I turn thirty tomorrow! Here are the things I spent the last decade clumsily learning. I might well continue learning some or all of these til I die, but here’s hoping I’m done.
1) Don’t spend time with people who bum you out.
This goes for lovers, friends, colleagues, and even family members. Life is short, and you don’t have time to feel insecure, bored, angry, depressed or anxious. If you habitually feel that way in someone’s presence, locate the nearest exit and run.
Loving someone is not an excuse to allow them to bum you out.
This goes double for romantic partners. Either they need to stop bumming you out, or you need to stop being around them. You do not owe anyone your presence (with the possible exception of your children), and nobody has the right to make you feel bad.
Finally, it’s not important to have a rationalization, for yourself or for the bummer in question, about why you will no longer be spending time with them. Everyone has a right to seek happiness; yours tends to be in rooms where they are not. It’s nobody’s fault and nobody can fix it.
2) The fear of failure can only be cured by work.
There is only one thing I’ve found that quiets the clamoring of the demons in my head (the ones who tell me that I am an awful talentless boring lazy failure): sit down, pick up the guitar, and work.
Drugs and drinking used to quiet them down, but then I’d wake up and the clamoring was louder. Success, also, seemed like it might work, when I saw it in the distance from the valley below. Now, I’m no rockstar, and I don’t own a yacht; but I do the thing I love and I get paid for it, and I’ve played some really cool gigs and hung out with a bunch of my musical idols. So I tell you this with relish: none of those things worked on the demons either.
The demons don’t care who I’ve opened for or how much I got paid. They also don’t care about any of the work I’ve made in the past.
The only bludgeon I can beat them with is the work I’m making right now, this very minute.
So when I hear them running down the corridors of my mind, scratching the floorboards and chewing the furniture, yipping about every humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me, I go find a quiet room, and I sing.
3) You can’t make people like you.
Some people are assholes, some are aliens, and some just aren’t that into you. One of the biggest time-suck mind-fucks I’ve ever stumbled into (repeatedly) is the one where I say, “Wait, you don’t LIKE me?? Well you must not KNOW me very well. What if I do this little DANCE for you? Wearing this gorgeous MONKEY SUIT? I can SING too….”
But alas, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make somebody like you.
How many things was that, again?
Zero. Not even one thing.
You might as well get a slice of pizza and watch a movie until the sting subsides, then go out and meet somebody who’s not an alien.
4) Scenes are for suckers.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time imagining what it was like to live in a creative hotbed, like Paris in the ‘20s or Greenwich Village in the ‘60s. At sixteen, I moved into an intentional community in Eugene with a bunch of other musicians and artists. Then I hung out with musicians and dancers in San Francisco, and later Philadelphia, looking for “my people”. Finally, I moved to New Orleans, where (I imagined) the streets were paved with songwriters.
Turns out, all the scenes I’ve ever become involved in have suffered from the same problem: they are petty, and gossipy, and rife with the sort of militant mediocrity that comes from too many people trying too hard to be liked by too many other people.
All of my favorite artists are inspired by a lot of weird quirky things, like some record they found in a junk shop; or a play by a Venezuelan farmer; or a thousand year old poem. They are not overly impressed by fame or hipness, and they are not easily convinced of the quality of whoever happens to be the king or queen of their local scene. They are good at spotting the kind of scenesterism that my friend Milton (quoting Randy Newman) calls “Big hat, no cattle”.
Being fully accepted by a scene requires you to suspend your critical thinking skills in favor of the ‘groupthink’ of your scene. This is the reason so many teenagers get involved in so many nasty, stupid shenanigans. If we are lucky, we grow out of our need to be accepted and liked by our local cool kids, and focus on our need to accept and like ourselves.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t look for people who motivate and inspire you, and offer you a sense of camaraderie and support. Problem is, it’s unlikely that those people will be geographically or psychologically localized. Have the gumption and persistence to seek them out, and be honest with yourself about who they are and are not.
5) If you’re worrying about doing it right, you aren’t.
This goes for pretty much anything worth doing: music, sex, writing, dancing, conversation, cuddling, and any kind of creative act. Self-consciousness turns off your heart and ignites the dumbest and most awkward parts of your personality. Trying to connect or create using your worry-brain is like trying to teach a dog to play piano: no amount of focus or persistence will make it happen. You’ve got the wrong guy for the job.
