On Being Bad At Things

snowhillI get off the gondola at the top of the hill and walk, carrying my snowboard, to the Schoolmarm trailhead. I take the gondola to the top as much as I can because de-boarding from a ski lift on my board still scares me (my fear is also justified; I fall over on maybe 4 of 6 attempts).

The top of the mountain is cold, and windy. Hard little bullets of snow hit my cheeks and fall into the collar of my coat. I walk to the top of the run, sit on a bench, and buckle my feet onto my board. Before I stand, I look around me, down the slope, readying myself to get up, telling myself that I can stand up and maintain control, that I won’t immediately go shooting down the mountain like a water slide.

This is my third time snowboarding this year, after fifteen years away from the mountains. The first time, I wouldn’t say I white-knuckled it, exactly. I butt-clenched it, sliding on my heel edge, staring straight down the hill, all my muscles from my hips down tense and shaking with the effort of keeping me upright. I didn’t do turns, I didn’t shift to my toe edge, I was afraid to build up speed. I had a tendency to fall on my rear. The act of snowboarding wasn’t fun, exactly–it was exhilirating, sure, and I was with my friend Christine and she’s fun, but I was too afraid of falling to loosen up at all. (I did fall, of course. The next morning all of my muscles hurt and my knees were multi-colored.)

But I went back another day, and took a lesson. Learned about placing my weight and how to hold myself (for instance: not like a rock) and where to look (up, up, always up), and how to make turns. I still fell, but it was in service of learning, not from trying to stand still while sliding downwards.

And now, here I am, ready to board down all three and a half miles of Schoolmarm. I’m still stiff and clumsy, and I have to think about every turn before I make it, but there’s also these moments where I’m sliding along, feeling comfortable and relaxed, feeling like there’s butter under my board, like there aren’t any edges that might catch on the snow and set me on my ass. And when I’m tired, I can sit on the slope and look at the mountains and the sky and take deep breaths and listen to the silence.

During the lesson that I took, my teacher showed us how to do flat 360s (spin in a circle without jumping off the ground), and to my enormous surprise I master it immediately. I do it until I’m dizzy, giggling and giddy, spinning in circles on a mountain slope.

I got a new job last year, and with that came an affordable gym membership, so I’ve been trying to supplement my running with gym classes and lifting. It has also, somewhat unexpectedly, been a place for me to battle with my anxiety, and my fear of being seen (to be more specific, to be seen doing something poorly or looking stupid in some way). The gym classes are all in a big room lined on two facing walls with mirrors. The weight area always has other people in it, and it feels like they’re all lifting more than me, like they all know than me. Intellectually I know that this is wrong, but my anxiety brain is full of people watching me. Getting into the gym sometimes is like waiting for Argus, with his thousand eyes and hypervigilance, to go to sleep. Some days I would fall asleep in my car instead of going inside. Some days I would change into my gym clothes, then sit in a chair and kill time on my phone instead of going to use the equipment. Some days I tell myself to just get on the exercise bike, because if I can do that for twenty minutes I can usually talk myself into doing something else. Some days I’ll do squat but then decide that I can’t do deadlift, not today, no thanks. 

I didn’t always used to be actively afraid of the gym, though when I look back on what I was doing in the gym at the time, it was almost always treadmill or pool. Challenging myself with new things—and, at the same time, becoming afraid of all of those things—is something that happened after I left New York City, when I was sad and broken and felt far away from everyone. 

When I was a student at Columbia, there was a gym on campus that students could use. The cost was folded into our tuition. At first, I went because hey, free gym. At some point I started going because I think I could sense that my mental state was not the best, but exercise is supposed to be good for depression. So I would go. I took a step aerobics kind of class, and tae kwon do, and ran around the quarter-mile loop that was in the center of the gym. Maybe that’s when the anxiety started to amp: the classroom where step aerobics and tae kwon do happened were in the center of the gym, with big walls of windows; the track was immediately around that, and the outer ring was the weight machines and treadmills and stationary bikes. It was easy to feel like you were being watched, but hard to see if you actually were. Also, I wasn’t going to the gym because it was fun and I wanted to; I was going because I felt like I should. And I was going to step aerobics feeling incapable of dancing, incapable of moving with any pep, any grace. I’ve never been a great dancer, but this was a whole other level. I felt like I was sleepwalking through gym class. Everything felt slow. Everything felt stupid. Everything felt unsuccessful. I always stood at the back (against the windows) and when class was over, escaped as soon as I could. I never spoke to anyone. I was a ghost.

