the counter greeted me warmly, cheerfully asking what I’d like to order. I asked him to recommend a roast from today’s three offerings and he explained the differences in taste, acidity, and body. I chose one pretty much at random and sat down at a table to wait for the pour-over cup to be ready.

Sound Colour Vibration, photo by Ben Reed

I took my red Moleskin notebook out of my shoulder bag and began writing my way through a litany of all my current frustrations, all my current mental/emotional/spiritual blocks, trying to excavate whatever the root of my discomfort might be. The warm cup of coffee, with my requested touch of cream and sugar, was soon placed in front of me. I eagerly took a sip of the strong, almost ashy blend. I couldn’t help but think how improbable it is that we, as humans, cultivated this beverage at all, and marveled that Chicago should now have so many fancy roasters available to partake in.

Photo via Huffington Post

I have a love-hate relationship with coffee that goes back years. I first learned to gulp it down with tons of cream and sugar as a teenager during late nights out at the local diner with my theater friends. I remember, during what must have been spring break of my junior or senior year, drinking so many cups one night that I temporarily forgot what caffeine would do to a person. After my friend Kristen dropped me off at home many hours later, I lay wide awake in bed, feeling like a tweaked-out, over-stimulated cartoon version of myself, my heart pounding rapidly in my chest, wondering if the fever-pitch insanity pulsing through my body would ever dissipate enough to let me sleep.

Tweek! Via Comedy Central

I drank coffee off and on during college, especially on days when I was scheduled for multiple classes that segued into late evening film screenings or other meetings, though I always got frustrated by the inevitable crash that left me feeling like my veins were scraped out by the dregs of the coffee grounds.

Imagine me just dragged my overcaffeinated bones through this beautiful campus

At some point as I neared college graduation, a friend introduced me to a magical new elixir called Red Bull, which I embraced wholeheartedly for the way it would buzz me up for much longer and wouldn’t crash me down as catastrophically as coffee did. It tasted like children’s cough syrup and became associated with a certain kind of odious Party Bro, though, so my romance with it as an alternative to coffee was fairly short-lived.

I know it's hard to believe/remember, but it was SUCH a novelty when it first came out.

Once I moved to Chicago, I had endless choices for my fix: Atomix near my first apartment, Starbucks across the street from my office, the Bourgeois Pig, Beans and Bagels near the Rockwell brown line stop, Black Cat on Division (I can’t even find evidence online that that place ever existed, though I vividly remember walking there once after a brutal early January cold snap to work on my review of 8 Mile for the website Spiked Online).

I wonder how this film would hold up for me now.

In the same way that I struggle with caffeine, I struggle with money (specifically with saving it, and not overspending or getting myself into debt), so at some point I decided I’d have to invest in a coffeemaker so that I could start making the stuff at home, rather than buying a cup somewhere every day. As I recall, I fortuitously received a personal coffeemaker, which could brew enough for just two cups, from one of my cousins in a holiday gift exchange. But coffee brewed at home in an inexpensive machine always tastes kind of crappy, so indulgences in cups from all of the above mentioned places continued, if not quite as frequently.

Basically like this, but for two cups.When I started exercising more and cleaning up my diet with raw foods and green smoothies, coffee was naturally one of the habits I knew I needed to break. I started putting maca powder in my smoothies to both give my adrenals a break and hopefully to compensate for the energy boost I knew I’d be missing. I eventually dropped the habit altogether and felt extremely virtuous about it.

twitter.com/afelus, 28 Sept. 2012

Until early 2010, that is, when I was copyediting Cherry Vanilla’s (amazing) memoir Lick Me and decided to dose myself with a cup of coffee, almost medicinally. My thinking processes after a good cup of coffee always felt more fluid and effortlessly intuitive, and it indeed helped me plow through the editing process on the impossibly short schedule I’d been allotted. Of course, I got majorly hooked again, and I date my current on-again, off-again relationship with the stuff back to that fateful cup.

So then I moved on to Dunkin’ Donuts as an alternative to Starbucks on my way to work, Einstein’s Brothers when I couldn’t find anything else (their coffee is truly awful), the Julius Meinl on Southport, Regulus’s dearly departed brick-and-mortar shop, the occasional cold brew at home, and now even new kid on the block Bad Wolf Coffee with their exquisite pastries.

twitter.com/afelus, 31 March 2014

My life is awash with temptation and the constant promise of fulfillment coupled with the inevitable risk of oversaturation.

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Back at Asado on Sunday, I sipped from my mug and let my thoughts drift away from the doubts and anxieties that had been plaguing me. I noticed at some point that the sound system had begun to quietly play that notorious first Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album. I hadn’t heard any of those songs in ages, and I was surprised by how terrific they sounded. Ounsworth’s vocals will never be exactly crowdpleasing outside certain circles of now old-school hipsters, but the drumming was tighter than I’d remembered, and I’d forgotten, too, how catchy the melodies were.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

After a little while, I looked up from my now nearly empty mug and realized what a massive healing it had been to just sit in a coffee shop alone on a Sunday morning, listening to an almost ten-year-old album, sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee, and getting some much needed caffeine into my system. Certainly some of my mood lift could be chalked up to the chemical stimulation, but I felt all the morning’s heaviness fall away just the same. I gratefully reconnected with an inner sense of optimism and enthusiasm, and looked forward to a few hours of random wandering and exploring.

As I packed up my notebook and put on my coat and got ready to head out, I returned my mug to the guy at the front counter and thanked him both for the blend he’d recommended and for playing the CYHSY album. He laughed and shared that one of the women who worked there had recently said of that album, “Oh, it reminds me so much of middle school,” and I laughed loudly in response. He and I were probably about the same age, and thus recognized that our experience of that band would necessarily be very different from someone who listened to it as a middle schooler.

It wasn’t really a “kids these days” thing or a “gosh, aren’t we old” commiseration. It was just a nice moment of connection over coffee and music and the acknowledgment of the cycles that bring us back to them both in times when we need them most.

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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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