So, when you find yourself having performance anxiety, don’t try to do a better job. Try to stop worrying. Call a time out, have some tea, go for a walk, and start over.
6) Your insecurities are boring.
All of us are plagued by insecurities, and haunted by their origin stories. Our moms were critical, our dads were absent, we got blindsided by loss and meanness and dumb bad luck. Nobody loved us the way we needed.
Now, we move through the world handicapped by all sorts of fear. We aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or good enough at love or music or hockey. We are bothers and hacks and washed up has-beens. We are lazy and perverted and everyone talks about us behind our backs.
But that’s everybody’s story, and it’s a boring one. Put it to bed and start a new one.
Something about me is perpetually sweet. Despite the tattoos, the songs about sex and whiskey and meanness, and the ferocity bubbling just beneath the surface, I seem to strike the average stranger as some breed of twee little big-eyed mammal. Every waitress over 22 calls me “sweetie”, every Petco employee insists on carrying my dog food to my car, and everybody’s grandmother wishes I would wear a dollbaby dress with sailboats on it. People I just met tend to describe me as “sweet” or “cute” or “so nice”.
I am resigned to being sweet, and cute doesn’t rankle me like it used to (usually). But here’s the thing: I’m not nice. Niceness is not something I’m into. I try to be kind, and thoughtful; I hold doors open, I give rides to the airport, I take my friends out for waffles when they get broken up with. But to me, “being nice” involves clamming up, putting on a happy face, and forgoing one’s own convictions and desires to avoid rocking the boat.
I am no clam, people. I love to rock the boat.
Let me rephrase that, actually. Rocking the boat is incredibly uncomfortable for me - it gives me stress dreams and sweaty hands - but I was born to rock the boat. Making other people uncomfortable is one of the byproducts of my best and most satisfying work, including many of the thoughts and feelings I have every day. Anything inside me that says otherwise is usually not me, but the years of be-a-good-little-girl conditioning that I accidentally absorbed from the air around me (in spite of my parents’ best intentions), like most women, in most of the world.
If you’ve been smoking what I’ve been smoking (sugar and spice and everything nice, Disney Princesses, rom coms, etcetera), you may be asking the same question. What do we do about all the bullshit we’ve inadvertently inhaled?
I think the antidote to this variety of bullshit includes a lot of real-world, large scale, external changes (like access to education and birth control for women everywhere, equal pay for equal work, and for people to stop acting like douche bags (and for that matter, selling them)). But I also think that we have opportunities to combat bullshit with the magic of our own minds.
So ladies (and gents… but mostly ladies), I hereby invite you to make yourself comfortable in your own life. I want us all to feel that there is no need to apologize for the size or intensity of our bodies, our minds, our feelings, or our choices.
I have a few ideas about how to implement this. We all got different bullshit cocktails, growing up, and we’re all equipped with different bullshit-filtration devices, so I don’t expect that everything in this post applies to everybody. Here’s some of what I’m grappling with, and how.
1) Cultivate a healthy sense of entitlement.
Entitlement has a bad reputation, and it’s mostly well deserved. I don’t enjoy being shoulder-checked by a trustfund dudebro (stumbling down the middle of Royal street texting, like a blind yeti) any more than the next gal. But there are some things we are entitled to:
We are each entitled to our bodies, our experiences, and the choices we make about our own lives.
When I say, “I’m entitled to my life”, I mean that I hold the title: I am the captain, the President, the head honcho, and the sole stockholder. Nobody else holds even one share.
Here’s what that means: if I have a feeling, and somebody else doesn’t like that I had that feeling, that’s tough titties for them. I should no more apologize for that feeling than a weed should apologize for growing in my garden. Maybe I don’t like the weed, maybe I wish the weed would grow somewhere else; but the weed has no responsibility for any of that. It’s there because of the sun and the wind and the bird that shat it out, and the whole course of the evolution of the universe. It’s entitled to be there.
Similarly, your body takes up the amount of space it does, it’s shaped how it’s shaped, and it feels how it feels. It gurgles and sweats and aches and farts. Your body is entitled to do all these things, and you, as the Chief Executive Officer of your body, are entitled to these things as well.
