I am very good at figuring things out.
I always have been. And I am grateful for the combination of intelligence and intuition that I have been blessed with that makes it possible for me to teach myself a variety of things by process of elimination, rudimentary research, observation, etc.
Which, guess what? Makes it very, very easy for me to get super, super angry when I can’t figure out something on my own.
I read a study recently that found that “bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up—and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” The article is more than a little gender essentialist and is problematic in a bunch of ways, but I find that it rings heartbreakingly true for me. I’ve long felt that if I can’t relatively quickly get into a groove with a new endeavor, it means I’m bad or wrong in some way, and that I shouldn’t bother trying to do whatever it is because it isn’t fated or otherwise in the cards for me.
One of the (many) problems with this approach comes up when the challenge is not so easily tossed aside, when it’s a thing that some deeper part of me is really drawn to. Which makes the thing even scarier because not knowing how to get it starts to feel that much more freighted with risk and peril and the possibility of not only failure and humiliation but also of not being able to satisfy a deep craving in my soul.
This is a very, very highfalutin preamble to my talking about the fact that I want to travel more than I currently do, and I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to make it happen.
I’ll need to write more at length at some point about the extremely formative trip I took to France when I was fourteen. Suffice to say, this first journey abroad lit up a longing for travel in me that was so acute it felt less like longing and more like necessity. I need to be a person who travels.
And though I’ve taken many wonderful, memorable trips in the years since, in some ways it feels like some sort of travel anorexia—like it’s the bare minimum that I can parcel out to myself to keep my traveler’s spirit alive. As I watch so many friends have amazing experiences adventuring, working, and relocating abroad, I feel like that little girl inside me, the little girl who will always be trying her hardest to get an A on the test, start to throw a tantrum because she can’t figure out how to get a piece of that for herself.
But, I’m realizing that the key for me at this point might be to stop silently stewing about this in private, allowing myself to feel like an epic failure as each month ticks by without my getting on a plane (or a train or, hell, even in a car for longer than an hour), and just admitting out loud that this is a thing I want but haven’t yet figured out how to get for myself.
I want to figure out how to budget more effectively so that I can afford airfare and accommodations for getting to and staying in the kinds of places I want to go.
I want to figure out the best combination of traveling solo versus going with a companion who’s as excited about these kinds of trips as I am.
I want to figure out how often is often enough, and how long is long enough, for me to feel happily well traveled without compromising the rest of my life and routine and responsibilities.
I want to figure out how to have the kind of soul-enriching, quirky, and unique travel experiences that I want to have without succumbing to the convenience of bland, Americanized, prepackaged tourist traps and clichéd sightseeing.
I want to view trips I haven’t taken and destinations I’ve yet to see as exciting, invigorating goals on a wishlist rather than as forbidden fruit I can’t touch, or, worse, as failing marks on some kind of cosmic test that’s being held against me.
So, if you’re a traveler at heart, too—let’s talk. If you’re feeling stuck in your ability to make it happen, let’s brainstorm ways we can all inch a little bit closer to our dreams. If you’re someone who has cracked the code and revels in a steady diet of journeys and excursions, help a girl out and let me know what kind of steps you took when you were first learning how to put these kinds of trips together for yourself.
For ages now I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about some of my favorite restaurants, shops, service providers, and other “Allison’s Guide to Chicago”-type raves and recommendations here on Queen of Peaches. And when I recently found out one of my standby spots for lunch will soon be closing, I knew I needed to take the opportunity to memorialize it — and figured I might as well kick off this new semi-regular feature while I’m at it.
So, welcome to Peach Buzz!
And farewell to Panang Noodle and Rice on Chicago Avenue.
I mistakenly thought I didn’t like it the first few times I had it while studying abroad as an undergraduate in London in the summer of 2000. I was overwhelmed by my first glimpse at a menu full of Thai items, so my suave and sophisticated American co-intern at the Institute of Ideas advised me to try the pad thai. Something about the combination of the bland noodles and weird sweetness added by the grated peanuts just didn’t appeal to me (and honestly it still doesn’t). Summarily writing off the whole of Thai cuisine based on one dish, I devoted myself for the rest of my stay in London to eating at every hole-in-the-wall Indian place I could find instead.
It wasn’t for another year and a half, during my brief sojourn in Seattle, where there were seemingly three amazing Thai places on every block, that I learned I actually love Thai food, after becoming obsessed with lad nar. Fat, slurpy rice noodles drowned in salty, garlicy sauce, studded with bitter, crunchy broccoli — it was ideal comfort food, hangover food, “I misjudged my hunger threshold and my blood sugar is plummeting so I need to eat NOW” food. The palate of my early 20s was suddenly transformed.
