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Vertigo, Bacchanalia, and the Art of the Controlled Burn

How to set your life on fire without blowing it up, and why you might want to.

Vertigo is the wobbly feeling you get on the top of a building (or when you’re sick or drunk), often described as the feeling that you might fall. I’ve always experienced vertigo, however, as the feeling that I might jump. Apparently, psychologists have recently recognized this urge-to-jump, dubbed it the High Place Phenomenon, and determined that it’s fairly common, even among us happy-go-lucky, generally non-suicidal types.

I’ve experienced a similar urge when driving at night (the urge to swerve into oncoming traffic), and when holding a baby (the urge to drop the baby). After brushing up on my psychology texts, I feel confident enough in the normalcy of these urges to share them with you, right here in black and white (even though my sister might read this, perhaps while holding my fresh new gorgeous baby niece). 

I’m not actually going to jump off the building or swerve into traffic or drop the baby (fear not, dear sister!); there’s just something in the human psyche that can’t help but ask: what if you went ahead and ruined everything?

For the purposes of this piece, I’d like to extend the metaphor and say that I also experience vertigo as it pertains to my day-to-day life: the urge to blow up my mental health, my career, my money, and/or my marriage. I’ve thought, “what if instead of warming up my voice before this very-important show, I just drank this whole bottle of Jack?” or, “What if instead of paying my bills this month, I bought this airstream trailer off of Craigslist?” or, “what if instead of going home to my husband, I went home with that greasy-looking drummer? We could start a cover band, right here in Johnson City, and have eight kids, and plant an orchard full of peaches, like in that John Prine song.”

And again, it’s not that I really want to play a sloppy-drunken show, or have eight kids. In fact, I emphatically don’t want either of those things. It’s the vertiginous feeling that the workaday banalities of being a pretty happy person with a pretty decent life could be… spiced up, shall we say… by throwing a nice fat hand grenade smack into the garden party.

The Controlled Burn

A controlled burn is when somebody (usually a farmer or park ranger) sets fire to a piece of land on purpose, as a technique for “land management”. Controlled burns have been used for millennia, by all kinds of people all over the world. Wikipedia says, “controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious, hotter fire”.

In other words, a controlled burn is a cute little manageable wildfire that people set on purpose, so that their homes and crops won’t be destroyed later by a bigger, angrier, less-manageable wildfire.

So in the spirit of the controlled burn, folks, I’m here today with a proposal. The next time you get that drop-the-baby, bang-the-drummer, hand-grenade-at-the-garden-party vertigo feeling:

What if you went ahead and ruined a few things?

Orgies, Carnivals, and Bacchanalia

Another thing that people around the world have done for millennia is dress up in costumes and go to parties to drink, fight, bang, yell, and sing all night, in relative anonymity.

One of my favorite historical examples of this phenomenon are The Bacchanalia, which became an “epidemic” in Rome around 200BC. According to some Roman guy called Livy (writing a couple centuries after-the-fact), the Bacchic cult - to the scandal of some echelons of Roman society - held “five, always nocturnal cult meetings a month, open to all social classes, ages and sexes; featuring wine-fueled violence and violent sexual promiscuity, in which the screams of the abused were drowned out by the din of drums and cymbals.”

Sure, we frown upon this sort of thing now. 

But on the other hand, we still have bars, and clubs, and festivals, and internet porn, and sex clubs and theme parks and Halloween. And some of us lucky bastards even have Mardi Gras, which is a direct descendent of the pagan orgiastic traditions of Europe (co-opted and packaged for resale by this other, tres-popular European religious cult called Christianity (maybe you’ve heard of it)). What are these things if not modern society’s attempt to contain and mollify those nasty little anti-social urges?

We humans are prone to revelry: drunkenness, violence, sex, shouting, singing, jumping from high places. We’ve tried for millennia, but we can’t seem to quit.

You can dress up us in suits, give us jobs and families to manage, and wedge us into churches and communities, but those urges still crackle just beneath the surface, threatening to burn us alive. If we don’t have a war to spend them on, you’d better give us a Bacchanal, or, by golly, we’ll make one of our own - and it might not be so elegantly contained.

