The kids don’t know what to do with CDs

Six of us crammed into this tiny room, walled in by a massive CD collection. We had just completed round one of our radio show training. The DJ handed each of us a small stack of CDs to review and bring back to this quirky studio housed in the lower level of a campus building. As he passed out  CDs, a hush fell over the room. Finally, it was broken by a student, “Um…so…I don’t have a CD player.”
The others chimed in.

“Yeah, me neither.”

“I guess I have one in my car.”

I laughed.

She turned to me, “Do you have a CD player?”

“Of course!”

I instantly regretted my response. It probably felt condescending. And it’s very likely that I responded that way out of my own discomfort of being at least 10 years older than all the other people in this matchbox room, where we are standing close enough together for them to spot my gray hairs. I had taken notes (in a notebook with a pen!). I didn’t know all the music artists they had named as their “summer favorites”. I felt my age and my distance and my resentment. And I felt my oddity as a “community member”. That’s what they call people here who are neither students, faculty, nor staff (but somehow are in this town).

The community member with no radio show

My hopes of being a campus radio DJ were dashed by my knee injury and all the craziness that ensued.

I still have the CDs. I need to listen to them and return them. I will listen to them in my new DVD player. After 10 or so years, my DVD player finally died. The new DVD players are so small. Like the size of a composition book.

No radio show. But  you know what? I was willing. I was willing to go out of my comfort zone. I was willing to try it. I was willing to be trained. I was willing to be the awkward “townie” who never explains her presence.

Playing in the lab

I recently renamed my home office “The Lab”. I want it to be a place of experimentation.  I often lament my lack of mastery in something. I am sort of mediocre at lots of things and not really good at any one thing, which I find dispiriting and uninspiring. But The Lab is inviting me to understand myself differently. As it turns out, I am quite good at playing.

I own several instruments that I have been teaching myself how to play over the last 12 years. I know only very basic music theory. I have all kinds of art supplies, some natural ability, and very little understanding of technique for any medium. I have stacks of empty journals waiting for some words. All of these are “tools of the trade”, and that trade is fuckin around. Tinkering. Trying. Autodidacticism. Playing.

Play is changing my strange, mediocre life

It’s a winding road from YouTube tutorials on rhythym patterns for bongos to articles about androgyny to online courses for writing SQL queries. I can’t explain how it happens. It just seems that everything I touch and tinker with ignites my curiosity about 10 other things. And then I am in a labyrinth of whimsical questions. I certainly chase the answers. And all of the answers boomerang me back to the chase.
Pursuit, curiosity, thirst.
Invitations for extraordinary moments. However ordinary and mediocre my life may be, play has created opportunities for the extraordinary tucked inside the mundane, hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps most interestingly, play configures me into a posture of learning and receptivity.

I believe that curiosity and receptivity, these outcomes of play, are opening my heart, mind, and power.

This is a happy place (that needs to be vacuumed)

I am laying on the floor as I write this. My dog is sleeping in her favorite spot behind me on the 5′ x 3′ rug with the geometric pattern. My sketchbook and a pile of magazines are stacked on top of my art set. My sketchbook is opened to the page where I was trying to figure out how to use watercolor pencils. A long cord stretches from my USB port to the back of my Casio keyboard. Today I figured out how to set up my keyboard as a MIDI controller and record tracks into my computer. On the other side of my computer, those 3 CDs.

I need to listen to them, write the reviews, and take them back. I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. But, you know, I am sort of glad the radio show didn’t work out. I don’t think I wanted the commitment. I just wanted to discover and share things with people. Turns out, The Lab is a perfectly suitable place to do exactly that.


The Pressure to Make Political Art

One of the most compelling things about art is the way it reflects and/or comments on society. Art often illuminates and confronts the shadow sides–the injustice and inhumanity that make everyday life difficult, dangerous, or painful for certain people in certain bodies.

There is another compelling aspect of art: the disclcosure of one’s interior landscape. Art is often a deeply personal (even if veiled) revelation of thoughts, feelings, experiences, dreams, and questions. It is an offering of self.

