Monday, July 14, 2014

Rehearsing a Limited Openness: Sharing, and Hiding, So Much

[via here]

I can’t stop thinking about this New Yorker article I read last week, “Virginia Woolf’s Idea of Privacy,” by Joshua Rothman. To be clear—and I write this feeling incredibly sheepish—I have not read much Virginia Woolf. In particular, I’ve not read Mrs. Dalloway, which Rothman focuses on specifically in this article.

But thinking about privacy, and what that means today when there’s a constant opportunity to share, and over-share on the Interwebs, fascinates me. This is a rather long excerpt, but it’s important regarding how Woolf’s sense of privacy could remain relevant today in the world of Facebook (all emphasis is mine):

Woolf’s abstract, inner sense of privacy bears the stamp, of course, of a very particular time and place (not to mention Woolf’s very particular biography—she had an unusually rich hidden life). It’s indebted to feminism, and to the realization that men, but not women, have long been granted a right to solitude. It also flows from the particularly modernist idea that there is a coherent, hidden, inner self from which art springs. Today, we may be more likely to see art as a collaborative process—the product of a scene, rather than a person. We are also, I suspect, especially aware of how much we rely upon on social networks to help us know ourselves. In recent years, philosophers have argued that other people may know us better than we do.

To me, though, Woolf’s sense of privacy still feels relevant; when I keep it in mind, I see it everywhere. Adelle Waldman’s novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” is, among many other things, a gender-reversed retelling of the love story at the center of “Mrs. Dalloway”: like Clarissa, Nate chooses the lover who can’t know him over the lover who’s determined to. (He does this, in part, so that he can continue to surprise himself—that is, continue to create.) Meanwhile, on Tumblr and Facebook, we seek out the same private sociality that Woolf described. Usually, we think of social media as a forum for exhibitionism. But, inevitably, the extroverted cataloguing of everyday minutiae—meals, workouts, thoughts about politics, books, and music—reaches its own limits; it ends up emphasizing what can’t be shared. Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief. “Sharing” is, in fact, the opposite of what we do: like one of Woolf’s hostesses, we rehearse a limited openness so that we can feel the solidity of our own private selves.
Now, while I haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway (how did I get that English degree? I forget), I did read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., last summer. I don’t know about Clarissa, but Nate was mostly just an asshole. I look forward to reading and seeing how Clarissa relates to his character.

Do I rely on my social network to know myself? What do other people know about me—or more accurately, think they know about me, based on my social network persona? Recently I met up with my friend Beth as she was finishing up a work happy hour. She introduced me to one of her colleagues, who gave me a knowing look and said, “Oh, you’re ‘alisoncomposes,’” as if we’d met before.

What does that even mean? Who is "alisoncomposes"?

I think about, with some degree of nervousness, how much a complete stranger could learn about me from a quick glimpse at my Twitter feed. If Stranger on the Internet looked at tweets from the last two weeks, for instance, he or she would learn: I’m a Planned Parenthood supporter; my mother is dead, and her birthday was last Tuesday; I’m a John Legend fan; and that I may or may not have have watched ‘Coming to America” recently. Among other things.

That’s a lot! And it’s also nothing at all! Because:

But, inevitably, the extroverted cataloguing of everyday minutiae—meals, workouts, thoughts about politics, books, and music—reaches its own limits; it ends up emphasizing what can’t be shared. Talking so freely about your life helps you to know the weight of those feelings which are too vague, or too spiritual, to express—left unspoken and unexplored, they throw your own private existence into relief.

With all that sharing, there was still much left inside, and off my Twitter feed. With the “limited openness” of sharing these moments online, it did exactly what Rothman writes about: “emphasizing what can’t be shared.” I’m not sure if my “private existence” was thrown into relief by tweeting, “My mom would have turned 63 today, so I'm celebrating her life while I work the only way I can: blasting Fleetwood Mac in my earbuds.”

Those 140 characters shared a lot, all at once. But certainly, there was much, much left unsaid with those 140 characters, and those are complicated feelings I hold on to tight, unable — and frankly, unwilling— to share with anyone, especially the Internet.

Because, well, it’s private.

There’s so much more to this article than I just gibbered about. Read it now, will you?