So here I am, five years later, not feeling like a ghost anymore, but still feeling haunted by one. Still feeling the specter of Argus’ eyes.

It does get better. After almost a year in the gym, I found a program and I’m following it and that gives me something to lean on, something to focus on besides all the weight I’m not lifting, all the people who are (not) staring at me. Usually, these days, when I say, “I’m going to the gym after work,” I actually get there. And one happy side effect to global warming is that I’m still running in parks a few times a week, even though it’s December. I also made significant headway on a project at work, which was a big contributor to the “You’re dumb everyone’s going to find out you’re dumb and then they’re going to take your job away from you” feelings that I was having all fall.

Maybe someday soon I’ll feel that gliding feeling with my writing, that coasting-along-while-you-stare-at-the-sky feeling. That’s the feeling that I’m waiting for. But until then, I have to accept that I will suck until I don’t. That some days it will feel like pulling a car out of a lake with nothing but my bare hands. That I have to sit through some boredom and not knowing what I want to say. I might be bad at all kinds of things, but I’m trying really hard to not let that stop me.

2019 goals, man. Happy new year.

The Best That I Can Do.

bartcrying.jpg I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons, but there’s an episode from either the first or second season where Bart is in danger of failing the 4th grade. He has to pass a history test, or he won’t go on to 5th grade (irony being, of course, that Bart has continued on in the 4th grade for the past 25 years). And for once, he studies as hard as he can—actually falls asleep over his books—but only gets a 59/100. Mrs. Krabappel drops the graded test on his desk, and what is one of the sadder moments in all of Simpsons history, his face crumples, and he puts his head down on his desk and starts to sob.

“But Bart,” says Mrs. Krabappel, “I’d think you would be used to failing by now.”

“You don’t understand,” cries Bart, banging his head on his desk, “I tried this time. I mean, I really tried. This is the best that I can do!” And in that moment, the audience understands. Of course Bart is a troublemaker. Of course he doesn’t try. It’s so much easier to not try—it’s so much easier to handle that kind of failure—than it is to try, and not be able to do it. In the first, you may have suspicions, but you can tell yourself that of course you failed, because you didn’t try. In the second, there’s no way to protect yourself. There’s nothing to say besides this is the best that I can do. And it’s not good enough. And you have to look at your real self, not your potential self, not the self you want to be. You have to look at the self that couldn’t get it done.

I know how Bart feels, though I come at it from the other direction. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to do well in school. I never got rewards for good grades, or even very effusive praise. It was accepted and expected that I would do well. My parents knew I was smart enough. I knew I was smart enough. So we never discussed whether I would do well. And I never really learned how to handle it when things were academically hard, because it never was (and when it was, even when I was a little kid, I knew the difference between trying and failing and not applying myself).

One of the worst things about failing at Columbia was that my ability to fulfill that expectation completely disintegrated in spite of my intelligence, not my lack of it. I was, and am, smart enough to do the academic work at Columbia. I can do the work. But it all fell to pieces anyway. My ability to think critically collapsed. My ability to read something and then recall what I’d read crumbled. My ability to assimilate information from multiple sources floundered. My ability to remember things—even completely simple things like buying food—deflated.

I choked. That’s all there is to it.

The first and most obvious sign was probably the lens essay assignment. I knew the assignment. I know what my teacher wanted. I knew I had a decent idea, the topics I wanted to address, and where I wanted the essay to end up.

And I could.

It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is when you don’t know what to do, don’t know what to write. Writer’s block is when you’re out of ideas.

What do you call it when you’re full of ideas, but all that comes out on the page is a muddle?

Usually I can at least write something, and if it’s crap, I can clean it up later. This time, I could not.