Your thoughts are in there, strung about like confetti after a party, and your memories, and your feelings. You are entitled to them all. You are entitled to everything that has ever happened to you, and all of the choices you’ve made, and all of the choices in front of you. If you fuck up, it was your decision to fuck up, and nobody else’s; and now it’s your decision whether to apologize for it, or fix it, or not.
I can remember most of this, most of the time, but occasionally I still get confused. Who decides if I should get another tattoo, for instance? I forget. Is it my husband, who’s not particularly keen on tattoos? Is it my mom, who’s acutely creeped out by them? Is it the old lady sitting next to me at this café, scowling? Is it that one loudmouthed fan of mine, who insists on airing his opinion of tattoos every time I post a picture on facebook? Well, let’s see…. my body is the one being tattooed, and I am entitled to my body. Nobody else is.
I have brainfarts in this area professionally and artistically, too. For example, who am I to write this post? I’m writing about topics that the feminist movement has been dealing with for years, and I’m not very well educated on the history of feminism. I haven’t read Gloria Steinem. I don’t have a degree in women’s studies – in fact, I don’t have any degrees in anything. But on the other hand, I am me. I am a human woman, and I have thoughts and feelings about that, and a blog to post them on. I’m entitled to my thoughts and feelings, and nobody else is.
A lot of people, mostly women, pick up the habit of prefacing their sentences with “well I kind of think that, like, sometimes…” or another excruciatingly long and self-immolating prefix. To me, this says, “I have a thought, but I don’t believe that I’m entitled to it.”
I hereby invite all of us to cultivate a healthy sense of entitlement to our own bodies, experiences, and choices. For clarity’s sake, here are the things we’re not entitled to: other people’s bodies, other people’s experiences, other people’s choices, and other people. They hold the title to their lives; we hold the title to ours.
2) If you have a problem with the way you look, find a bigger problem.
Like most women I know, my feelings about my own appearance vary widely from day to day (and from moment to moment). Sometimes, I look in the mirror and see a total sex bomb. Other times, I see a blubberous ogre. In almost thirty years of research, I’ve only found one way to combat that Cosmo-reading, trash-talking, mean-girl demon in my head: find something more interesting to worry about.
The way we look is probably one of the least interesting things about us, and unquestionably one of the least interesting things about the world. Your head, regardless of its shape or accoutrements, is carrying inside it the most complex phenomenon in the known universe.
So next time you look in the mirror and scowl, or see an unflattering picture of yourself, or catch a peripheral glance of your blubberous ogre thighs, remember this: the world is chock-full of stuff that is infinitely more fascinating than the girth of your thighs. In this corner, we have AIDS and climate change and abject poverty. In this one, we have the Grand Canyon, wombats, and Mary Oliver. Pick any of these, think about them for twelve seconds, and laugh at yourself.
Let’s all begin to consciously prioritize our own pleasure, satisfaction, and self-expression over sitting and looking pretty. Here are some tricks:
Eat what you want.
Food is one of the primary sensual pleasures that the gods have allowed us, and if you’re reading this, you are living in a time of unprecedented culinary abundance and variety. You can very likely walk out of your house right now, and within an hour be back at home eating oysters, or chocolate ice cream, or bacon-wrapped dates, or a grapefruit the size of your head. You could be sipping a mango lassi, even though it’s February in New England. This, my friends, is a fucking miracle.
If I hear one more woman making her culinary choices based on the girth of her thighs alone, I’m going to drown myself in mango lassi. Sure, eat a salad sometimes, for health reasons or cosmetic ones. But other times, eat the bacon-wrapped dates, because they are a fucking miracle. Choose joyfully from the menu of your life – it’s long, and broad, and sacred.
Wear what you love.
Similarly, wear things that make you feel happy and wacky and soulful. Wear things that remind you of your childhood, or the beach, or mind-blowing sex. Don’t automatically resort to the thigh-fatness metric. If a dress makes you feel delighted and creative and full of magic, but your thighs look like overstuffed sausages, so be it. Now they are magic sausages.
Don’t just sit there and look pretty.
If someone snaps a picture of you doing something important or funny or inspiring – say, scaling a fish, or painting a house – and the demon in your head says you don’t look pretty, tell him to fuck off. Post that photo online. Instagram needs to be reminded that we are complex creatures; a woman can be pretty sometimes, and other times she can be happily (and greasily) scaling a fish. There is no law requiring perpetual prettiness, THANK GOD. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
We are entitled to our faces and bodies, however they are composed, whether anybody finds them pleasing or not. Post a picture in which you’re not pretty, but full of some other kind of light.