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Your Love is Killing Me / Promises

“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see”

Fuck, that sounds outrageous just to read it, doesn’t it? Not so when Sharon Van Etten sings — no, wails — these lyrics in her new song “Your Love is Killing Me,” the most recent single she’s shared off her forthcoming album, Are We There.

I didn’t think she’d be able to produce an even swifter kick in the gut than she did with “Serpents,” from her last album Tramp, but I’ll be damned with this one. I'll. Be. Damned. Before we get to the requests for leg-breaking, tongue-cutting, skin-burning, and eye-stabbing, she begins the song:

"it’s understood
you’ll be a man
by the time I see you
we’ve been through
better days
and you’ve tasted all my pain"

At least, I think that’s what she’s singing. With each listen — and I’ve listened to it maybe 10 times in the last several hours — I keep straining toward my speakers, trying to catch every syllable through all the emotions she’s managing to convey with her voice. I mean, her voice: just listen to how it bends and turns and wrecks you in this song. No wonder I’m having a hard time understanding things like:

"try to tell you this when I’m sober
how I feel about loving you
try to remember all the turn of events"

and later:

"You love me as you torture me."

I absolutely cannot wait to hear her perform this live. Whenever that may be, I hope I’m just a little wine-drunk, enough not to care if my knees buckle and I choke back a sob or two.

I don’t know when that will be, but as Owen Pallett wrote in his The Talkhouse review on the new Tori Amos album: “In the meantime, I’m a trembling mess.”

Sorry to get a little out of order there, but being a "trembling mess" described it all too well. But this leads me to the next song I’d like to write about, the other new song that has me hitting replay and feeling in utter awe about the badassery of my favorite female musicians.

Yes, it's by the one, the only: Tori Amos. She’s just released her 14th album, and boy, are people talking about her. Over at NPR, one take wasn’t enough, so they gave 10. (It’s amazing. Read it.) And, as I mentioned, Owen Pallett has written a rather incredible piece on his fandom experience with Tori Amos, which I identified with on many levels.

My complete experience with loving Tori deserves a standalone written ode, though, so I’d like to focus on this one particular track from Unrepentant Geraldines. It’s called “Promise” and I’d really love it if everyone would listen to it, now:

You’ll notice that this isn’t Tori alone on the vocals: her daughter, Tash, sings with her on this, this utterly gorgeous “mother-daughter vow” — as Pallett describes, “their voices joining together like ivy and brick; it is devastating.”

“Where the sun shines/ I will be there/ You are the light/ That follows you everywhere”

“Will you look for me?”

“I will rescue you”

Devastating. Well, Ann Powers at NPR might describe it as an "alternately intimate and trivial mother-daughter exchange," and maybe that's also so, and maybe that's why I find it so devastating.

It, like "Your Love is Killing Me" is a song I don't want to end, but when it does it's almost a relief, because I can take a deep breath and just think about how beautiful it is. Even the parts that are painful.

Monday, May 12, 2014

'Like a Last Rain' on Mother's Day

“And what about those who don’t have a mother?” “The Unmothered,” by Ruth Margalit, The New Yorker, May 9, 2014

Last week an acquaintance of mine asked if I was celebrating Mother’s Day. I was caught off-guard. We were on the bus, and had been making small talk prior to this question; I hadn’t eaten any breakfast that morning; and I was not at all prepared to be reminded that one of my least favorite days of the year was on the horizon.

“No,” I said flatly. He looked away for a moment. I decided to be a normal human being and try again. I asked, brightly, “What about you? Does your mother live nearby?”

I knew it was safe to ask about his mother, because his upbeat and unassuming way of asking about the holiday made it clear he had a mother around to celebrate. I was right, of course. He told me about his lovely plans with his family and I continued to smile, wondering if it was at all obvious that inside, I was screaming.

The conversation moved on, as conversations do, and soon enough I got off the bus and walked toward my office, feeling more annoyed with myself than anything else. Sooner or later, I tell myself, I’ll handle these types of questions with grace. And maybe I almost did, this time. I’m not really sure. But what was my alternative? Drop the “No, my mom is dead” bomb in the middle of the 66 bus at 9 a.m.? No thank you. I guess I’ll just sound like a jerk.

