The Unexamined Life

June 7, 2016 § 16 Comments

Do you ever stop, just to check in with yourself, and realize you haven’t done that in a few weeks? Maybe even months?

And you suddenly feel as if all that time that’s passed since you last introspected, you weren’t really living? Like your brain switched to autopilot and your Self took a nap.

Do you grieve that time? Do you feel like you’ve lost days you’ll never get back? Even though you lived them – you have vivid memories of them, you had fun, you were productive – still you feel like you only just now woke up.

This happens to me sometimes. More than sometimes, but not quite enough to be often.

Does it happen to you?

The Beautiful Secret behind Social Media Voyeurism

May 10, 2016 § 7 Comments

“Did you see Kylie Jenner’s latest instagram?”

We humans are inarguably more interconnected now than at any previous time in human history. We are in constant, instantaneous contact with one another – and not just with the people we know “in real life,” but with our favorite (and least favorite) celebs, public figures, and even random strangers whose sole claim to fame is their social media presence.

“YouTube Star”

“Instagram Celebrity”

Louis XIV used to allow people to come watch him eat, sleep, even go to the bathroom. I remember learning that in elementary school (long before the social media age) and being shocked (and giggling about the bathroom part).

My friends, we have gone farther. So, so much farther.

We are a culture of voyeurism.

A culture where one person’s outfit is bigger news than a suicide bombing.

We peer into people’s lives – we follow them, truly, following them around as much as they let us.

We want to know.

I think we all understand that this habit is not the healthiest. It breeds false intimacy, perhaps even to the exclusion of true intimacy with those who are actually around us. It can set a standard of experience (“my life will never be that cool”) that’s often manufactured, an illusion that will sow discontent in our own hearts. It gives us self-centered goals – to have this person’s life, to have that person’s instagram. To be so socially “loved.” Everyone has a “chance” to be famous and admired, and I am someone who “deserves” it.

But in all of this voyeurism, all this jealousy, all this discontent –

there is one kernel of beauty.

People care about other people.

Okay, so, anybody who’s ever read the comment section of anything on the internet knows how nasty humans can be to one another. How uncaring, how cruel. So when I say “people care about other people,” I want to clarify: I mean that people want to know.

They want to see.

They want to understand

and be understood.

The blog Humans of New York is probably the best most shining example of the heights to which social media voyeurism can rise. An opportunity to find compassion and solidarity. An opportunity to see someone else’s life – sometimes a life very different from your own – presented with personal vulnerability, even authenticity.

Does this mean every person featured on HONY is 100% telling the truth? Not necessarily. But I think most of the time people are telling their truth. And we love it – we love seeing the world through their eyes.

“Us vs Them” is such a prevalent, ugly attitude right now. Us vs the other candidate, Us vs immigrants, Us vs government, Us vs the other religion. And some people are so broken, so depraved that when they meet “them” face to face their ugliness only increases.

But in my experience, when you actually know “them”, they’re not a “them” anymore.

They’re a person, just like you. With highs and lows and griefs and joys, choices they’ve made, things that have happened to them.

That’s the redemption of social media. It has the opportunity to vanquish the concept of “Them.”

Does it always take that opportunity? Overwhelmingly, probably not.

But at least it shows that we have that desire, innately, to know and understand other people’s lives.

And that, I think, is beautiful.


Gentrification: The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly

May 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

rose & sword


Gentrification is a loaded word. And depending on your socioeconomic or ethnic background, you may define it differently. This disagreement on definitions has led to much misunderstanding.

So what is gentrification? Webster’s definition begins with:

“the process of renewal and rebuilding…”

Sounds pretty good to me. But wait there’s more:

“…accompanying the influx of affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

Sounds pretty bad in reality.

My question is: in Birmingham, is it possible to seek the good aspects of renewal and rebuilding while actively fighting the harsh realities of displacement of the poor? 


I hear lots of talk about gentrification these days. As a young, white business operator in a predominantly low-income, minority neighborhood, people have lots to say to me about the word.

My husband and I moved into the neighborhood in 2012. As newlyweds, we were excited to start out new life together…

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Musicians’ Musicians

May 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

I don’t go to concerts very often.

You might have gathered, from my recent post about definitive albums, that I care about music. I care about music a lot. I am a musician. Music has always been a part of my life.*

So why don’t I go to concerts more?

I guess it takes a lot to make it worth it for me. It costs money, and I’m likely going to be standing behind some big dude trying to peek under his elbow to get a glimpse of the band (unless it’s a symphony, ah, that lovely fair place where everyone gets a comfy seat and a good view). If I’m going to go to a concert, the band better be damn good.

Not Mumford and Sons good.

Not John Mayer good.

Punch Brothers good.

I don’t care to see something that’s just a visual version of an album. I especially don’t want to see a band that’s not even as good live as they are recorded. I don’t want to see anything auto-tuned and I don’t want to see one guy on a synth.

I want to see musicians.