3) Become a sexual subject.
Sexual objectification is a big, nasty, complicated problem. As women, we bear the brunt of that problem most of the time. Here are just a few of the things that suck about it:
We objectify ourselves and each other.
As alluded to above, most women (yes, even us creative, smart, professional movers and shakers and doers and thinkers) have a deep–seated conviction that we’d be better off in life if we were prettier/thinner/taller. This is maddeningly stupid, and we know it, but it’s all smashed up in our subconscious primordial ooze, with the Disney Princesses and the Nationwide Insurance jingle, and we have a very hard time rooting it out.
We enable each other’s self-objectification by sizing up our friends (and enemies), commenting about their appearance, and complaining about our own appearance. When we say “have you lost weight?”, or “my thighs are getting so fat”, we are feeding each other’s demons.
I’m working on this one by putting the kibosh on all appearance-monitoring of my female friends, and all discussion (complainy or otherwise) of my own appearance. If that sounds really hard (like it does to me), remember the wombats and Mary Oliver.
Self-objectification makes us dumber.
Self-objectification results in a phenomenon called body monitoring, which literally makes us dumber. Body monitoring means thinking about how we look, imagining what we might look like to the other people in the room, fidgeting with our hair and clothes, and arranging our face and body in order to look more attractive. It happens so often, and takes up so much brain space, that it has a measurable effect on our ability to focus and perform.
This one is tough to combat, but my current approach is this: when I’m in a public place, and I notice I’m sitting in a way that might not look cute, I bite the bullet and keep sitting that way. I’m trying to train my demons the way I train my dogs: no rewards for bad behavior.
When we objectify ourselves during sex, we don’t get to have sex.
Sexual objectification makes us feel that we are not the subjects of our sexual encounters. I’m using “subject” here in the grammatical, sentence-diagramming sense, as in “the entity that is doing or being”; as opposed to the “object”, the “entity being acted upon”.
It’s simple grammar, folks: when we’re being sexually objectified, we’re not having sex. We are being sexed at, or in, or upon.
So here’s my challenge: the next time you have sex, verbalize a sentence in which in which you are the subject. That sentence should probably start with the word “I”, as in, “I want you to…” or “I like that”, or “I don’t like that”. (Interestingly, it seems like the most commonly-depicted phrase of dirty talk uttered by women in movies/books/porn is “fuck me”, or some variation of it - a sentence in which the speaker is still the object).
Of course, sometimes, sexual objectification can be fun (fear not, Fifty Shades devotees). I’ve been known to enjoy a helping of it from time to time. I’d argue that if it’s something you can openly discuss and ask your partners for, you are in fact acting as a sexual subject. (When you ask to be objectified, you have to make yourself the subject of the sentence, eg: “I want you to tie me up.”).
For extra credit: orchestrate a sexual encounter wherein you’re the subject. If someone were writing a story about the encounter, you would be the subject of most of the sentences (“she took off her dress” or “she climbed on top of him”). I am challenging us all to initiate more of the sex we have, and initiate more of the things we want during sex.
Join me in the pursuit, ladies: we’ve been getting fucked for millennia. Let’s start fucking.
Or, three ways to drift clumsily towards kindness and avoid paralytic handwringer’s disease.
This year, I will give whatever I have, whenever I can.
I am often paralyzed by the thought that there is so much going wrong in the world - so many injustices and tragedies, large and small, life-threatening and soul-crushing, chewing up people and hope in every imaginable way - and I’m just one small, uneducated, brokeass person, wrapped up in my own daily dramas, whimpering in the face of the beast.
I don’t know which tragedy to face first, or how to face it, so I sit at home and wring my hands, and feel a little guilty but mostly confused. It’s like I’m waiting for somebody to swoop in and tell me what form of kindness has the highest Overall Statistical Goodness Quotient, and until that happens, being kind is probably a waste of time and energy.
I’ve considered quitting the music biz and working for a nonprofit, or trying harder to be a real rockstar so I can get rich and give away my money, or going to school for something important. But honestly, I don’t think any of those things would turn me into an unconflicted superhero of change (and also, I would be miserable). None of us is big enough or rich enough or smart enough to save the world, that’s just the dangblasted human condition.