As a queerblackleftistwoman, I feel a lot of pressure to make art that is intentionally and explicitly political. Where does this pressure come from? After all, no one is in my Lab (also known as my home office) telling me what kind of poems I should write, what kinds paintings I should paint. However, I think that when you inhabit multiple identities that are so politically valenced, there is a sort of tacit expectation that you will speak from and to that experience, if you choose to make art. Any other type of art is frivolous, given the sociopolitical conditions of these times.

Am I projecting? Possibly. Maybe, deep down, I am judging myself for giving time and energy to things that don’t advance the struggle.

Several months ago, I was at a gathering where everyone shares creative works. I shared some poems. They fell flat. The response was tepid. There was very little feedback or engagement (atypical for this gathering). It could have been because the poems weren’t that good (I do indeed write a lot of poems that aren’t that good), but I don’t think that was the case. Other folks followed with their contributions, which were no more (or less) interesting, lovely, or thought-provoking, yet those contributions generated a lot of lively conversation. I think it was because of the political overtones of what they shared.

I typically write poems that are delicate, observant, contemplative, and whimsical. Not the kind of poetry that will get snaps and a “Yasssss!”  It’s just not that. And somewhow I feel like readers/listeners are surprised and disappointed by that.

Maybe there is something subversive about the kind of art I make, to the extent that it departs from what is expected of me, given my social location. But, mostly, I think it’s just unfortunate that art about my interiority, art about my everyday life and the regular shit around me will not be as enthusiastically received as the political art I could  make.

Many days I have to persuade myself to keep making, even if other people don’t get it, don’t love it, or don’t get excited about it. Make what I want to make. Ironically, that kind of self-possession is quite political.

Is Taoism Incompatible with Revolutionary Politics?

I have had two major personal developments in recent years.

Politically, I shifted from the progressive left to the radical left.
Spiritually, I have pursued Taoist philosophy to guide my life.

Both  of these developments have been really important to me. That political move is sharpening my analysis of the conditions we live in, clarifying my vision of what kind of world I wish to live in, and identifying some of the strategies I think necessary to get there. The spiritual move is increasing my self-awareness, creating inner peace, and equipping me to understand and face life’s challenges.

Yet, the more these paths unfold, the more they seem to diverge. And I am beginning to wrestle with the (in)compatibility of my spiritual and political convictions.

The thing about a radical political position is that it calls for revolutionary change of fundamental social systems. The way to deal with the root cause is to uproot the social structure.

The thing about Taoism is that you move with the current. You bend. You flex. You lean into what is. You accept reality as it is and cultivate moderation in all things.

My politics demand radical change. My spirituality demands radical acceptance. This is my dilemma.

I recognize that I am oversimplifying. All of this is more complex. But I do feel a very real tension inside of me concerning how I orient myself to the world. I suspect that as I continue to develop, the  resolution of that tension will make itself known to me. But for now, I’m just sort of wondering how to fully be both of these things.






Why Analog Planners are So Popular

Doesn’t it seem like, lately, we are hearing a lot about “ol’ school”, pen-and-paper planners? These sleek notebooks with intricate systems promise to make us more productive, more likely to reach our goals, more creative, and more connected.

I am writing this blog from my work computer (a nice MacBook Pro). In my lap is my fancy, schmancy (and also giant) Motorola smartphone. And on my nightstand is my awesome personal laptop (a Dell 2-in-1). And thanks to the (overreaching) power of Google, all of my important information from all of these devices is more or less synchronized. And yet, right here next to my chair, I have a sketch notebook that I use for my Bullet Journal personal planner. Why?

Why are traditional paper planners making a comeback?