With each passing Mother’s Day that Mother’s Day continues to, somehow, exist in this world without my mother alive, I convince myself that this year, I won’t have these moments. I won’t have the conversation I manage to have every year, where some perfectly nice, clueless person who still has a mother and doesn’t really know me asks about my Mother’s Day plans. (I wrote about this dilemma on this very blog four years ago, actually.)

All of this is to say that I’m fine. No, really, I’m fine.

“Trust me, I’m too aware of the fact that my mother is gone to wish her here in any serious way on Mother’s Day. But does the holiday have to be in May, when the lilacs are in full bloom? When a gentle breeze stirs—the kind of breeze that reminds me of days when she would recline on a deck chair on our Jerusalem porch, head tilted back, urging me to ‘sit a while’?”

Mother’s Day often has a way of making me feel very alone in this world. That, of course, is insane. Over the course of the day, I got thoughtful texts and messages from different women in my life who are the proof that I am far from alone: my aunt Deborah; my cousin Micaela; my sister-in-law Tina; my friends Lauren and Natalie. But to not have my mother here on this Earth is to feel a specific sort of aloneness, something that, in spite of all the messages in the world, can never be replaced. This reality used to—and sometimes, on low days, still will—fill me with despair.

That feeling began to threaten me yesterday, if only for a brief moment. I started to feel the sadness take over. I made coffee and didn’t drink any of it. Everything had been fine, but then it was not fine. I sat down at my computer and found this article that I keep quoting here. I thought it would make me feel better, and it would have had I let it, but after I read it I just felt vaguely sick, nauseous. I went outside to my back porch and sat directly in the sun, my bare legs prickling from the heat for the first time in a year. I looked up and squinted into the sun.

I knew what I needed to do. I went back inside to get my phone so I could call my dad. I saw that he had already beat me to the punch, with a short text that said nothing and everything: “hey al hope you’re having a good weekend.”

I went back to my piece of sunshine and called him. The feeling that had threatened to turn this day into a nightmare faded. He is still here. It’s okay. It really is.

The sun was hot on my face. I was not alone.

"What is the death of a loved one if not an oxymoron? My mother isn’t here, and yet I see her everywhere. I kept on looking for hints of her on the page, as though by retracing her beloved books and poems I would get to reclaim a part of her that was already slipping away."

Later in the afternoon the weather shifted from warm sunshine to a cool thunderstorm. When the weather turned, I curled up with my cat Layla next to the open window, the blinds flapping gently from the breeze. I found a movie that I knew Mom and I had watched together, more than once—Sense and Sensibility.

Mom was not there.

Or was she? Next to my television, the framed photo of the two of us at my high school graduation stared back at me. In it, our cheeks are pressed together; our smiles are big. We look just alike. I remember, that spring, counting down the days until I would graduate. If only she can stay healthy to see me graduate, I would think. We made it to graduation. She made it even through that long, hot summer, to come move me in my college dorm. But that would be it. There would be no more landmark moments after that. No more. We’re done.

These thoughts are exhausting. These are the thoughts that take over on Mother's Day. I stared at our photo, not even paying attention to the movie, and I remember posing for it. I remember the feeling of my mother’s warm cheek against mine. I tell myself I remember.

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet were still talking about something or other on my television screen. I stopped thinking and staring altogether and fell asleep, my fat cat’s paw resting in my hand.

When I woke up from my nap, the feelings were gone. The rain had stopped. The day was once again, just another day.

And I will miss my mom again tomorrow. And then again the next day. And all the days after. But it doesn’t have to be a Day. It just is. We keep on living.

“There’s a word in Hebrew—malkosh—that means 'last rain.' It’s a word that only means something in places like Israel, where there’s a clear distinction between winter and the long, dry stretch of summer. It’s a word, too, that can only be applied in retrospect. When it’s raining, you have no way of knowing that the falling drops would be the last ones of the year. But then time goes by, the clouds clear, and you realize that that rain shower was the one. Having a mother—being mothered—is similar, in a way. It’s a term that I only fully grasp now, with the thirst of hindsight: who she was, who I was for her, what she has equipped me with.

Like a last rain, my mother left behind an earthy scent that lingered long after she was gone.

Like a last rain, for a fleeting moment, everything she touched seemed to glow.”