So this year, I declare that the way to make change is to give whatever I have, whenever I can, and to inspire other people to do the same.
Below are some concrete steps I’ll be taking this year to make change. I invite you to join me.
MONEY: I have more of it than most people on earth, and so do you.
In these past eightish years of full-time musicianhood, I have wriggled my way onto the lower rungs of the middle class, tooth and nail. I don’t make a lot of money, but I make a little more than I need. By that I mean: I am pretty sure I’ll be able to eat, and continue to live in my house, pretty much every month. What’s more: I make that money doing something that I am really, truly happy to do. As far as I’m concerned, that puts me in the 1%, and means that I have a karmic obligation to give away every penny I can part with.
Speaking of what I can part with: studies have shown that money doesn’t get easier to give away when you make more of it. In fact, in America the reverse is true: the poorest people give the most of their income to charity, and the richest people give the least. To me, this means that I have to get in the habit of giving now, even if it feels like a stretch, just in case I do become a real rockstar.
WHAT I’M DOING ABOUT IT THIS YEAR: Setting up a $15/month automatic donation to Kiva, an organization that facilitates small loans (the average loan size is $435) to entrepreneurs in developing countries.
I’ve targeted my donation to female business-owners, because women invest 80% of their income in their families and communities. I’ve also set it up to redistribute any re-paid loans (Kiva loans have a 98.7% repayment rate) to other borrowers, so every dollar I give can be re-used many times.
BRAINPOWER: When I am uninformed about something that feels important, I will get informed.
This past year, I’ve been following the news of racial profiling and police brutality in the US, with alternating feelings of horror and helplessness. I live in a neighborhood that is majority black, in a city that is majority black, policed by a department that is widely considered to be corrupt, disorganized, and openly racist (my local dealings with them so far confirm the rumors). Not to mention, my state has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world (yep - it’s higher than China, Iran, or North Korea).
Sometimes I feel like it’s “not my issue”, because I’m not black. Other times, that rationale sounds a lot like “I was just following orders”. In other words, I don’t want laziness or confusion to make me complicit in a culture that’s ravaging, ruining, and ending people’s lives. I want to learn how I can be helpful to my fellow citizens in a way that is respectful and informed.
WHAT I’M DOING ABOUT IT THIS YEAR: Embarking on a massive research project about the history of race relations in America, and the mechanisms by which institutionalized racism functions in the present day.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a feminist. That means I want more female Presidents and CEOs, and I want girls and women around the world to have the same access to education and resources as boys and men. But also, I think misogyny is creepier and more insidious than those goals imply, and that addressing only the large-scale, identifiable problems will not pull it out at the root. One of my personal causes is self-expression and empowerment for myself and the women around me, as a form of social activism.
In the past few years, I’ve noticed that some of the ways I relate to other women are subtly disempowering. For example: I habitually compliment girls and women on the way they look - in lieu of more thoughtful observations - and I don’t have the same reflex when talking to boys and men. I think this reinforces the cultural assumption that the most important thing a woman has to offer is her body: how she looks, and how she chooses to decorate herself.
WHAT I’M DOING ABOUT IT THIS YEAR: I’m going to stop complimenting young girls on the way they look – especially if they are kids (because that’s crazy! It’s like we say to six year olds, “welcome to being a girl! The only important thing about you is your clothes, and how cute you are.”) When I feel the impulse to do that, I will find a more interesting way to engage.
When I feel the urge to compliment another woman on how she looks, I’ll work to integrate it into a larger understanding of her as a person (ie: “Your hair looks great!” will become “I love your haircut, it is elegant and wacky at the same time, like you!”). Bonus: fight the patriarchy while ALSO learning to give much more interesting compliments.
In summation: this year I’ll be doing to do my best to avoid paralytic handwringer’s disease.
This includes the above efforts, but it may also include giving change to panhandlers, cooking food for my neighbors, picking up trash, and sending stuffed animals to my friends when they are sad. I reserve the right to give whatever I have, whenever I can, whether or not I can determine its Overall Statistical Goodness Quotient.
There is no “best” way to be kind. Kindness is not a statistical event; it’s a state of being. This year, I’ll be drifting clumsily towards it. Join me?