One year after that revelatory experience, when I moved to Chicago and finally started working my first big-girl job, I was delighted to discover a fantastic Thai place just a short walk down the street from my office.
Since that autumn of 2002, I’ve probably eaten at Panang an average of once a week. We’re talking several hundreds of meals there, people. Many of these have been solo lunches, of course, spent shoveling noodles into my mouth distractedly while reading a book, writing in my journal, scrolling through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and an assortment of bookmarked essays and blog posts on my iPhone, and otherwise decompressing from my job for an hour in the middle of the day.
But there have also been a fair number of birthday lunches with coworkers, awkward on-the-clock meals with vendors courting my business, “let’s do lunch!” lunches with friends who unexpectedly happened to be in the neighborhood during the work week, and even the odd dinner after work squeezed in before a film screening or theatrical performance or concert. It became a standby, an old reliable, quite simply part of the fabric of what I think of as my regular life here in Chicago.
And that’s the crux of it. Though their lad nar still lives up to all my highly romanticized memories of my first bite of the dish in Seattle, and every other item on the menu that I’ve ever eaten there has been fresh and tasty (and never overly greasy), it remains the sweet simplicity of the restaurant’s status as meeting place, extension lunchroom, neutral territory, and common ground that elevates it above just about any other Thai place I can think of.
So much of this vibe is due to the unfailingly swift and pleasant service, which has always succeeded in hitting that elusive sweet spot between friendly recognition and letting you go on about your business. Dozens of different servers who have come and gone over the years learned my standby order(s) (“rama tofu? Panang noodle? Garlic tofu noodle? Pad see eiw? Lad nar tofu?”) and I very often had hot lunch sitting in front of me within five minutes of my arrival. And this is assuredly not just my experience — virtually everyone I currently work with or indeed have ever worked with would likely report much the same. And it’s not just us — the restaurant is always packed with other neighborhood employees and students from nearby Moody Bible Institute. They do brisk takeout business as well.
There are other Thai restaurants in Chicago of which I’m exceedingly fond, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing about some of them too. But, not to be overdramatic, Panang will truly leave a hole in my heart and in my personal, internal map of Chicago if it does close as promised in the next few weeks. A large part of the absence will of course be the affordable, reliably tasty food and kind employees. But it will also be swallowing up over a decade’s worth of the kind of mundane memories that never seem noteworthy until they’re threatened with extinction.
When I say goodbye to Panang, I also say goodbye to early-20s Allison just learning to navigate the city, mid-20s Allison thrilled with her independence, late-20s Allison feeling her way to greater and greater responsibility at her job, early-30s Allison pushing the boundaries of what she expects out of her own life, and now mid-30s Allison making refinements to the old and starting to dream about what she can possibly make happen for herself next. When Panang closes its doors, in many ways it also closes them on personal growth, professional growth, trauma, triumph, and indeed even the kind of productive boredom that resets one’s internal compass in seldom appreciated ways.
So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Panang, for providing a space for me and countless other River North denizens to nourish ourselves ourselves on a regular basis, in both body and soul.
UPDATE: October 15, 2014 was their last day of operation. This is the sign that was posted in the window.
My mother died in 1987, when I was eight years old.
My brother was five and my sister was two. Her breast cancer had been discovered too late by condescending doctors who had pooh-poohed her earlier complaints and symptoms, so by the time it was officially caught, the cancer had already begun doing a number on the rest of her body, including, eventually, her spinal fluid. There was chemotherapy, hair loss, weight gain, and the hallucinations I remember trying to calmly and rationally talk her out of while I stood meekly at her bedside.
The chronology of that year and a half and the exact circumstances of her diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death remain a blur to me. And now that all four of my grandparents and my father have died as well, there are precious few people around anymore who could tell me the objective details to set the record straight, if I even dared ask them. So, the story of that time remains an eight year old’s.
Part of that eight year old’s story is that, sometime not long after the wake and funeral, perhaps only a day or two, I was pulled aside by my uncle, my father’s brother, who told me quietly, “You know, it would be a big help to your dad right now if you could go stay with Barb and Steve for a little while.” Barb was their cousin and Steve was her husband, and at that time they had two daughters around my age and a third a bit younger. They lived about an hour and a half east of us, in a rural area near South Bend, Indiana.
Though my uncle’s tone made it sound like a suggestion, a task I might pursue in order to be even more the model daughter than I already was, the decision, of course, had already been made for me, the arrangements already set in motion. I had no choice but to assent, even though it felt, devastatingly, as if I were being sent away. Which, no matter what way I look at it even now, I was.
I could see no reason why I should be the one to be packed off. I was the oldest child, the one most capable of being helpful around the house, the one most able to be self-reliant, while my brother and sister, three and six years younger than I respectively, were true children who needed taking care of and looking after. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to jettison one of them?