Do I sound pretentious yet? I hope so.

Because this is one area where I am undeniably a snob. Getting a master’s degree in Ethnomusicology changed my approach to music a bit: when I don’t like something, I don’t say anymore (in my most hipster voice):

“This is so lame.”

Instead, I might nod and say (in a mildly hipster voice):

“It’s a different aesthetic. It’s not my aesthetic, but I appreciate it for what it is.”

When people ask me what kind of music I like, I tell them tongue-in-cheek, “Good music.” More seriously, my aesthetic – what I prefer to listen to and to see live – is complex, innovative, skilled, and thought provoking.

A lone guy with a guitar will probably bore me.

An out of tune violin will drive me nuts.

Something that can be sung to the bassline of Palchelbel’s Canon in D will most likely annoy me.

Now you’re definitely thinking, “Wow, what an elitist.”

I don’t think I’m alone in this, though. People who have had years of training in music (me) or people who have incredible gifts (others) have a high bar. Everyone wants a band or an artist to blow their minds. When you know the little things that go into a song, the common cadences, the difficulty (or ease) of a passage, you start longing for something that makes you go, Holy Shit.

Therein arrives the Punch Brothers, the band that makes musicians say “Holy Shit. That is AWESOME.”

There are others, of course, but I just saw PB live – for the second time – and I’m still reeling. Haha get it “reel”ing? Music jokes.

It’s a strange, eclectic crowd that goes to a Punch Brothers concert. You have your Hipster Bros who like banjos; you have your music professors who appreciate the reappropriation of bluegrass; you have your musicians who want an evening of mind-melting displays of skill. (Also you have the girlfriends of the Hipster Bros.)

I bought my ticket months ago, planning to likely go alone, but I was able to recruit some friends – all musicians – at the last minute. And then we ran into more friends there – all musicians.

You know, Punch Brothers deserve acclaim. They deserve to be lauded for their skill and creative genius and I really hope they continue to grow in popularity. But I think the core of the PB fanbase will always be those music nerds, the ones who laugh at jokes about Debussy and scream themselves hoarse at a shredding mandolin solo.

And that, quite happily – and quite unashamedly – is my element.


Can we take a second and observe that they are all gathered around ONE condenser microphone? #nerd


*Just a wee disclaimer: I do not claim to be any kind of excellent musician. I play violin semi-professionally, dabble in other instruments, and used to teach. However, playing semi-professionally has given me the opportunity to be around a lot of really excellent musicians.



Get It Together

April 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

I don’t know if it’s a part of getting older, but I’ve been trying to get it together lately.

Meal planning. Cleaning regularly. Making my bed every day. You know, adulting.

I’ve actually found great relief – and I think this is the getting older part – in forming and maintaining these habits. I don’t cringe when I walk into the kitchen. It’s relaxing to come home after work. I don’t worry I’m spending too much on food.

The apartment doesn’t smell like litterbox.

Having two adult roommates (yes that is a total of three adults) means that sometimes, especially in the morning, maintaining good habits is a wild dance.

This morning I felt like I was doing pas de chats and soutenus to get everything done and leave early for a dental appointment on the other side of town. (Another adulting win!) I was feeling pretty pleased with how well I was dancing, too.

I made breakfast the night before and ate it peacefully, sitting down.

I had time to make and drink coffee.

I made my bed!

Did I mention I also took a shower and washed my hair?

I packed my crockpot chicken that had simmered deliciously all night, and made a salad to accompany it, and packed two snacks – one for mid-morning, one for afternoon.

I washed all my dishes because I didn’t have time to unload the dishwasher – I was watching the clock very closely.

And –  the piece de resistance – I scooped the litter box.

Yes, I was quite pleased with myself.

Almost whistling, I marched out the front door promptly at eight with work bag and delicious packed lunch in tow.

I started to pull out of the parking lot, and I know what you’re thinking – she’s out of gas.

But I wasn’t!

I gave the clock another trimphant look as I started to jam out to some great morning tunes:

8:02 AM

My appointment is at 8:00.


And the dentist’s office is twenty five minutes away.

From a soaring height to a crashing fail. It’s still a little sore. Even though they were so nice and they still had time to take me even though I was ridiculously late; even though the appointment itself took only 10 minutes because the Lord in his infinite wisdom blessed me with teeth I hardly need to take care of (he knew I’d forget to floss); even though I got to work earlier than I even originally expected; even though I was 100% prepared for the meeting I was supposed to lead when I got there.

It still smarts.

It’s just nice to feel in control of your home life, you know? That’s how I know I’m officially “adult.” I need control. I can’t sleep on the couch or roll with the punches. I gotta have my routine.

I have to admit, I felt all kinds of embarassment and shame at not being able to something as simple as remembering that arriving at eight does not equal leaving at eight. I really like to pat myself on the back for getting things together as well as I have, even though it’s not perfect, because it’s all so contradictory to the absent-minded scatter-brained haphazard essence of my person.