The Bacchanalia, in other words, were a controlled burn.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a much-needed weekend retreat. We had just weathered a fairly major accidental wildfire, and although we managed to escape with most of our valuables, our ten-year partnership was feeling a bit brittle. We rented a cabin, packed up the dogs, and drove to the gulf coast.

The cabin didn’t have wifi or cable, but they had a TV with a primo selection of DVDs such as The Fast and The Furious, Madagascar 2, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the 2005 one, not the Hitchcock). So, after eating a lot of gulf shrimp, we hunkered down on the couch and popped one into the player.

In case you’ve forgotten this (admittedly pretty forgettable) movie: Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about a married couple who – although they happen to be the hottest human beings on earth (Brad & Angelina, in the role that landed them in an actual marriage) – are deeply ensconced in their domesticity, bored with each other, and no longer having sex.

(I can’t help but wonder, in the aftermath of Brangelina, whether their real-life marriage ever entered the too-bored-for-sex phase. It seems crazy, I know, but you have to admit  the possibility that it did. If that’s not a good argument for the stultifying power of domesticity, I don’t know what is!)

Over the course of the film, we find out that John and Jane Smith are actually both assassins, working for rival firms. Upon discovering each other’s identities, they are assigned the task of killing each other. They don’t, but before we are sure that they won’t, they have literally blown up their beautiful house, their fancy cars, and all their rich-people-stuff, with the extensive secret artillery they both had hidden in the oven/basement/closet. Not that shockingly, destroying their domestic life reminds them that they are married to the hottest human beings on earth, and their passion is re-ignited.

Mediocre though it was, I found myself laughing maniacally throughout the movie, and eventually bursting into tears.

“Bud,” I said (because that’s what we call each other), “I think we need to blow up our house.” 

We’re no Brangelina, sure. But like lots of couples, we’d been lulled by domestic bliss into a kind of stupor, and lost track of the fact that we are both super-sexy assassins. 

A Tiny Hand Grenade

So here’s my proposal.

Perhaps happiness cannot be achieved just by building a perfect domestic life; a life of daily exercise and organic juicing, with zero debt and a “landing strip” by the door with a little basket for your keys. 

Maybe it can’t be achieved even by building a perfect artistic life, full of inspiration and gobs of time to write; the sweet husband, two cuddly dogs, and a little studio in the backyard, with pots of succulents and a hundred-year-old guitar.

Perhaps building these lives of order and comfort will not be enough to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps, instead, we should be aiming to build lives that can withstand a little Bacchanalia.

I’m not sure what your particular Bacchanalia is, but I know this: it’s not something that falls roundly within the boundaries of domestic arrangements and socially acceptable behavior. It’s not a pedicure, or one Mimosa at brunch on the weekend. It’s something that scares you a little, and probably scares your family and your friends. It’s something ugly and shocking, and tantalizing and indulgent, and maybe confusing and inexplicable. It’s something your heart and body wants that your mind probably can’t fathom.

Do you already know what it is?

I’m proposing that true happiness might be found only by making room for that nasty, scary, shocking thing, right there inside your cute little life.

It’s finding a way to pay the bills and buy the airstream trailer, or (my personal favorite) bang the drummer and go home to the husband. It’s throwing just an ever-so-tiny grenade into the garden party, perhaps the itty-bitty grenade of your true personality and your actual feelings and thoughts, such as ‘fuck this garden party, I’m going home to watch Housewives and work on my dinosaur sculpture’, or whatever the case may be.

The point is, my little wildfires, sometimes something has got to burn. Wouldn’t we be better off if we named it now, and lit it up ourselves, instead of waiting until we are engulfed in flames? 



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Six Things I Hope I Learned in My Twenties

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.

Absolutely. Nothing. 

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. 