The only remotely satisfying conclusion I’ve ever been able to come to is that I simply looked too much like my dead mother, with my brown eyes and then-curly dark hair and precocious maturity. Seeing me hovering at his elbow at that delicate time likely would have driven my father into inconvenient paroxysms of grief.
And so eastward I was driven, to a house I remember as enormous, on a piece of land I remember as sprawling, nestled near several actual working farms I remember as confounding and mysterious. Having grown up in a small town about 45 minutes away from Chicago, even at that age I felt divorced from any sense of belonging to Indiana’s Heartland heritage, casting my lot instead with the bustle and culture afforded by and associated with the big city.
The classic “stranger in a strange land” story I always tell about that sojourn in the country is about the time when Barb asked, by way of involving me in the family’s chores, if I would go get the mail. I went out onto the porch and looked for a mailbox mounted to the side of the house near the front door, the equivalent of where it would have been at my house in the suburbs, and saw nothing. So, I went to the back door and there, too, saw no mailbox. I recall then circumambulating the house, probably multiple times, and checking both doors again for good measure, looking for where the mailbox could possibly be hiding.
Eventually, feeling a horrible combination of frustration, shame, and defeat, I went back into the house after who knows how long and, burning with helplessness, confessed to Barb that I couldn’t find the mailbox, that I’d looked on the front porch and it wasn’t there. I remember her expression melting as she gently explained that it was at the end of the driveway. I got the mail, relieved to be of use once again.
I have no recollection of how long I stayed with them; my best guess is something like a week to ten days. I do know I would have been there through the end of May and likely into the beginning of June. In other words, it was the late spring—when manure gets spread on the cornfields.
One morning I remember waking and going outside into the rising heat of the day and being blasted with the worst smell I had ever smelled. It was like the odor of changing my baby sister’s diapers but writ large across the entire landscape. The stench was like a wet quilt wrapped around me, totally enveloping. I had no context for the enormity of it and, more alarmingly, no expectation of escaping it. As long as I was bound to that house and its immediate environs, that smell would be there. If there was a brief moment of blessed respite, the wind would shift direction and blow a fresh assault at me.
Once again, my hosts tried to compassionately explain that manure was just something to be expected out in the country, an inevitability of farm life, something to be borne at first and eventually habituated to. I didn’t, however, really feel like I needed any more lessons in life’s inevitabilities at that point, thank you very much, and inwardly seethed at what felt like a final, revolting insult, one more marker that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t understand the way things worked.
I don’t think I ever outright complained about the smell of the manure, though I suppose I didn’t have to. My poker face has never been the best, and I’m sure my initial, obvious revulsion was responsible for their launching into an explanation of the manure’s purpose in the first place. But, what I couldn’t have explained at that time, even if I’d wanted to, was that I was infatuated with the power and magic of smell, perhaps to an abnormal degree.
It just wasn’t in my nature to let a scent, even a horrendous one, fade into the background of my consciousness until I could figure it out. Even if figuring it out simply meant—as with the magnificence of soft, clean towels straight out of the dryer; fresh cut grass mixed with lawnmower fuel; chocolate chip cookies getting warm and gooey in the oven; the invisible, mineral approach of the lakeshore on a drive to the beach; and other familiar scent pleasures of childhood—figuring out how can I get more of this up my nose and into my brain?
And so, restless and fixated, my nose got stuck on the manure, essentially trying to solve the problem of it—circling the house, trying to find the mailbox. I was searching for a hint that maybe there was something appealing hidden inside it, the way rubbery skunk blast always secretly brought me joy. But I only ended up encountering, time and again, my own resistance to it, my outsider’s unfamiliarity with the way it worked. Its noxious, maddening persistence eventually beat me at my own game.
Well over ten years later, on a springtime road trip from the Bloomington campus of Indiana University north to Valparaiso with my best friend Mary and her fiancé Mike, we passed through a particularly pungent fog of manure that had evidently been recently laid in the fields along the highway, somewhere in central Indiana. As Mary caught a whiff and bellowed a knee-jerk “yuck!” from behind the wheel, Mike, perched in the front seat, cranked up the car stereo. “I’m sensory confusion guy!” he laughed, the idea being that he was drowning out the noise in our ears with music rather than rolling up the windows to stop the assault on our noses.
