Saturday, December 20, 2014

I'm an adult and I'm not sorry about it

Tonight, out celebrating the birthday of a colleague and dear friend who is somewhere in his early-to-mid 40s (he claims to not know his exact age), we somehow got to talking about romantic relationships and what we want out of them. He admitted to knowing he was somewhat difficult to date, but claimed that for the right woman, he would amend his ways. I simply said I was still searching for a real partner -- an actual companion, an equal, someone willing to put as much energy into a relationship as I am. And after a long pause, he said, "You're really a grown-up."

And you know what? I am. And I'm fucking proud of that fact. 

I don't know why it's become trendy or cool to put off adulthood and maturity for as long as possible. I confess, I am always baffled when I meet someone over the age of 30 who advertises the fact that they're still "kind of a kid." Being young at heart is fine, but perpetually avoiding responsibility and commitment is less cute. It's not even, in my opinion, entirely a gendered thing -- the man-child has become an archetype in various films and TV shows, but there are plenty of women who are guilty of the same thing. They are just less visible in pop culture. 

My question is, why is it a point of pride to not grow up? (I totally feel like Carrie Bradshaw, posing this rhetorical question)

 Not growing up = getting to date this douche

I have always felt like an old soul, despite my youthful appearance. And ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be a grown-up. I insisted on reading adult books even when I was too young to understand them. When I was 8, I demanded to borrow my mom's copy of Stephen King's Pet Cemetery. I think my parents were savvy enough to realize that there was no way I could comprehend the inappropriate content, so they let me nobly schlep around the heavy hardback edition and played along with the ruse that I was actually reading it. I was trying but obviously I was in over my head. So I just carried it around because it was An Adult Book and I wanted to be taken seriously as An Adult. Even though I was 8. The same thing happened with the Andromeda Strain when I was 10. I didn't want to read kids' books -- kids' books were for kids. I didn't want to be a kid or be treated like a kid.

Now I'm actually an age where I am, legally at least, supposed to be a grown-up. And the kicker is, I actually am! So it's frustrating to meet charming, intelligent men who confess/boast about being "big kids." You know what? I don't want to date a fucking kid. I'd like to date a man. Being an adult doesn't mean not having fun. I have fun all the time. I go out, I stay up late, I still get drunk sometimes. But I self-identify as an individual who is not reliant on any outside support systems (parents etc). In other words, I'm in charge of my shit and I'm the boss of me. I pay my bills, I have a job, I live in an apartment I pay for. 

But it's not so much the trappings of adulthood that matter. It's psychological -- I think of myself as an adult. Someone who has experienced a lot of stuff and grown into a fully realized human being. I'm not all that nostalgic about my youth -- I'm not sad to no longer be a teenager or in my 20s. You know why? BECAUSE I GREW OUT OF THEM. I am a smarter, better person than I was then. So no, I don't wistfully long for the days of living with Craigslist roommates and eating cereal for dinner. The days when I had a fake ID that I used to buy the cheapest vodka I could find. The days when I didn't have health insurance, when I still had to ask my folks to bail me out occasionally because I accidentally miscalculated my finances and couldn't pay my rent. I don't regret my 20s, but mostly I value them for how they shaped me into the adult I am today. I would never want to live forever in them. That sounds like a nightmare.  

Alas, I'm in the minority. So many people, it seems, delight in promoting how un-adult they are. It must be attractive to fellow non-adults, but me? I'm still holding out hope that I will find a man who knows who he is and what he wants in life and can appreciate what I have to offer. Because I do think I have a lot to offer. I just have yet to find someone who's smart and funny and wants to be in an adult relationship. Not a boring relationship -- a fun, dynamic relationship built on a foundation of trust, respect and love. 

Time to end this post before it goes full-Oprah. But hopefully, you get the gist. Growing up is an unavoidable, normal, HEALTHY part of life. I grew up and I'm glad I did.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Poem For Autumn

The English department at UW-Eau Claire is lucky enough to count Max Garland, Wisconsin's Poet Laureate among our current faculty. Max is an incredibly talented poet (obviously) and also one of the nicest people I have ever met. The choir I recently joined, The Master Singers, commissioned Max to write a poem for our composer-in-residence to set to music for our upcoming Fall concert. It's just starting to feel like autumn here so I thought I would post it. It's beautiful and if you want to hear it set to music (with a gorgeous cello accompaniment), come to our concert on October 12!