Writing is the one thing I can do. The one thing I can do, the one thing I’ve always been able to do, and do well, and now I couldn’t. I stared at my computer screen. Spread my rough draft out over a table in the library and just stared at it. I muddled with it all night. I couldn’t get it clear in my head and because of that, I could never get it clear on the page. Never before had I really understood what David McCullough had said: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” When your thinking processes break down entirely, of course you can’t write a paper on historical revisionism and photographs of lynchings.

The paper was due in twelve hours. I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t hand in this thing that wasn’t even a rough draft. And so I stared. And I fumbled. And I cried.

I cried more later, talking to my teacher, trying to explain why my essay sucked so much, and tell him that I knew it sucked, and that I was really sorry, that I wasn’t just turning in something sucky just to finish an assignment and get a grade, but that I really, truly did not know what had happened.

It was the best that I could do. And it was nowhere near good enough.

My teacher did an extraordinary and compassionate thing. He gave me an extension—all the way to the end of the semester. He worked with me on that essay. And I finished it, and even I knew it was good. (You can read the whole thing here—trigger warning for graphic images and disturbing content.) Not the best ever, maybe, but I said what I’d set out to say, and figured out some stuff about myself in the process. And by contrast, the second essay I did for that class, in spite of being longer and more complex, came stupidly easy (and it looks like I never posted that here. I should fix that).

That wasn’t the end of me falling to pieces. And while I had this one teacher who was willing to work with me, nobody else was. To be fair, I wasn’t willing to ask. I mean, what do you say? What previous experience could I draw upon that could have taught me what to do? And what professor at an Ivy League university is prepared to hold hands with an undergrad who should be old enough to handle her shit even though she has a sad?

I don’t know what I could have done different. I did my best, and it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t something I could just push through. I know my dad just wanted me to ride it out and survive it and get it done so it wouldn’t feel like I’d wasted two years, without truly understanding just how bad it had gotten, inside my head.

I don’t really have a conclusion or universal truth to acknowledge. Sometimes you fail, that’s all. Sometimes you fail.

Graphing a Music Scene (Boston & Surrounding Areas) (orig. published Nov. 7, 2010)

This is a paper I wrote for my Intro to Sociology class.  We were told to identify a network of nodes and flows and analyze it.  I analyzed the Boston punk music scene.

And yeah, I realize that the Dropkicks’ original drummer is Jeff Erna, not Joe.  It was 3:00am and there were quite a lot of Joes to graph.


In the past decade or so, Boston has been a training ground for many mid-sized punk rock bands gaining national prominence.  Long known primarily as the hometown of Aerosmith and keeping the rest of their music scene a well-kept secret, since 1997, bands from Boston .  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones broke out first with their hit “The Impression That I Get” which reached #1 on the Billboard Alternative charts.(1)  Since then, Boston local boys the Dropkick Murphys, a large Irish-punk band, routinely sell out venues with a capacity of 4,000+, played at Fenway Park, and had a single featured in the Martin Scorsese film The Departed which subsequently went platinum.(2)  Other bands to emerge from the area who have gained national popularity include the Amazing Crowns, Four Year Strong, the Street Dogs, Far From Finished, DYS, Slapshot, and Blood for Blood, among others. (3)

The Boston music scene has long been characterized by cooperation and mutual support amongst its many bands.  The Bosstones have cited Boston’s supportive music scene as a reason for their national success, and paid it forward by bringing Boston bands on tour with them whenever they could.(4)  Other bands—including the Dropkick Murphys, whose first national tour was opening for the Bosstones—have continued this trend.

In a closely knit music scene, the various bands can be thought of as nodes, and the flows are characterized by several events: when one band member leaves one band and joins another, for example (as when Al Barr left the Bruisers in 1998 and joined the Dropkick Murphys); when a band opens for another or when they tour together; or when bands share producers or songwriting credits.  According to Scott Richter, host of the “Give ‘Em the Boot” radio show on WWPV 88.7 in Burlington, VT, and amateur New England punk rock historian, “the Boston punk scene has been a very tight knit group of people (with the exception of the emergence of FSU within the hardcore scene and boneheads running the scene for a bit in the mid 90’s).  Musicians often form multiple bands; they tend to have one band that will regionally or nationally tour, but will sometimes have two or three bands that rarely, if ever, leave the Boston area.”