I have a theory but first a few considerations:

  1. This is good marketing. It’s actually hard to tell if there’s truly a resurgence of paper planners or if the Internet has just been watching me closely enough to know that I like paper, I like journals, and I’m an Xennial.  And so, I see a lot of ads relevant to those likes.
  2. People of my parents’ generation and older never stopped using paper planners. I know that’s a generalization, but, generally speaking, those generations did not abandon their planners and pocket calendars when they got phones and laptops.
  3. People in the younger generations really don’t write things down much. They are digital natives. They really know no other reality. Again, there are exceptions, but there’s not a sense of nostalgia about doing things another way (something I think Xennials have).

With these things in mind, I think that the increasing popularity of paper planners is a result of older millenials caught between an analog past and digital future and trying to get back in touch with their humanity through personal, tactile experiences.

It’s true that writing by hand has advantages in terms of cognition. Research suggests that we synthesize and retain information better when we write by hand. When it comes to to-do lists, appointments, and quick notes, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. (There are tons of articles out there about this!)

But what I think is happening underneath all of that is a sort of angst about just how digital our lives have become and a sense of loss. Analog planners are an attempt at reclamation. We want to express our own creativity, not just poke info into a calendar event template. We want to dial down distractions, not compete with pop-up notifications while trying to write down our to-do list. We want to have something that is uniquely ours, not the exact same thing as every other smartphone user.  We want to do something with our hands besides push buttons. We want a way to be contemplative without being monastic. We want to feel like we have direction and achievement in a world of constant change and increasing disconnection.

I think analog planners offer to take us back to a simpler time in our lives while helping us cope with the complexity of the present times.

I started using the Bullet Journal system about a year ago. I have found it delightful and helpful. I did not abandon my cell phone calendar, though. I still put all my appointments and events in my phone. But the Bullet Journal is a different kind of tool that has helped me look at my life from a different angle and think about my days/weeks/months with more intentionality. I do think that the analog planner has helped me be more mindful, more focused, and more creative. I also think that it’s only been helpful because I already had decided that I wanted to be more mindful and more creative. Ultimately, we all still have to do the hard work of deciding what kind of person we want to be and what we want to accomplish in life. Then you get to choose which tools are most useful for those aims.


10 Tech Tips for Graduate Students

Over the last few years of watching my partner complete her doctoral program (and hearing about several of her friends on the same journey), I have noticed some common tech “missteps” grad students make. The 10 tips below will help grad students avoid technology-related inconveniences and catastrophes.

1. invest in cloud storage.
I have been surprised to see how many people still just save Microsoft Office files or photos to their computer. If your computer is stolen, damaged, or experiences a major failure, you run the risk of losing all of your work. Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive are all worth the (low) effort and cost to set up. I currently have Microsoft OneDrive which automatically syncs with files saved on my computer and automatically saves photos and videos from my phone. In addition to having everything backed up, there is the added benefit of being able to access your files from any device or computer should you find yourself without your own.

dropbox-logos_dropbox-vertical-blue google-drivemicrosoft-onedrive-logo-large

2. Consider an external hard drive. 
An external hard drive accomplishes many of the same things as cloud storage. The one important difference is that you will not have to be connected to the Internet to access your files on an external hard drive. So, you can back up your work, carry it around with you (most of them are slightly bigger than smartphones), and connect to any computer to access your files.

3. Organize files systematically. 
So you’ve backed up your work but now you can’t find what you’re looking for! It’s helpful to establish a naming convention for your files and keep it consistent. Use folders. If you have 200 photos, all with files names like “IMG_09875632”, you are going to have a hell of a time finding what your are looking for. There are lots of different approaches to organizing your files. Check out this site , this site , or this site for some quick but detailed reocmmendations.

4. Shut down your computer completely every few days. 
The latest computers are extremely efficient. They perform well and can handle a lot. But it’s still a good idea to shut it down completely once in a while to give the computer a chance to rest, reset, update, etc. This way you will avoid your computer becoming sluggish at the most inopportune times like while you are rushing to submit something by deadline or during an important video-conference call.