October Song

Show me the changing light on the river
And I’ll show you a portrait of time
Its blessings and burdens and blurring of borders
Between what’s yours and what’s mine

High in the arc of the waning season
The wild ragged flocks wind their way
By reckonings older than roadmap or reason
Moonlight, starlight, the land’s old sway.

Pay attention to this, cries the moon
How time pares the light away soon
Though deep in the sky, constellations and I
Will tend to the darkness’s wounds.

Rapids are the water wanting to sing
Wind is how cottonwoods earn their wings
Intimations of snow in the field’s afterglow
Tell more of what’s coming than we want to know

There’s wealth in the mill and the market
And a singular wealth of mind
There’s a wealth of gold in the tamarack
That the lucky among us may find

For the silos wearing sunsets like crowns
And the oak leaves changing ruby to rust
For the marshes on the outskirts of castaway towns
This is a song for the fugitive dust
A song for the fugitive dust

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I Can't Tell Yet If I'm Grateful for the Gratitude Challenge

As a means of kick-starting my path back to happiness, I've decided to embark on my own (scaled down) version of the infamous Gratitude Challenge. Despite the recent batch of cheating-boyfriend- lemons handed to me by Life, my spirit will not be broken! I will cheer up by recounting things I am grateful for! Over the course of 21 days!

Wait, 21 days, for real? That is a big commitment. I thought this was like a 4-day Facebook thing. I don't know I can stick with the full three-week regimen. But I guess there's no harm in starting....

One of the first activities suggested, after taking The Pledge, which I'm not taking because I'm not sure I want to do this for 21 days, is to use the alphabet to make a list of things I'm grateful for. Way to start off easy, Gratitude Challenge. 26 letters in the alphabet and I have to come up with something for each one that I'm grateful for? Well, here goes nothing and no worries if you get bored around letter N.

A - Antidepressants because they keep me sane and arguably saved my life.

B -  Boston. I'm grateful for having gotten to live there for four years and for my friends there.

C- Cats, specifically this one:

D- (my) Dad. He's pretty swell.

E- Emotions and being in touch with them. Yes, sometimes I wish I could turn off my Big Feelings...but then I wouldn't be me.

F- Feminism. Duh.

G- Gonzo, my favorite Muppet. He's deeply in love with a chicken. Stay chaotic, my friend.

H- (my) hair, which is pretty easy to deal with. A lot of people hate their hair, or fret about losing it. Mine never really stresses me out. Anything that doesn't cause me anxiety = something I'm grateful for.

I- the Internet. Are you familiar? It's great! My friend Noah was once recounting to his mother his attempts to find a picture of matzo brei on the Web and she said, "There are pictures of matzo brei online?" And Noah said, "Mom, there are probably pictures of people having sex on matzo brei online." (note: a brief Google image search yielded no results, but that doesn't mean it's not out there somewhere. Different folks et al.)

J- Job, as in the fact that I have one (a lot of folks don't) and one that I actually like most of the time and pays me enough to live on.

K- Karaoke. Seriously, if I could be a professional karaoke singer....

L- Laughter. Few things feel better than a good belly laugh. I crack myself up fairly regularly, either because I'm a narcissist or because I'm funny. Jury still out.

M- the Master Singers, the choir I recently joined. My heart is happy when I am singing. Corny, but true. And my Mom, because she reads this blog and if I say I'm grateful for my Dad and not her, I will get an angry phone call. Also, she is a wonderful person.

N- Netflix.

O- Oprah gifs.

P- Poetry. Here's a poem written by a friend's four-year-old that pretty much sums it up:

Poetry, poetry
I like poetry
It can be about ice cream
It can be about anything

I like poetry

Q- Quiche. It's one of my favorite comfort foods, far superior to omelets and much less appreciated.

R- RuPaul's Drag Race, aka the best show on television of all time, hunty!

S- Sleep. I take my sleep seriously.

T- Tough love. It's not always what you want, but it's sometimes what you need.

U- Ursula the Sea Witch, because she's the best Disney villain. So sassy! 

V- Vaginas. They're neat, no? If everyone had a penis, well, that would be...problematic.

