Empathy, leadership, and “I don’t want to hear it”

[tw: suicidality]

My first truly positive experience with therapy was in the summer of 2018. It was long overdue; the summer had been absolutely hellish, and I was beginning to flirt with suicidality. My partner knew. My parents probably suspected. I’d talked about finding a therapist for a long time—years—but the thing that got me through the door into an office was when my fear that I might at some point actively want to die eclipsed my anxiety about making the appointment, being in therapy, and paying for it. (While my parents have always been of the Healthcare Concerns First, Money Concerns Later mindset, it’s still anxiety-inducing to be incurring major expenses even when they’re paid for.)

My first session was in August sometime. I’d just moved in with my partner, cut all ties with an intensely toxic person, and was trying to start approaching normality again before school got started. My therapist was attentive as I broke down the extensive stress that had accumulated over the previous six to eight months, and when I came up for air, she had one observation: “it sounds like you’re a very empathetic person.”

I can still remember my brow furrowing; for as long as I could remember, that descriptor had been flung as far away from me as possible. “My brother was always the one who got called that,” I told her. But she continued on, and I realized she was right—that empathy wasn’t just the surface-level definition of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It was the echoes of others’ emotions that would frequently parade through my body and life.

I spent the next four months with her learning how to control the trait enough that I’d stop self-destructing every time it took the reins.

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the things that get me through

This month, I’ve spent awhile writing about the darker sides of artistic activism and the toll they can take over time. As we leave 2019 behind us and look forward to a new decade, I want to take a minute to acknowledge some of the folks who have shaped not only my career but my life over the past few years. Some of these people are my teachers; some are my friends and family. Some of them inspire my work, and some of them keep me alive. Some aren’t named here but are just as important. These folks are imperfect, but they are my inspirations and among the many I aspire to be more like as I move through the world. This is my (admittedly small) tribute to them.

the things that get me through

Vince Thiefain’s hugs. I could get lost in these. (I don’t feel genuinely short very often.) Not just the hugs, either—the compassion in them, the genuine “I give a shit about your wellbeing” they convey.

Chaz Martineau’s concern. When the world is falling down, he’s the person I want to talk to, because I know how well he listens.

Pat Feher’s camaraderie. Even a semester in, Pat keeps me on my toes, but it never comes from a place of one-upmanship; he challenges me to dig deeper into the whys and hows of both my art and my activism. A cup of coffee goes a long way when the conversation’s this good.

Tim Feeney’s softness. I need more men in my life who just hug me when they’re happy to see me. Tim does. He also inspires everyone around him to push toward excellence, but he encourages us to find that at our own pace and on our own terms. That perspective is one I desperately needed during my masters.

Wendy Richman’s candor. How many badass women in your life are equally open about struggles and successes? Wendy reminds me I can be one of those people—just like her.

Continue reading the things that get me through

“Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

Once upon a time, as an undergrad, I accidentally opened up a Title IX investigation. (Yes, that is absolutely a ridiculous sentence, but it’s true.) I didn’t mean to, but no one had ever told me that “I can’t tell if they’re being sexist assholes or just assholes” was enough to accelerate an issue. So the contents of that conversation went up to Title IX, but the office never followed up. The effort I’d made to highlight the issues at hand completely evaporated, caught between higher admin who evidently decided it wasn’t a priority and faculty who never checked back to hear if anything came of it.

In the aftermath of those moments, though, I remember a comment from a faculty member that’s continually drilled itself into my brain: “You could lead the change.” It was said in earnest, with the feeling like this marked a door opening, a path forward through all the bullshit. And twenty-year-old me probably wanted to believe it was. Lord knows I spend entirely too much time contemplating where, or if, I fit within the greater Phoenix musical community. The thing is, even though I know all the way down to the bottom of my heart the idea was presented with wholly good intentions, it’s become a bit of an unwanted pest.

Continue reading “Lead the Change,” Emotional Labor, and Research

lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)

I have always been jealous of my male friends in the jazz world.

Not because of their skill or their musicality—though I admire that also—but because of their freedom to focus on the music first and foremost. It’s a tricky concept and often difficult to explain, but today, I’m going to try.