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday Mix Tapes: A Gunshot, A Breakdown, An Interlude

My main squeeze Lykke Li has a new album, I Never Learn, coming out May 5th, and of course I am over the moon about all of the singles she's released thus far. (Listen to "Love Me Like I'm Not Made of Stone" and "No Rest for the Wicked" for evidence.)

This latest one, "Gunshot," is my favorite. Partly because only Lykke Li can sing "I am siren, I am ivy / I'm no one, I'm nobody" and make it sound like perfection. But also, as another writer put it at Consequence of Sound, she "pairs emotionally-gripping lyrics with surprisingly bombastic musical accompaniment."

Give it a listen:

It seems that yet again, May is going to be the month all my dreams come true. Because along with a new Lykke Li album, Sharon Van Etten is also coming out with a new one, Are We There, and if that's not enough, Little Dragon is too, titled Nabuma Rubberband.

Is it too soon to predict that all 3 of these albums will make it to my top 10 list for 2014? Probably not. I mean:

As much as I'd like to go on and on about my girlfriends Sharon, Lykke, and Yukimi (and co.), we have to talk about PRINCE right now. He just released a new single, which starts off, "This could be the saddest story ever been told," and that's really not much of an exaggeration. I've never been so utterly delighted to fight off the urge to cry silently at my desk, which is what happened today at work when I first heard it and then proceeded to listen to it six times in a row. 

Listen to "The Breakdown" here, because due to what must be some sort of Prince magic spell, the Internets is not letting me embed it.

So not only does Prince have a new album on the way, we can also get ready for a digitally remastered, deluxe 30th anniversary edition of Purple Rain. Are you listening to me right now? A new Prince album AND a remastered Purple Rain??? Dear Universe, what did I do to deserve these beautiful gifts?

Finally, here's a little something from a new artist I discovered today, Rachel Foxx. Lawwwd. Yes. I had no idea a mere one minute and 47 seconds could be so much.  

"What the fuck she got on me?"

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Trumpet Player

Outside my apartment, but somewhere just out of view from my windows when I peer between the blinds, someone is playing a trumpet. This person does not know how to play a trumpet. At least, this person does not know how to play a trumpet well. Every other a minute, after a few (semi) successful notes, I hear those sharp, painful squeaks one might associate with sounds coming from a middle school band practice room.

With each new squeak, Mufasa, my cat, jerks her head around wildly. At first I was trying to drown out this noise with music, but now I’ve put it on pause, indefinitely.

The trumpet player has started to shout, or laugh, after each screw-up. At first I was confused: Am I imagining all this? Are the neighbor kids playing a prank? (I guess now that I’m 30, I legitimately have thoughts that include “the neighbor kids”?)

After one of the most offensive of the squeaks thus far, someone clapped. A dog barked—yipped, rather. Another squeak.

But then. Then! Back to the playing.

It’s been about 20 minutes. The squeaks are not as constant. Below the dim of traffic passing on California Avenue, I can hear it. The playing continues. It’s fainter, now, but steady. Every so often, there’s another squeak. Another shout. The playing goes on.

When I was about 8 years old, my mother bought a used piano. She had taken lessons as a child, but she decided she wanted to practice again. Whether this urge was driven by her purchase of the piano, or vice versa, I’m not sure. Regardless, she was going to take lessons, and as such, so would my brother Jay and me.

While my talent for the piano never went much past repeated one-handed playings of the Tarantella, or my other favorite, songs from The Little Mermaid book, my mother continued to practice. Our miniature poodle Tinker was not a fan of her playing. In particular, the dog was less than fond of her repeated attempts at learning to play Für Elise on Saturday afternoons.

From my bedroom, a short hallway away, I’d often be reading a book when Mom would take up her playing. She wasn’t bad, really; she just reached a point in the song where she’d miss her key, and then Tinker’s whine would get louder. She’d stop, yell at the dog, then start over. With each new beginning, she’d play the start with renewed confidence. You could hear it. I’d perk up a bit as I’d rest my book in my lap, listening. And then, the fumble. The dog whining. This would continue, until finally I’d hear her close the piano and open the front door to let “the damn dog out.”