I selected this population partly because it is a scene I’m already familiar with, but also because Boston’s music scene, being based on cooperation rather than competition, is rare to behold, and not just in the music scene.  An interesting side note is that the Boston punk community manages to maintain social cohesion while also maintaining stylistic uniqueness, with no band sounding quite like any other.  The bands also have, in the vast majority, maintained their independence and DIY (Do It Yourself) work ethic.  The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are the only band who spent a significant amount of time on a major label.  I believe that the bands’ social cohesion and commitment to each other is a major reason why they are able to do business this way, and why the Boston scene has been relatively insulated from some of the more exploitative aspects of the music industry.  Because they can all support each other, nobody is tempted to go outside the group for support (like to a major label).  (5, 6)

The Boston scene is ever-evolving, and only time will tell if the Boston scene maintains the unity that is currently evident.  New bands may carry on the trend of helping each other out in a close community, but the community could just as easily close itself off and become a clique, with band members only helping those they already know, and not nurturing new talent, and new bands may have a hard time finding a relatively solid “lily pad” to jump off from when they’re trying to make the leap from local act to nationally touring one.  For a band trying to make this transition, landing an opening spot on a tour with a well-known headliner can be a godsend; but if the tightly knit bands only ever tour with each other, it gives new bands no chance to join “the club.”  In addition, the effects of the digital revolution on this community, though agreed to be a watershed moment in the music industry, still remain to be seen.

Most of the information for this diagram came from my own music collection, combined with informally surveying people I know who are well informed about the Boston punk scene, confirmed with checks in discographys and production notes.  Any errors are of omission, rather than commission.

The graph is coded as follows: nodes (that is, bands) are in red, with individual band members in black.  The various arrows are flows.  It’s worth noting that not every person in every band is on the diagram (for example, the Bosstones have eight members, and the Dropkick Murphys have seven).  I limited inclusion to individuals who were involved in two or more projects, and even then was forced to limit the data (Matt Kelly, the drummer for the Dropkick Murphys, has two other bands).

The purple lines indicate a permanent migration of an individual from one band to another.  The directionality of the arrow indicates the final destination of the person.  Johnny Rioux’s roadie duties are included in the “band member” category because he was the bass tech for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones for more than ten years, and this connection allowed him to network with many other bands, including the Dropkick Murphys, which would lead to him joining the band the Street Dogs (also, it was Johnny’s connection to the Bosstones through other, earlier, Boston bands that got him the gig as roadie in the first place).

Guest appearances on albums, or temporary loaning of band members, are noted in light blue.  Touring together is noted in green.  Though this appears to be the least common flow, it is more common than I was able to depict on the graph—the Bosstones and the Dropkick Murphys have toured together at least twice; the Bosstones have taken several other bands not on the map (because I could not graph their members’ movements) on tour.  In addition, tour information is the hardest to document because it is the most likely to be either inaccurate or lost.  But playing a show together is probably the most common and most effective way for bands to get to know each other, network, set up future shows, talk about upcoming albums, trade information, and so on.

The quality of my data is, I believe, sound, though woefully incomplete.  In talking with people familiar with the scene and reading music industry articles, I realized that even a relatively small scene like Boston’s quickly becomes overwhelming to quantify.  And I learned that, as much as I know about the Boston scene, there is enough material just on the musicians of the past fifteen years to fill a book.  I restricted my analysis to half a dozen bands and their members (and did not have the space to even list every single member in every band), and still could not include relevant bands and individuals (and local Boston favorites) like Sinners & Saints, the Lost City Angels, or the Kings of Nuthin.  Just mapping out the flows between the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Dropkick Murphys and the Street Dogs can be daunting, and raises the question of when, precisely, weak ties become strong ones.

I think the Boston scene will remain an interesting one to remain aware of, not only to listen to the new bands that come out of the scene, but also to see how the dynamics in the scene change.


Compact Discs Cited


Big D & the Kids Table.  Fluent in Stroll.  SideOneDummy, 2009.  CD

Big D & the Kids Table.  Strictly Rude.  SideOneDummy, 2007.  CD

Dropkick Murphys.  The Gang’s All Here.  Hellcat Records, 1999.  CD.

The Kickovers.  Osaka.  Fenway Recordings, 2002.  CD

Street Dogs.  Savin Hill.  Crosscheck Records, 2003.  CD.