Before we begin, though, it’s important to note that I’m keeping this jazz-focused specifically because the prevalence of jam sessions and more consistent shows (at least in Phoenix) means we’re doing a lot more running around and getting together as a community than some aspects of the classical scene. More things are casual, but there’s more happening overall. When my CalArts friends asked me why on earth I would go back to Phoenix jazz in any capacity, the answer was convoluted, but part of it was that’s where the people are, and I need people.

Continue reading lightning rod/harbinger (lucky/too much)

Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

At the beginning of the school year, despite not being in school, I raided the back-to-college section at Target with one of my best friends and brought home things I’d never intended to buy. (You know, as a casual Target run usually goes.) Among the knickknacks and forty-eight-cent tape dispensers was one of those small, interchangeable sign boards. It was magnetized; it was green and purple; it was under $5. I caved to my inner white girl (not to be confused with my outer white girl) and took it home. The next day, I carefully sifted through the letters and spelled out a declaration: “LEAD WITH LOVE.”

The sign has since evolved to include more text, but that original phrase remains, staring me in the face every time I open my fridge. It’s probably time for something new, but I can’t quite bring myself to start fresh again, because it’s a simple thought I take very seriously and an action I’m prioritizing as part of my return to the desert. It feels a little squirmy to say I’m leading intentionally; I feel like it’s always been considered cooler/more humble/more subversive to sort of imply that any authority any of us has just fell onto our shoulders by chance. It’s the easy way out, in part because it gives us wiggle room to duck out of things we don’t want to be responsible for or bad decisions we’ve made—if we weren’t doing it on purpose, if we didn’t know our actions were setting an example, it’s not our fault, right?

That said, as I continue working toward a more inclusive musical community and holding the people and institutions around me accountable for misdeeds that need correcting, it’s disingenuous at best to pretend I’m doing this accidentally. Maybe when I was just starting to post about gender and misogyny and music it was true. At the time, it was more a byproduct of my reality than a conscious choice. But it’s not now. I may not work at the forefront of the Phoenix community, I may not be gigging and rehearsing nonstop like some of my friends, but I’m sticking around. Checking up on people. Listening. Taking it all in and allowing myself the time and space to think about what the interactions and decisions around us mean to the people who don’t always get a fair say. I’m aiming to be not only a voice but an example—where and when possible. That might not be every day, but hopefully it’s whenever someone feels left behind.

Continue reading Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

Female Friends and Coercive Solidarity

I don’t usually start posts with housekeeping, but this week’s is a particularly hot take that I’m sure is going to ruffle some feathers on all sides. In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a floatation device . . . really, though, let’s keep the comments section cool both here and on socials, yeah? I’m fully aware that some folks will feel like I’m talking about them, and other folks will feel the guilty twinge of “oh, I may have encouraged that without fully considering the consequences.” But if you’ve arrived at my blog before, you know we’re all here to feel the uncomfortable feelings. That’s how we grow. This is just my reminder to you that a) you can and should process at your own pace, and b) processing in real time on the internet may not be the wisest choice for you and those around you. (Considering this blog has gone through many drafts and multiple beta readers, I am definitely taking my own advice here.)

That said, it’s true—I generally don’t preface posts with lists of disclaimers. I haven’t for a long time. However, it’s somewhat rare that I take on a topic like today’s. I spend a lot of time talking about my relationships and interactions with men—personal, professional, adversarial, musical. I almost never talk about my relationships with women.

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“Know My Name” and the Complexity of Post-Assault Relationships

I’m reading Chanel Miller’s memoir, and I don’t know what music to listen to.

I bought the book, Know My Name, tonight, while my partner was out at rehearsal—I hadn’t realized it was out yet, I should’ve preordered, I was supposed to grade papers but instead I blazed a trail to the New Releases section of Barnes & Noble—and burned through the first five chapters in just over three hours, which seems lightning fast for some but is painfully slow compared to my normal pace. I’m taking my time with it on purpose, the way I try to anytime I know a book is going to change my life, like I’ve been doing with Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, which I’ve coveted for years but stumbled upon in a five-hundred-square-foot shack of a bookstore near Monterey this summer.

The Solnit book is a collection of essays, and it’s easy to break into weeks. Know My Name is a memoir full of little detours and side stories that color the broader narrative arc, so it’s harder to put down. If I didn’t have to be in Paradise Valley at 7:30am tomorrow, I’d stay up until 3am or so and read straight through. But my first alarm is set for 5:45, and I knew I’d only make it so far before I needed to call it a night.