W- Wine. Duh.

X- X-rays, I guess, because yay science? Xerox machines also make my life as a teacher easier.

Y- You, dear reader!

Z- ....zebra stripes? Because they're fashionable?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Relationship Remnants

Breaking up is hard to do, but once the dust settles, it's sometimes interesting to take an inventory of what remains. I'm not talking about crap of the other person's you accidentally or intentionally inherited or even stuff given to you by your ex. I mean interests, habits, expressions that you tend to pick up, whether you want to or not, when you spend a lot of time with another person. 

From my most recent breakup, I leave with a recipe for a Mediterranean-inspired guacamole. The ex made it for me on one of our first dates and it's just too damn delicious for me to never make again. I made it this past weekend for a friend's party and it was gone within minutes; a chef in attendance even praised it. It's not a family recipe or really all that ingenious: it's basically this, but with more garlic and balsamic instead of red wine vinegar.

I also must credit this same ex for getting me hooked on Game of Thrones (my attempts to hook him on Masters of Sex and Veronica Mars were less successful) and teaching me how to play Cribbage.

I don't know if I imparted any culinary wisdom that he will carry on with him into his future relationships. He often made fun of my creative efforts to make salad dressing (admittedly they didn't always come out as planned). 

The only thing I can think of, for now, that I can take credit for is introducing him to the best Mexican place in Eau Claire: Taqueria la Poblanita. He has lived in EC for eight years and I have lived here for one, but I still managed to discover a restaurant he had never tried and convince him of its superiority over the competing taquerias. It doesn't have much "curb appeal" but it's super tasty and cheap.

I think most of my contributions in my relationships are related to food, now that I think about it. Or alcohol -- probably most of the men I've dated emerged with more knowledge about wine than before. I'm probably most proud of the ex that I got to fall in love with sushi. When we first met, he claimed not to like it and refused to eat it, but further questioning revealed that the only sushi he had ever tried came from his college dining hall. Now he's a sushi fiend, thanks to me. Which hopefully hasn't landed him in the poor house. I realize a Cup-of-Noodles habit would be more financially viable.

What did sushi ex give me? Well, he was really into reading recaps of TV shows on websites like Television Without Pity (R.I.P.). Before him, I never followed commentary about shows I watched, but now it's pretty essential to my viewing rituals and I have him to thank. Even when binge-watching shows like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, I pause between episodes to read recaps (mostly on Vulture now that TWoP is gone). It's a weird behavior -- to read a summary/flash analysis of something I literally JUST WATCHED. But it's pleasurable, what can I say.

From the Boston boyfriend, I got a lot of music -- I was exposed to a bunch of bands I never would have discovered had we not dated. And we're on good enough terms that I can still like those bands and not, like, think of him and collapse into tears. He got me listening to Bon Iver, Wye Oak, Robyn, Lucky Soul, the Pipettes, and a whole bunch of other stuff.  He also is responsible for me becoming obsessed with The Room. It's the gift that keeps on giving. He took me to my first screening and explained to me when to throw the plastic spoons at the screen.

I introduced him to the best burger in Boston:

It's at the Russell House Tavern. It's served on an English muffin. And perhaps best of all, as this picture shows, they give you the option of fries, salad or 50/50. The 50/50 option is so rad because you can feel good about eating some salad with your bacon cheeseburger. EVERYONE WINS. 

When I left Boston, this ex made me a lovely photo essay documenting him eating this burger as a tribute to the impact I made on his life. It's incredibly funny and if I had a scanner at my disposal, I would post the pictures here.  

Chicago boyfriend was a tech guy and helped me see the beauty in things I previously only valued for their utility, like cell phones. He had an amazing collection of sample phones and other gadgets that were sent to him to test out. He also inspired me to finally suck it up and get an iPhone and he was right, my life is better. 

New York boyfriend (well, the 2nd one -- sushi boyfriend is NY boyfriend #1) helped me rediscover my love for board games. And he got me into the live trivia scene -- from now on, wherever I live, I will seek out the best bar trivia because of him (and probably end up disappointed since his caliber for live trivia was very high). He also had some handy euphemisms for marijuana ("green shoes") that I have passed on to others (though my favorite is still "tickets to the Al Green concert" which I stole from someone in college). I think I got him to be a slightly less picky eater -- I know at least he now knows better than to order meat well-done. You're welcome, future foodie girlfriends of his. I laid some groundwork, made some headway. 