(1) http://www.billboard.com/artist/the-mighty-mighty-bosstones/chart-history/11295#/song/the-mighty-mighty-bosstones/the-impression-that-i-get/655130

(2) http://www.dropkickmurphys.com/about

(3) It should be noted here that “national prominence” is defined, loosely, as a band that can tour the continental United States and draw an audience large enough to allow them to play in a venue with a capacity of 800+.  Another way of looking at it would be a band whose members do not need day jobs and can spend a large amount of the year on tour.  Because of the way the punk scene is structured, bands can be nationally known in that scene and yet not break out into a wider (non-punk) audience, or attract the attention of Billboard’s sales charts.  Most punk bands tend to make their money from playing shows, not selling albums.  The digital revolution is changing this trend, but for the purposes of gauging a “popular” punk band, it is still a workable indicator.

(4) Burton, Tim.  Interview with Patricia Ricci.  Marbles E-zine, 1997.  Online.  http://web.archive.org/web/20010903171021/www.comcat.com/~beaudk/bosstones/articles/inter20.html

(5) Richter, Scott.  Personal interview.  12 October 2010.

(6) The FSU he speaks of is Friends Stand United (originally “Fuck Shit Up”) a racist hardcore street gang with chapters all over the Northeast that ran amok in the early 1990s.  They caused so much havoc and violence that many scenes disintegrated completely, including Boston’s.  Says Richter, “[The scene] fucking died, there was no one but Slapshot, from 1985-1995.  They [new Boston bands] built it from the ground up, they started from nothing and built it to where it is today.”

well ain’t i cool? (originally posted Oct. 4, 2010)

So at Columbia, I’m in the School of General Studies.  GS is a student body made up of atypical students, that is, basically anyone that’s an undergrad but not an 18-yr-old fresh out of high school.  People who just got out of a stint in the army, former Olympic gymnasts, people who are returning to college, or people (like me) who are going after their 2nd undergrad.  GS students are completely integrated into the Columbia student body, we aren’t really a unified group, so unless you know who they are, they sort of blend in.

I’m realizing that a lot of people think I’m younger than I am because they just don’t have a context in which to put me.  They assume I’m a 21- or 22-year old undergrad who has a mysteriously long work history and more stories than a 21-yr-old really should have.  I really should correct people, but it’s boring and repetitive to explain GS over and over again and why I am where I am, and besides, I sort of like being the mysterious person with the incongruous stories.  To a sheltered 18-yr-old, I am suddenly a really exciting person.  I don’t think I’m ever that person.

Last night, on a whim, I took the subway down to Washington Square Park to join a vigil for the queer youth who have recently committed suicide.  It was raining softly, so people were huddled together under umbrellas.  I hid under the arch and listened to a group of fags flirt and sexually harrass each other.  It was actually really funny.  One old queen who had a camera was sort of flirting with this gay boy, but also sort of being really condescending and ageist.  “Oh, honey,” he’d say.  “You bartend?  At which bar?  If it wasn’t popular 25 years ago, I’m just not going to even go there….You’re cute enough, but I’m sorry, you’re just too stupid.”  And the gay boy and his friends would laugh and harrass him back.

There was a moment of silence, and because of rain and fire ordinances, there were rainbow glowsticks instead of candles.  Somebody sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  I don’t know if there really are more queer kids killing themselves this fall, or if the media is just paying more attention.  Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs, and it’s sad that kids have to die before we break our silence.

I left when people started chanting for “Equal Rights Now!” Which is not to say that gays don’t need equal rights and protections–they absolutely, absolutely do.  But you could legalize gay marraige on a national level tomorrow, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to the kid in Buttfuck High School who’s stolen his father’s pistol and hidden it under his pillow, just in case.  Granting equal rights is not the same thing as granting compassion, and it’s not the same thing as making people safe, and it’s not the same thing as giving persecuted, tortured, depressed kids a way out.  I don’t think the two issues are unrelated by any means (I think the lack of equal rights is a reflection of, not a cause of, the lack of compassion and acceptance a lot of gays encounter), but at a vigil for dead children, put your equal rights on hold for just an hour, please.  Thanks.