Still, I’m scrolling Spotify trying to find something that it makes sense to listen to in the wake of those first five chapters, and nothing fits.

Continue reading “Know My Name” and the Complexity of Post-Assault Relationships

Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Since moving back to Phoenix, one phrase (besides “it’s better now”) has begun to permeate my consciousness—and weigh on my mind—more than it ever did while I was in California. I absolutely spoiled any chance at a surprise with my title, so yes, that phrase is “paying your dues.” Despite all the time I’ve spent wandering through various genres and fields of music, it’s never quite rung true to me. This is, I think, partly because of how intentionally nonspecific it is and partly because of the conditions under which I make music and move through the world at large. The depths of this issue are murky, and from here it’s difficult to see the bottom, but if I had to take a stab at a thesis, it’d be this: the gatekeeping, favoritism, and institutional bias that create the foundation of “paying your dues” stifle creativity, discourage participation, alienate newcomers, and serve the white patriarchy.

Wow, that’s a lot to unpack. So let’s take it a bite at a time, shall we?

Before we get into it, I’m not sure why this didn’t come up a lot while I was in Los Angeles, but the answer is probably partly regional and partly cultural. A wise jazz musician once pointed out to me that the prevalence and outward manifestation of misogyny varies drastically by location. Generally, New York and LA are noticeably different (though not necessarily less misogynist) than most of the rest of the country. And while this “paying your dues” thing can undoubtedly play into that, I think another part of the equation is that mindless playing-for-the-paycheck work isn’t as looked down on in LA as it sometimes is in some pockets of Phoenix—in part because gigs are a step up from the carousel of day jobs, plural, needed to pay Los Angeles rent.

The other part of this, I suppose, is that I wasn’t told to pay my dues in LA; I was told to put in the work. While both phrases carry similar weight, there’s a lot more flexibility to the latter. My friends and teachers saw me making angry assault music and counted that as “doing the work.” They saw me advocating for student life improvements and institutional change and counted that as “doing the work.” They see me blogging about the need for better treatment across the board and count that as “doing the work.” But regardless of the details, I didn’t hear or talk about or think about “paying my dues” much in California, and I do in Arizona, so it’s time to break down some concepts.

Continue reading Paying Your Dues (and other bullshit)

Okay, Phoenix, Let’s Tango

Sometimes it feels like I, a person with a 408 area code, was always destined for the 480. The universe likes playing tricks, so it’s not a completely unreasonable suspicion. That said, as many of my AZ-native friends understand, I left, and I didn’t really expect to be back. In fact, if you asked me a year ago if I ever thought I’d live and work in Phoenix again, the answer would have been a vehement no.

On the flip side, when your partner gets the opportunity to study with one of the best trombone teachers in the country, you take it. (Dr. E, I don’t think you’re reading this, but if you are, hi!) As a Sun Devil alum, I’m thrilled John and I will both have degrees from ASU (and CalArts . . . but in opposite orders). As someone with a handful of friends I’ve missed desperately, I’m looking forward to reconnecting. But as someone who took some very bad moments and memories with me when I left the desert, as someone who realizes the reasons I was so frequently brushed over and passed by are myriad and gendered, I am . . . less excited.

Continue reading Okay, Phoenix, Let’s Tango

A CalArts Degree in Review: Part Two (The… Troubling Things)

Last week on the blog, I gave you guys a runthrough of some of my favorite parts of CalArts. In short, the high points are the students, the faculty, and the general willingness to try new things and push back against tradition in ways that are useful and necessary. That said, as much as I’m proud of the work I’ve done during my degree, as glad as I am that I’ve gotten to collaborate with folks who are like me, I can’t pretend this is a perfect collegiate experience, even for a grad student. Am I glad I went to CalArts? Yes. It was the creative reach I needed at a time when I didn’t have many similar options. Would the decision to attend be a significantly harder one to make today? Absolutely. Though the reasons behind this are at times nuanced and difficult to articulate, I’m going to do my best to break down the most significant among them here.

Wish me luck.

Continue reading A CalArts Degree in Review: Part Two (The… Troubling Things)