 ....That's probably enough self-indulgent reflection for one blog post. Whenever I'm newly single, I find myself ruminating on relationships past, looking for patterns. I have dated a lot of interesting people (and one famous one) and at first glance, they don't have much in common. (I used to joke about creating a reality show where all my ex-boyfriends are on a cruise together and have to figure out what they have in common: me. Not that I have enough exes to fill a cruise ship -- more like a moderately sized yacht.) But what they do all have in common is they are smart, funny, interesting, kind human beings. And I still carry a little love for all of them and always will.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reporting from America's Dairyland

The other night, when I couldn't sleep, I spent over an hour just reading old posts on this blog. I reached two conclusions: 1) I'm a pretty funny lady. There were things I had written and totally forgotten about that made me LOL.  2) I really should try to blog more - as in, once a week, minimum. So in that spirit, here's a post I started writing six months ago and abandoned -- a rumination on my new life in the upper Midwest. Now it's finished (and updated to reflect that I have now been here - gasp! - a year).

This is the state flag of Wisconsin. Seeing as I have now been a resident of Wisconsin for over a year, I thought I should take a look at the flag. According to Wikipedia, it is not highly regarded in terms of design when compared with other state flags (oh snap!). Our motto is "Forward" -- simple, direct. The state seal pictured on the flag "emphasizes mining and shipping." And yes, that's a little badger on top of the coat of arms. Cute!

It still seems incredibly bizarre that I live in Wisconsin, to both me and my non-Wisconsin friends and family. But here are five things I have figured out in the one year I have lived here:

1. "Wisconsin nice"

People here are really nice. Like, crazy nice. They always give you the benefit of the the doubt. Total strangers will offer you a ride at a bar if you're too drunk to drive (I have witnessed this, not been the drunk person, Mom). People will help you dig your car out of a snow bank. The locals take great pride in their kindness, especially in comparison to their neighbors to the west, Minnesotans, whom they claim are fake nice. I don't know a lot of Minnesotans, so I can't really comment.

2.The unofficial state condiment is Ranch.

Where I come from, Ranch is just a salad dressing. But lo, people dip everything in Ranch here! French fries, sandwiches, chips, their children (well, okay, maybe not that last one). Pretty much anything can be a vehicle for Ranch delivery. Cheese curds dipped in Ranch are especially tasty. Fried cheese dipped in Ranch: It doesn't get much more Wisconsin than that. 

3. The water here is delicious!

I have no idea why this is, but the tap water here is sooooo good. It doesn't have any weird flavors, no metal/mineral/chemical notes. It's crisp and cold (well, probably because the pipes are super cold) and tastes really pure.

4. Beware the Hodag

Wisconsin has its very own cryptid: the Hodag, a mythical (?) lizard beast that lives in Rhinelander. Here is a statue of the menacing creature:

The Hodag is now my second favorite folkloric creature, second of course to the chupacabra. Apparently the Hodag is not so much vicious as mischievous, presumed responsible for golf balls that are never recovered, interfering with local fishermen, and other mild recreational annoyances. See, even the state's monster is Wisconsin nice!

5. The summers are as lovely as the winters are brutal

When it finally began to warm up and all the inches upon inches of snow began to melt, I truly felt that I had survived something epic and terrible. This summer, in terms of weather, has been as intensely wonderful as the winter was intensely horrid. Glorious, sunny high-70s days, enough rain to keep everything verdant and some exciting thunderstorms, very mild humidity. Temps dropping low enough at night to turn off the A/C and just open the windows. Now that I know what's coming winter-wise, I understand why people try to soak up every last drop of summer. I'm in serious denial about Labor Day weekend, otherwise known as this weekend, otherwise known as the end of summer. 