5. Save all of those interesting Internet articles in a sensible place. 
I am notorious for emailing myself articles. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I usually do it all wrong. I don’t put anything in the email subject line or anything in the email body besides the link. This means when I want to find it  in my email months later, it will be difficult to retrieve it because there are no searachable terms connected to that email. So, if you’re going to email yourself articles, add enough detail to the email to make it searchable. Better yet, you can use your browser’s bookmarks or use an app like Instapaper (which I use!) or Pocket.


6. Archive webpages.
Speaking of webpages, if your work references webpages, be sure to archive the webpage as it existed at the time of your research. It is the Internet–the webpage could be completely different tomorrow! Don’t lose those valuable artifacts. Archive the webpage with tools like Wayback Machine. The tool generates a permalink of the webpage as it existed at the time you archived it.

7. Create strong passwords and keep track of them. 
If you’re like me, you have password fatigue from the many different places you regularly log in. But it is important to create strong, distinct passwords because if someone manages to hack into one account, chances are good that they will gain access to other accounts. Try this tool or this tool to help you create strong passwords. Keeping track of your passwords is just as important so that you don’t waste precious time routinely resetting passwords you’ve forgotten. For a price, you can also opt for a password management app that allows you to securely use one password to authenticate into lots of different places, almost like a master key.

8. Manage your email well. 
To some extent, I have accepted the reality of always having an overflowing inbox, but there are a few things that can help. For starters, unsubscribe from promotional or listserv emails  that you don’t read. That will cut the clutter quickly. Secondly, utilize the tagging or labeling system of your email client to categorize messages and then archive them. You may have tags/labels for things like: emails from students, emails related to a particular project, or emails related to travel plans. The idea is to de-clutter your inbox and file away emails in a systematic, easily-retrievable way. You may find it helpful to use different email accounts for different purposes. This can be pretty effective but be cautious about having additional inboxes to manage.

9. Get the right devices for your needs. 
Most of the items on this list have focused on technological practices and not technological devices.  Nowadays, computers and smartphones on the market all do a pretty good job for the average person. However, there are still a few things to consider. For example, if you are going to do be doing ethnographic fieldwork and taking photos with your phone, make sure you have a cell phone with plenty of gigabytes of storage. In that particular case, you’d probably want at least 16 GB. If you need specialized computer applications, steer clear of Chromebooks. They are inexpensive, sleek, and ultra-portable but they may not have what you need “under the hood” to do what you need to do. Evaluate your needs before you make big tech product purchases.

10. Take a break from technology.
My last tip is to occasionally take a break from technology. Our phones and computers are amazing devices that give us unprecedented access and make so many tasks more convenient than ever. But our eyes and our brains need a break now and then. It’s really a treat to yourself to unplug and recalibrate!



What If You’re Good at Invisible Things?

I have been trying to figure out what I’m good at.

Recently, I told a friend, “I think I’m one of those people that is average at several things but not really good at anything.” (I was neither fishing for compliments nor being unduly self-effacing. This was my honest assessment.)

Friend responded, “I think you are good at lots of things that don’t have visible, concrete outputs.” Friend proceeded to explain that being good at gardening (which they are) means you can grow lots of lovely produce. And you can pick it, touch it, eat it, and feel good about it. But being good at listening and paying attention to people means…

Well, it’s a lot harder to know you’re good at things that don’t give you tangible results. You just do the things and go on about your business, and often you have no idea of the good that came of it.

I want to be good at things that have tangible results: playing guitar, writing poems, drawing, dancing, making things. I think I want to be good at these things because I enjoy them. They are meaningful hobbies for me, and it feels good when your efforts yield great results. But also–and here’s where I get super honest with myself–I want to be good at these things because they garner praise and affirmation from other people. And I want that.

Why do I want that?



A Queer Black Woman Goes Salsa Dancing

One of my best childhood friends was a Puerto Rican girl whose family would host impromptu parties (that I sometimes accidentally attended), and I remember people of all ages dancing in their living room. Her dad had a set of congas in a corner that I never saw anyone play but that I had a feeling were more than decoration. Whenever I walked by them, I would brush my hand across the rough skin of the drum head. 4594963734_aea0387993_b Their neighbor (who they called “Cuco”) played in a salsa band. I never saw or heard the band play but I he had that cool, musician aura about him. I would sit on the couch and watch them laugh and spin in the living room. I remember wishing I knew how to do what they did. The music was familiar to me (my dad often played salsa music) but the movement was not.