Those opening notes of Für Elise have been burned on my brain since childhood. I can even picture her sitting at the piano, her posture perfect, just as it was whenever she sat at the computer.

She never did master the song. But better still, the memory of her perfect posture; the intensity with each fresh start; even her annoyance at the poor dog.

It’s quiet, now. The cars pass by on California Avenue. Mufasa is asleep, next to me, her head resting on my knee.

The trumpet player has retired for the evening.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mixtapes, Pre-Valentine's Edition: You Got Me So Pathetic

If, like me, you're dreading getting through the work day tomorrow because it's just SO MANY HOURS UNTIL YOU CAN WATCH HOUSE OF CARDS, never fear. I have some jams for you.

Oh yeah, it's also going to be Valentine's Day, so I can think of no better way to start this off than with a song that goes, "You got me so pathetic." Ugh, I know. Don't remind me. But for a song called "Pathetic," it's really a lot more fun than you'd expect:

And then here's one for all you with one foot in, one foot out. (And yes, this is the same Kelis of "Milkshake," and if you have an issue with that, we clearly need to talk.) "I know I said, 'leave,' but baby don't go":

Finally, oh hai, Boots. I don't really know Boots and maybe you don't either, but we all should because: Beyoncé. Also, if this song isn't just the sex, well then, I don't know what is.

Happy almost-House of Cards/Valentine's Day! I love you.

PS - for you Chicago peeples, I wrote about three date-free date ideas for tomorrow night, or any Friday really. Yes, House of Cards is mentioned in this, too.

But Today, We Got to 30

Winter on California Avenue
To say this has been a rough winter is to grossly underestimate. The Chicago Tribune ranks it as #13 on a list of lowest temperature seasons in Chicago. Considering this list includes winters as far back as 1886, I think it gives us ample cause to say: It’s been really fucking cold.

One afternoon in January while I was working from home, my furnace started to crap out. As I waited for my landlord to show up, I shivered in front of my space heater, wearing a scarf, fingerless gloves, and a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I felt so ridiculous I wanted to laugh, but I was too cold to laugh. I thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter and told myself it wasn’t so bad. After all, it’s not like the snow was making my eyeballs bleed; I hadn’t been house-bound for months, I had just been sitting in my until-then warm-ass apartment watching Bob’s Burgers with a cat on my lap. Things weren’t really all that bad.

Yet I still keep finding much to complain about, if only in my thoughts, to myself. Like the evening the 66 bus was delayed and I waited for 20 minutes at the bus stop, the cold shooting needles of pain through my toes and fingers. Or how every time I’ve had to do laundry since before Christmas, I fear my death from the climb up and down to the basement on the steep ice- and snow-covered stairs. Or the mornings the thought of putting on all those layers, yet again, and stepping outside to start my commute made me feel so despondent that I stayed in bed for a full extra hour than I should have.

I try not to complain, because again, it’s really not that bad, right? I have heat and a home and all those layers to keep putting on, morning after morning. I have enough hot tea to last for months. And I can almost always afford to add one more bottle of wine to the shopping cart (it helps when it’s $3 Winking Owl from Aldi). Last week, leaving the bar with a friend, we got in a snowball fight. One snowball smacked me in the ear, and slid down my neck below my scarf, but I was so flushed from laughing that the cold felt good. Yeah, it’s not all that bad.

Today, the temperature made it all the way to 30 degrees. I forgot my hat, and I was okay! It was utter madness. I missed my first bus leaving work, but in the four-and-a-half minutes waiting for the next one, at no point did I feel murderous from the cold. I came home, and made enough pasta to feed myself for the rest of February. I had to do laundry again. My steps are still so covered in snow and a thin sheet of ice that I probably should have just luged down to the basement. But I made it down, one small step after another; and up, one hesitant step after another.

As I walked back up the steps the last time, clutching my laundry basket, the neighbor’s dog jumped at the fence, barking at me like always. I almost lost my balance, but I didn’t fall. Beau, the dog, continued to bark.

I grinned back at him. After all, my bathroom is inside. And so is my wine. Ha, ha, I win this round, Beau.

Every day I don’t fall down in this ice and snow and slush and shit is like a gift. And the bus always shows up eventually.

Today, we made it to 30. Spring awaits. We can do this.