As I embark on Year Two in Eau Claire, it feels both familiar and strange. Sort of like home, but also, due to some recent major life ruptures, a foreign and potentially scary place. But I still love my job, I've made some solid friends, and hey, I just joined a semi-professional choir, so I'll be singing again and meeting some new folks. I'm not in the same place I was when I rhapsodized last December, but hopefully I'll get to that state of relative contentment again soon. As my homegirl Florence says, it's always darkest before the dawn.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Another poem

I know it's unusual for me to have back-to-back posts with poems, but I am too emotionally spent to write/reflect, so I must use Dean Young's words instead. It's been a doozy of a summer -- I had major surgery and my heart broken all within a month. The healing from both events has been complicated -- allergic reactions and one incision that refuses to close up, and my heart, well, it continues to beat for the one who destroyed it. 

I am teaching Introduction to Creative Writing this fall and the task of selecting poems for my students to read has proved daunting only in that there are SO MANY I want to share with them. Some, like this one, I don't think fledgling writers would necessarily be able to really "get" - it breaks a lot of rules (which is why it's great) and it's hard to get away with some of the things Young gets away with here unless you really know what you're doing. From a craft perspective, the takeaways might be inscrutable for beginning creative writers.

Some of this poem, I would argue, is filler, is clutter -- but very intentionally so. The effect is that the astonishing lines and images (and there are a lot of them) seem to burst out from the din he creates with the frantic rhythm of his very free verse. And those moments in the poem become all the more transcendent because of how they explode out from the white noise. They are, literally, arresting. Read it and I think you'll see what I mean. Is every idea in this poem "essential"? I don't think so -- except in how the non-essentials make the drama of the jaw-dropping lines all the more impactful. This poem has the power to stop you in your tracks. Enjoy.

Whale Watch

Sometimes you may feel alone and crushed 
by what you cannot accomplish 
but the thought of failure is a fuzz 
we cannot rid ourselves of 
anymore than the clouds can their moisture. 
Why would they want to anyway? 
It is their identity and purpose 
above the radish and radicchio fields. 
Just because a thing can never be finished 
doesn't mean it can't be done. 
The most vibrant forms are emergent forms. 
In winter, walk across the frozen lake 
and listen to it boom and you will know 
something of what i mean. 
It may be necessary to go to Mexico. 
Do not steal tombstones but if you do, 
do not return them as it is sentimental 
and the sentimental is a larval feeling 
that bloats and bloats but never pupates. 
Learn what you can of the coyote and shark. 
Do not encourage small children 
to play the trombone as the shortness 
of their arms may prove quite frustrating, 
imprinting a lifelong aversion to music 
although in rare cases a sense of unreachability 
may inspire operas of delicate auras. 
If you hook, try to slice. 
I have not the time to fully address 
Spinoza but put Spinoza on your list. 
Do not eat algae. 
When someone across the table has a grain of rice 
affixed to his nostril, instead of shouting, 
Hey, you got rice hanging off your face! 
thereby perturbing the mood 
as he speaks of his mother one day in the basement, 
brush your nose as he watches 
and hidden receptors in the brain 
will cause him to brush his own nose 
ergo freeing the stupid-looking-making rice. 
There is so much to say and shut up about. 
As regards the ever-present advice-dispensing susurration 
of the dead, ignore it; they think everyone's 
going to die. I have seen books with pink slips 
marking vital passages 
but this I do not recommend 
as it makes the book appear foolish 
like a dog in a sweater. 
Do not confuse size with scale: 
the cathedral may be very small, 
the eyelash monumental. 
Know yourself to be made mostly of water 
with a trace of aluminum, a metal 
commonly used in fuselages. 
For flying, hollow bones are best or 
no bones at all as in the honeybee. 
Do not kill yourself. 
Do not put the hammer in the crystal carafe 
except as a performance piece. 
When you are ready to marry, 
you will know but if you don't, 
don't worry. The bullfrog never marries, 
ditto the space shuttle 
yet each is able to deliver its payload: 
i.e. baby bullfrogs and satellites, respectively. 
When young, fall in and out of love like a window 
that is open and only about a foot off the ground. 
Occasionally land in lilacs 
or roses if you must 
but remember, the roses 
have been landed in many times. 
If you do not surprise yourself, 
you won't surprise anyone else. 
When the yo-yo "sleeps", give a little tug 
and it will return unless it has "slept" too long. 
Haiku should not be stored with sestinas 
just as one should never randomly mix 
the liquids and powders beneath the kitchen sink. 
Sand is both the problem and the solution for the beach. 
To impress his teacher, Pan-Shan lopped off 
his own hand, but to the western mind, 
this seems rather extreme. 
Neatly typed, on-time themes 
strongly spelled are generally enough. 
Some suggest concentrating on one thing 
for a whole life but narrowing down 
seems less alluring than opening up 
except in the case of the blue pencil 
with which to make lines on one side 
of the triangle so it appears to speed through the firmament. 
Still, someone should read everything 
Galsworthy wrote. Everyone knows 
it's a race but no one's sure of the finish line. 
You may want to fall to your knees 
and beg for forgiveness without knowing precisely 
for what. You may have a hole in your heart. 
You may solve the equation but behind it 
lurks another equation. You may never get 
what you want and feel like you're already a ghost 
and a failed ghost at that, unable to walk through walls. 
There will be a purple hat. Ice cream. 
You may almost ruin the wedding. 
You may try to hang yourself but be saved 
by a kid come home early from school 
or you may be that kid who'll always remember 
his mother that day in the basement, 
how she seemed to know he'd done something wrong 
before he even knew 
and already forgave him, 
the way she hugged him and cried. 
Nothing escapes damage for long, 
not the mountain or the sky. 
You may be unable to say why 
a certain song makes you cry until 
it joins the other songs, 
even the one that's always going on 
and is never heard, the one that sings us into being. 
On the phone, the doctor may tell you to come in. 
It may rain for three days straight. 
Already you've been forgiven, 
given permission. Each week, cryptograms 
come with the funny papers. 
You're not alone. 
You may see a whale.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry: Happy Birthday, Nabokov edition