In my 10th grade English class, I had to give a demonstration speech and decided to demonstrate the basic steps of salsa. So, I did a little research to learn the basic steps in preparation for the speech. 😉 None of my classmates (in suburban Milwaukee, WI) knew that I had never really danced salsa. I stood on top of a table at the front of the room, counting as I stepped back and forth. (I think I got an ‘A’ on that speech.)

In college, I finally ventured onto a few dance floors to try my hand at this salsa thing. I didn’t yet know  enough to know how bad I was. As far as I was concerned, I was killin it! I certainly had a lot of fun.

In graduate school, I really dialed up my salsa dancing. Every opportunity I could, I went out salsa dancing. Live bands in the campus pub every month! Weekly salsa shows in the dive bar down the street (which most other nights hosted random hard rock bands). I became a regular in the salsa scene, made some dance floor buddies, and had soooooo much fun. Some of my favorite memories from that era of my life involve live bands, sweaty bodies, and smooth moves. I officially LOVED salsa. the-gentlemen-form-la

But my relationship with salsa has gotten more complicated over the years. Part of the complication is caused by my increase in knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And my increased technical proficiency has also, unfortunately, increased my inhibition and self-consciousness.

But much more of the complicated relationship can be attributed to my own personal evolution and coming into my queerness. To be a queer black woman in salsa spaces is to crash head-on with traditional gender roles and the type hypermasculinity/femininity that constrains queer possibility. For many, salsa is considered a sensual dance form and it is exceedingly heteronormative–from the names of the moves to the ways men and women are expected to move their bodies. Men are ascribed as “leads” and women as “follows” despite the fact that there is nothing inherently gendered about the dance moves of leads and follows (I mean, other than the obvious fact that men are natural leaders. *rolls eyes*) I should mention that it is not uncommon to see two women dancing together, and it is usually inconsequential provided they both present in gender-normative ways (i.e. they’re both feminine). But this also subjects them to a sexualized, male gaze.

I can remember nights when I was getting ready to go out dancing, and I would spend so much time and energy figuring out how to feminize my look (deeper V? tighter pants? bigger earrings? more  lip gloss?)  so that I would be read as feminine on the dance floor and therefore more likely to be asked to dance. The reality is that all the guys want to dance with the “pretty girls”…even when those girls can’t dance worth a damn. The social scripts of salsa scenes rely on expressions of hyperfemininity and to miss the cue is to exclude yourself from the pool of desirable dance partners. I have had many salsa nights of standing on the sidelines, never being asked to dance all night. I would go home, feeling defeated and self-critical, wondering if men avoided dancing with me because the presence of my own masculinity (even when dialed down to its most subtle form) compromised their own performance of masculinity. I wondered if men avoided dancing with me because black American women offer so little social capital, and who wants to climb down a rung on the social ladder for even the 6 minutes and 30 seconds it takes to dance to one salsa song. I wondered if men avoided dancing with me because, for whatever reason, I would not make them look good.

I still LOVE to dance salsa, and I have had to accept that the culture of salsa scenes is not bound to change any time soon. I have spent countless hours learning Cuban salsa and salsa rueda over the past few years; I don’t want to walk away from a hobby I love because it is difficult for me to fit in comfortably. And yet…I don’t know if it is good for me, psychologically, to repeatedly participate in social environments that make so little room for queerness and so rarely celebrate me as I am.

And now some gay salsa…



For Queer Women Who’ve Contemplated Men’s Jeans When the Pockets ain’t Enuf

A quick Internet search confirmed my suspicion that other women have contemplated abandoning women’s jeans in favor of men’s jeans. This is especially true of the subset of queer women who desire well-fitting but less feminine cuts.