I’ve been delighted by the absurd elegance of that joke for over a decade now, despite the fact that I can never seem to accurately convey how extremely funny it was to me at the time. Partly it’s to do with the late-’90s brand of non-sequitur humor my group of friends cultivated in college, but mostly it’s to do with the implicit acknowledgment that the scent of manure is unresolvable, irreducible, in many ways impossible to “fix” and therefore ridiculous and best dealt with through mockery. The regime-toppling power of humor turned out to be the last, and best, recourse to dealing with the terror of its mute, brute force. That, and the ability to speed away from it at last, at 65 miles per hour, with friends who loved me, and understood me, and spoke my language, and also brought heavenly smelling, fresh-baked banana bread along for the ride.
With gratitude to Tara Swords of Olfactif for instigating and igniting my thinking on scent memories.
About four years ago, I stopped wearing pants.
Sure, I’ll wear yoga pants to the gym or pajama bottoms for lounging around the house, but in public, I don’t think I’ve worn anything but skirts and dresses with tights or leggings since the autumn of 2010. One of the last photos of me in jeans is this promo shot of the original line-up of my old band, Tiny Magnets.
I can’t recall the way I explained it to myself at the time. I only remember that I executed the plan swiftly and resolutely. In seemingly no time at all, I had dredged up the few skirts I had stuffed in the backs of my drawers and purchased a handful of new-to-me pieces from the thrift store and put them all into immediate, daily rotation. Suddenly, I was a Girl Who Wore Skirts.
I probably wouldn’t be described as fashionable or even very put-together by most people who pay attention to such things. Never have been. As a female-identified person who grew up middle class, in the Midwest, in the 80s and 90s, and has struggled with weight and body image almost as long as I can remember, clothing, while fascinating, has always also been fraught with mild terror.
Does this fit? Is it cute? Is it trendy? Will I fit in with the other girls? How much does it cost? How much wear will I be able to get out of it?
Being raised by a single father didn’t help matters either. When, as an awkward early adolescent, I wasn’t wearing the blousy tops left behind in my dead mother’s old closet, I was inevitably dressed in what can only be described as a kind of baby butch getup—oversized t-shirts to hide my pudgy tummy, or my dad’s cast-off suit vests, dress pants, button-down shirts, and even the occasional tie.
Even as I grew ever-so-slightly more comfortable with my female figure in my late teens and early twenties, occasionally wearing a more form-fitting dress for a special event or a shirt that showed the slightest bit of cleavage, my fall-back look mostly revolved around jeans and t-shirts, along with a few statement pieces, mostly tops in outlandish colors and bold patterns.
Even as recently as my late twenties, when my then-roommate suggested that shopping for clothes became easier when you could look for stuff that fit a self-designated Venn diagram (like “sporty”/ “sexy” / “sport-sexy”), I thought about it for a moment before declaring that my look was probably “little boy” / “circus” / “little boy at the circus.” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, and I always insisted that I liked the tension created by the visual of my very womanly curves dressed in, say, a stripy rugby shirt. But even then, there was always an element of my not quite feeling like I knew how to do “girl” right.
And so my complete switch to a no-pants wardrobe was an obvious attempt for me to reclaim my femininity on some level, even if it didn’t immediately read as such to anyone else. I figured I’d cracked some sort of code for myself, and didn’t give it much thought beyond that for quite some time.
Until I recently began reading Tess Whitehurst’s book Magical Fashionista. In her chapter on using specific articles of clothing to achieve specific, magical effects, she mentions that pants, obviously worn on the lower half of the body, in many ways align themselves symbolically with our ability to be grounded.
She points out three phrases that evoke other qualities as well:
“wears the pants” (determination and authority)
“flying by the sea of one’s pants” (intuition)
“fancy pants” (affluence)
It was that first one that really hit me, though.
As a child put in the position of being overly responsible, over-achieving, and over-vigilant about everyone’s needs and emotions but my own, I’d been wearing the pants in many different ways, in many different situations and relationships, for far too long. Thanks to that passage in the book, I suddenly saw my complete refusal to wear anything other than skirts and dresses as more than just a craving of femininity for its own sake—it was also a craving to be released from the burden of constant responsibility.
I didn’t want to be the one wearing the pants anymore!
I didn’t want to be in charge. I wanted to be doted on, to have someone fetch me the things I desired, to allow space for my silly whims and sudden cravings to not just be expressed but to be indulged. I wanted my female energy to be seen and prioritized and validated. I wanted to be worth more than just what I could do for other people. I wanted to be decorative, fanciful, flowing. I was exhausted by all the work required to keep up that facade of hyper-competence. I was ready to let it all go.
And so I’m doing my best to give that girly part of me room to breathe and play, to find freedom, and a very different kind of power, in femme expression.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t fancy myself a crafty lady.
And I’ve always had a bit of a complex about it.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In 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.
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.
A little over a week ago I went to see a jazz pianist’s trio in concert for the first time.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
My life is awash with temptation and the constant promise of fulfillment coupled with the inevitable risk of oversaturation.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.