Today is Vladimir Nabokov's birthday and it's also National Poetry Month, so I'm celebrating both by posting a poem of my own (!) that was recently published in Measure.

Nabokov and his wife Vera shared a love of lepidoptery (collecting butterflies) - and he drew butterflies alongside his inscriptions in first editions gifted to her. 

Their relationship is legendary -- in a recent article in the Atlantic entitled "The Legend of Vera Nabokov," Koa Beck considers how Vera's support and devotion to her husband's career impacted his success. They are the original power couple; think Claire and Francis Underwood, replacing politics with literature and minus the murder and creepy threesomes.

Vladimir died in 1977; Vera, not until 1991. I wrote this poem in grad school as I tried to imagine what she did with all the butterflies after his death. 

Vera vs. the Butterflies
The eastern side of every minute of mine is already colored by the light of our impending meeting.
All the rest is dark, boring, you-less. – Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Vera, 1937

She had already lost him
and now his winged darlings
were hers to keep or kill.

She shared his fascination
with fragility and flight,
but walking in the woods

alone, armed with the net
he had given her, noting
each abandoned chrysalis,

unusual flecks of blue
on a Parnassius apollo,
she knew they had to go.

A book suggested pinching
thorax between thumb
and middle finger to snap

the exoskeleton for a quick
death, but she couldn’t bear
their blood on her hands.

Suffocation in a kill jar –
too inhumane. She decided
finally to freeze them, let the air

do her dirty work. Watching
their wings pulse to stillness,
she imagined his delight

at the sudden flutter
of company, diaphanous
prologue to their reunion.

V & V

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Tale of Two Voice Teachers

At one point in my life, singing meant everything to me.

Nowadays, it plays a peripheral role. I sing in the shower and in the car and semi-regularly at karaoke bars in whatever city I happen to be living in. I have joined some non-professional choirs over the years. Nothing too serious.

But once, it was my world -- it was the first thing I remember being good at. Before I knew I could write, before I knew I was reasonably intelligent, I knew I could sing. I knew it even before my first music teacher, the lovely Diane Ladendecker, told me I had a nice voice. It's the first skill I recall feeling like I just had-- as in, no one taught it to me. I somehow magically just could sing Happy Birthday correctly. I could hear a song and sing it -- and it did seem like a miraculous gift.

As a child, I sang not just in the school choir, but in community choirs as well. Choirs that had real paying gigs. And then I started doing theater -- specifically musical theater and opera. So once I hit high school, it seemed logical to start taking voice lessons. And of course, I wanted to take them from the best teacher in town, the teacher with the best reputation: Sheila Dugan. Her name was spoken in hushed tones among child performers and their parents. She was expensive. She didn't agree to work with just anyone. She had to agree that you were worth teaching to take you on as a student. But as far as I was concerned, there was no one else from whom I could possibly study voice. So if she was willing to work with me, my parents said they were willing to pay for it.