There are lots of good reasons to switch to men’s jeans:

  • They come with waist and inseam sizes instead of one arbitrary waist size, which means it’s easier to get a more tailored fit for your body.
  • They are usually of better quality and durability, which means you can keep them longer and save money.
  • They have much deeper and therefore more functional pockets, so you can lighten your load and actually fit your phone, wallet, keys, etc on your person.
  • They tend to be less trendy, so the classic design will endure through various fads and style evolutions.

But it’s not always an easy transition. It can be hard to know your size (even after you measure yourself) because you have to take into account thighs and hips and booties (and men’s jeans typically aren’t made to accommodate all that). It can be hard to determine which cut will give you the desired silhouette while still being comfortable.  And, frankly, it can be hard to negotiate the social expectations of shopping in the men’s department (thank the gods for online shopping).

The bottom line is you’re going to have to try a lot of things before you find what you’re looking for. Here are some strategies I recommend:

  • Start in thrift stores. You can try a lot of different styles for not a lot of money. I’ve found a few really great pairs there. And if you find a brand or style you really like, you can always seek it out and invest in a new pair.
  • Try sizing up. This will give you a little more room in the hips and booty.
  • Go with skinny and slim cuts. They will give you a fitted look without cutting off your circulation like women’s skinny jeans. Relaxed, straight, and loose will work great for some body types and aesthetics, but they are generally too baggy.
  • If you order online, try buying the same jeans in 2 different sizes. You can also try buying 2 different cuts in the same size. It helps to be able to compare. Then just send back the ones you don’t want.

Listen, I’m not a jeans expert, and I’m certainly not the most stylish person I know. But, if you’re like me, a few tips can go a long way toward looking nice without having to devote tons of time and energy to it. For those who have some serious coin, you’ll find great, high-end jeans that fit well (or are custom-made). For the rest of us who still owe Sallie Mae a fuck-ton of money and struggle to find well-fitting clothes, I hope this has been helpful. I recently purchased these skinny jeans from Old Navy, and they are great. I would recommend them


The Whole Thing is the Temple



Do People Have Children Because They are Afraid of a Meaningless Life?

We knew when we started dating that we were not on the same page; she wanted children and I did not. She still wants children. I (mostly) do not. Though there have been naysayers who consider this difference so fundamental as to doom our relationship, we have been determined to consider all the possible ways we could make it work and make it last, in spite of incongruent desires. Part of that consideration has been deep self-reflection around why we do/do not want children. (By the way, I get the “why” question 10 times much more often than she does. That’s another post for another day. Ha.)

Recently, an acquaintance told me that they wanted a child because they needed something new to think about, a new and different project to take on. It may have been this same friend who said they thought having a child would compel them to make more sensible, responsible choices in life.

Another striking moment: I heard someone say in a wedding toast that the cool thing about marriage is that you get to make your own little world just the way you want it (given that the world we live in is so jacked up).  I think that “own little world” includes children.

I have been experiencing low-grade existential angst. What is my purpose here? What will be my contributions to the world (however large or small I conceive of it)? I actually feel like I’ve had a pretty clear sense of “calling” in my life. I feel deeply called to: 1) teach people and 2) heal hearts through art (specifically music and writing). I have felt clear about these callings since adolescence. But now, at 32, I sense that I have not done enough. I am not doing enough. The way my daily life goes, I will make no contributions, no impact. This feeling of lament washed over me; I will have no legacy. There will be nothing that I’m proud of left behind me.

Maybe this is why people want children. They want something that exists outside of themselves, beyond themselves…something that feels like a contribution they can be proud of. “I didn’t save lives or write a profound book, but look at this awesome person I added to the world.” Something like that. For the first time (maybe ever), I empathized with people who want children because they want to feel useful and important in the world.

I get it. I get how you can step back and look at your life and feel disappointed at how ordinary it is. And, in a way, it’s easier to have a baby than to do something great (in a non-parent way). Maybe deep down we’re all a little afraid that time is passing and our lives will not amount to much. Maybe people see children as the cure to this meaninglessness.