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The Importance of Practicing Heartbreak

I posted ‘Casual Love’ on this very blog a few months back, and that li’l essay has since gone out into the streets, playing its merry panpipe, and gathered a slew of new readers. In that post, I put forth the notion that romantic love is more common than we typically acknowledge, and that we might as well let the cat out of the bag. Most people who sent me feedback on that concept seem to be love-crazed, cuddle-happy sexpots, like myself. But a few of them are a bit more cautious, and have reservations about the idea of falling in love on the reg, and being bold/careless/stupid enough to admit it out loud. One of the more commonly cited reasons for their ambivalence is this: it might hurt.

As a professional investigator in the field, I can say this unequivocally: it does hurt. Falling in love means taking your thin-skinned little muffin heart out of its cushioned case, unwrapping its protective layers of fear, cynicism and irony, and shoving it unceremoniously into rush hour traffic. If you actually admit that you’ve fallen in love, things get worse. Even in the statistically unlikely scenario that it goes well (e.g.: the love is mutual and kind and fulfilling and long-lasting), your smooshy, gushy heart will not survive the ordeal unscathed. At risk of plagiarizing the Everly Brothers (or, God forbid, Nazareth): love hurts, folks. Like a motherfucker.

But before you burn your dance card, let me pose one question: what’s wrong with getting hurt? 

Love Ain’t Pretty

Instead of adding a warning label to the concept of ‘casual love’, to make the cautious more comfortable, I’m going to up the ante. Love is not necessarily serious or long lasting, and furthermore, it’s not there to make us happy. It’s there to make us grow.

When we love somebody, even casually or briefly, we give them the power to hurt us. Falling in love with someone means looking them in the eye, handing over your guileless, muffiny heart, and saying, “do your worst”. We do this because some part of us, despite our best attempts at logic, trusts them. I’d argue that we don’t trust our beloved not to hurt us; we trust them to hurt us in a way that we need to be hurt. Our hearts may strike us as foolish, illogical, and idiotic (heck, I dedicated a whole album to the subject), but they are geniuses at one thing: they know exactly what will make us grow, and they have no qualms about yanking us towards it.

This applies not just to thwarted love affairs, but to long-term, “successful” relationships (lovers, friends and family) as well. The people we love, no matter how well or carefully we love them, will inevitably hurt us. In the best-case scenario, they will only hurt us in small ways, and they will love us sweetly until we die peacefully in our sleep. In the infinitely more common scenario, they will hurt us profoundly; by way of betrayal, abandonment, or death - or simply by changing in a way we don’t understand. What’s worse? We will hurt them back.

In other words: being cautious does little to protect you from heartbreak. So why not be bold? 

Practice Makes Perfect

When we practice heartbreak, we get better at it. We gain confidence in our own ability to hurt and heal, which gives us the courage to stride into the world, with all its disappointment and cruelty and unsavory characters, and embrace it joyfully. We broaden our emotional horizons - venturing a little further into the dark, cobwebby corners of our souls, feeling things we’ve never felt before, expanding our understanding of ourselves and other people. When our hearts break, they break us open.

Eventually, we may even begin to enjoy it. Waking up heartbroken is like waking up after a day of unusually hard work: your heart, like any other muscle, gets sore with heavy use. After the first hundred-or-so times, you realize it’s the good kind of sore: the kind that tells you that you’re capable of more today than you were yesterday.

 The Heartbreak Challenge

So, dear readers, here’s my challenge. Go forth and get your heart broken. Wear that sweet, pathetic, fragile little guy outside your shirt, like a badge of honor, or a dare. Offer it guilelessly to the people you care for. Write a completely over-the-top love letter. Share your silliest, most embarrassing, and most unlikely desires, with the people who can grant them.

If that doesn’t do it, read the news - with feeling! Read about what’s happening in Ferguson, MO. Watch some of Robin Williams’ early stand up. Instead of processing the information like a well-informed robot, actually feel it. Feel your love for these people who have suffered and died, and feel your sadness for their loss. Let it in, and let it hurt.

Love and heartbreak drag us, kicking and screaming, out of our comfort zones, and into the vast open waters of human experience. Without that bittersweet kick in the pants, we would all stay safe at home in our easy chairs, and miss our chance to look up at the night sky, tear-stained and heart-sore, and thank our lucky stars.



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