I owe a lot to Sheila Dugan. She taught me that singing is all about breathing. For the first three months, we did no singing-- only breathing exercises. My tone was too airy and I had no breath support. She taught me how to focus my tone and sustain -- she taught me how to control my instrument. She was tough on me but I appreciated it. She helped me turn raw talent into real skill.

Sheila Dugan is still, I believe, revered among St. Louis singers. Many of her students have gone on to illustrious careers on Broadway. She's the real deal. She's also, however, the person who almost managed to make me hate singing and give up on it entirely. I left my final lesson in tears, convinced I had no talent whatsoever.

I started working with Sheila my sophomore year of high school, but the trouble started my senior year, when I wanted to enter a vocal competition sponsored by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The competition was open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 not enrolled in a vocal performance program, so clearly winning would be a long shot. My high school choir teacher encouraged me to enter not because she thought I could win, but because she thought it would be good experience. To compete, you had to prepare two songs in non-English languages, so she also said it would be a great excuse for me to expand my repertoire.

At my next lesson with Sheila, I told her I wanted to start preparing material for this competition. And Sheila was aghast and appalled. She told me that I had no chance and I would be wasting everyone's time. She said, "My students enter these competitions and win them. If you want to enter, I will not allow you to list me as your vocal instructor. I have a reputation to uphold." She also told me that I was her weakest student, that she could line up all her students in a row and every one of them could outsing me. She actually said those words, exactly. My memory of this afternoon is crystal clear.

It was my last lesson. I was shattered. To this day, I don't understand why she had to be so, well, mean. I stopped taking lessons. I didn't enter the competition. I never saw Sheila Dugan again.

Next fall, I went to college at Yale and joined an a cappella group. Did a bunch of shows in my four years, some musicals, some not. After graduating, I moved to NYC and started auditioning. And inevitably, the idea of resuming voice lessons (once I had a steady job and could afford them) occurred to me. But I was scared -- I'd had such a negative experience. I really felt like Sheila Dugan had broken something inside me. I wasn't sure I could make myself vulnerable enough to work with another voice teacher one-on-one.

Somehow, through circumstances I can't recall, I was put in touch with Nomi Tichman. Hesitantly, I went to my first lesson. We hit it off like gangbusters. She was just as good a teacher as Sheila, but unlike Shelia, she actually seemed to like and respect me as a person, to have my best interests at heart. When I wanted to audition for a part I was unlikely to land, she encouraged me. She didn't lie to me, but she supported me. And in the arts, as a young artist especially, that's invaluable. Her apartment on the Upper West Side was a safe space for me to experiment with my artistry. I studied with Nomi for several years while I was in New York and even when I barely had enough money to pay my rent, I never stopped budgeting money for voice lessons. It was good for my spirit. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy singing again.

I have referred Nomi to a number of my friends because it's fucking hard to be an actor/musician in New York and having someone in your creative corner is so, so important. She's a wonderful teacher. When I first started working with her, I had a lot of notions about what I could and couldn't do. I thought primarily in terms of limitations and boundaries. I can't sing this type of role, I can't belt above this note, etc. She helped me think past all that. And I will always be grateful for her for that.

(You might wonder what prompted this apropos-of-nothing post about singing and studying voice -- well, last night I went to see a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar. And reading the bios of the actors in the program, I saw that the actor playing Jesus was from St. Louis and had studied with Sheila Dugan. A flood of memories came back -- not just about Sheila but about my own evolution as a singer -which coincided with my evolution into adulthood.)

For anyone on an artistic or creative path, there will always be an infinite number of Sheilas. You have to learn how to tune them out and find the Nomis.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Mysterious Origins of My Feminism

Let me share a little secret: I honestly can't remember when I started self-identifying as a feminist. 

A few years ago, I remember a friend in Boston saying that my feminism was one of my defining characteristics, that I was one of the most feminist women he knew. I was surprised and flattered, but mostly surprised. It's not like I'm all that active in the community and I know of a number of women whom I consider to be more hardcore about their feminism (such radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson who is celibate because she's heterosexual but thinks all heterosexual penetrative sex is a form of rape. Now THAT's extreme feminism). 

And yet, I can't deny it -- when tasked with choosing a theme for my writing course at Emerson, I immediately chose gender. Well, actually, first I chose the Women's Movement, but switched to gender in an attempt to be more inclusive and less political. Gender is the theme of the course I currently teach at UWEC. Many of my students are pleasantly surprised at how much they end up investing in the topic and comments on end-of-year evaluations like "This course opened my eyes and made me see things differently" warm my heart. But then, of course, there are a few comments like these:

"If you are going to teach a class on gender, get an instructor that isn't biased to one side of gender issues."

"I feel the proffessor [sic] pushed her feminist views to [sic] much"

"Theme seems sexist; the professor's personal views were apparent throughout"

Cat's out of the bag, y'all. Turns out, I'm a raging feminist! My students have figured it out!

But wait -- is that so bad? Let's be clear, I'm teaching writing and critical reading, not Women's Studies. And I do believe I keep the focus on those skills. But is it really the worst thing in the world for a teacher to have an opinion? I mean, if I were a racist, I could see the problem. But being a feminist simply means I think men and women should be treated equally. Is it such a terrible shortcoming that my students have picked up on the fact that I'm a woman with some views about things? 

If I were gay, would I need to hide the fact that I support gay rights? Surely no one would say I would need to present "both sides" of that issue -- i.e. bring in some hate speech just for the sake of balance. So yeah, I'm a woman and I support equal rights for women. (And for the record, I use texts in my class from the IWF, an anti-feminist conservative org, and "equity feminist" Christina Hoff Sommers, whom I personally loathe, so that seems pretty balanced to me). 

I don't hate men; my best friend is a man. I'm dating a man whom I love very much. The world is full of awesome men. I just think women should be respected as human beings and valued based on the same qualities as men, namely their abilities, compassion, and character, not how hot they look in lingerie. We live in a world where shit like this exists:

and yet many of my students, both male and female, think feminism is obsolete, no longer necessary.The fact that so many people put so much energy into making feminism seem unappealing to young women is precisely why it is so necessary. Duh.

But where did my own feminism come from? My mother is not a feminist. She certainly didn't try to shield me from Disney or girly girl stuff. I wore tons of pink. I told everyone I wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I actually once, in second grade, cried because I wasn't blonde and blue-eyed and my name wasn't Crystal. True fact.

I remember first feeling what I'd now identify as feminist outrage in high school when the philosophy behind my school's dress code was explained to me in terms of sexy outfits (spaghetti straps, short skirts) being too distracting for boys....implying that their education was somehow prioritized over mine and that without the dress code, the poor male students would never be able to concentrate. I didn't really object to the dress code until it was framed for me in that way. Boys had to wear coat-and-tie and let me tell you, some of the butt-ass ugly ties these dudes wore was PLENTY distracting to my learning. 

Fast-forward to college, where I took my first and only Women's Studies class junior year.  Yes, you read that correctly. I took exactly one Women's Studies class in college and it was the intro survey course. So for anyone who thought it was my liberal college education that made me into the feminist I am today, think again. Some foundations were laid, surely -- I was blown away by much of what I read and was exposed to in that class -- but it's not like I took any follow-up upper level courses. I was an English major, I had a lot of Virginia Woolf to read. And I was more focused on theatre and a cappella than academics anyway. 

After college, I started working for a rare book & manuscript firm, and after a year of being an administrative assistant, I was upgraded to cataloging material for one client. A client who was specifically building a collection of books/ephemera by and about American women. And this is maybe when I started to, how should I put it, transition. I handled some incredible primary source material from the suffrage movement -- letters, pamphlets, speeches, photographs. I got a little obsessed. So many incredible women fighting and writing and nearly dying for what they believed in. I was hooked. And I was struck by how little I really knew about American women's history - why is it that I studied the Civil Rights Movement in AP U.S. History but not the Women's Movement? Why did I have to write papers on the War of 1812 but not the Feminine Mystique? 

So yes, the theme of my writing class is personally important. Because most of these kids will never take a Women's Studies class. I want my students to become better writers. I don't expect them to be converted to feminism because of my class; that's not my secret (or not-so-secret) agenda. But if it happens? Yeah, I don't feel too badly about that. Sorry.

But not really.