It’s a lesson in humility. And grace. The world didn’t fall apart because I was late for my dental appointment. My world didn’t even fall apart.

It just kept on turning.

I DON’T Like Games.

April 25, 2016 § 2 Comments

I’m not talking about metaphorical games, like the kind you play with people’s hearts. I’m  not talking video games either. I’m talking real, literal group games.

Pictionary, Charades, Clue, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Balderdash, Candyland – you name it, I hate it.

I hid this passionate part of my personality for most of my life, until one day a few years ago I suddenly felt the freedom to say it:

“Actually, I don’t really like games.”

“But why?” people ask, scandalized, as if I just said I don’t like babies, or I think Mussolini was a decent guy.

Let me explain this with more detail and clarity than I normally get to, when I have to stumble over my words to insist upon commiting a social faux pas:

The social world is, to me, kind of like a choose-your-own adventure game.

“Sally just asked you to join her and some friends for dinner tonight. Do you:

A. Apologetically explain you already have plans – even though your plans are to watch a movie with your cat.

B. Enthusiastically agree to join and trust you’ll feel like socializing once dinner comes around.

C. Tell her you love hanging out with her but you just need a night to yourself.”

The social world is set of rules and consequeces in itself. And when I’m not feeling myself, my auto-pilot shuts down and I have to calculate every single response to every single action.

Like a really fast really bad game of chess.

Actually, I like chess. I’m not very good at it, but it’s a slow game, that invites pondering, gives you an opportunity to be silent without being awkward, and has room for free fellowship to take place, whether with your opponent or with the poor saps who are hanging out with people playing chess.

It’s the same with Scrabble – the other game I like.

Those aforementioned board games and group games – they’re all about quick action and interaction, in a very structured way with lots of rules. Like a camp counselor or freshman orientation leader jumping up and down with a huge smile telling you how you’re all going to be BEST friends (and then you play some really awkward physical games and once it’s over you pretend you’ve never met any of the people you played with).

don’t like rules.

I’ve accepted that social interactions contain inherent unspoken rules, with cushion or strictness depending on the situation, and at times I appreciate it. But you know what I hate more than rules?

Small talk.

Most group games are rules + directed small talk. They’re called party games for a reason – they keep parties from getting awkward once the initial small talk dies down.

But it’s an extra layer of people-rules. And it’s hard enough for me to deal with the people-rules of the choose your own adventure game of life.

That’s why, if you invite me to a party or a gathering where there are going to be games, I’m going to beg you to let me sit on the sidelines. Sure, I’d rather have a meandering philosophical/intellectual conversation that enables me to make a deep connection with one or two people, but I understand that people like games.

And my inner anthropologist thinks it’s just fun to watch.

The Albums I’ll Always Love

April 19, 2016 § 4 Comments

I was driving home the other night after hanging out with my parents – because, you know, I’m 26 and that’s how I roll – and the Styx album I was listening to ended. My state-of-the-art 6 CD changer switched over to Switchfoot’s “Beautiful Letdown.”

Oh yeah. What a classic.

There are some albums that stick with you. Yeah, there are plenty of albums that you play on repeat for a couple of months and you’re sure it’s the greatest album ever (“their songs sound like how I feeeeel“) but eventually they’re forgotten in the wake of your next musical discovery. They’re not definitive. The definitive ones never get old. 10, 15 years later they’re still your favorite. They’re still life changing.

You know what I’m talking about.

Your definitive albums are probably different from mine. I’m not talking about “The Best Albums of the 21st Century.” I’m talking about the albums you turn to as a faithful intimate friend. Your identity is some how intangibly tangled with them. Music can do that, you know.

What are yours?

I wanted to gather mine, but I have so many “favorite” albums I had to give myself parameters. They had to have been released in my timeline (no oldies), they have to be at least five years old as of 2016, and they have to have no more than one song I skip when I listen to them.

In no particular order, these are the seven albums I consider most enduring and definitive to me.

“Beautiful Letdown” by Switchfoot

It’s just the best of the genre that defined my teen years. “Beautiful Letdown” came out just as I was becoming aware of alternative rock. Like all Switchfoot albums, “Beautiful” combines literary allusions with a poetic cry for a life of greater meeting. Plus plain awesome music.

Why it’s definitive: It ignited my love for alternative rock and opened up a world of philophical songwriting.

“Continuum” by John Mayer

I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who did not agree that “Continuum” is John Mayer’s best album. This bluesey is rife with mournful guitar licks and raw self-reflection.

Why it’s definitive: Because angst! And blues! It still cuts deep to this day. This album nurtures my love for the melancholy.

“Who We Are Instead” by Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay changes up their sound often, but they prove their musicianship by doing it so excellently. I am a long time JoC fan (they were my first concert). This album is musically simplistic with an Americana gospel vibe.

Why it’s definitive: It’s just damn good songwriting.

“Come On Feel the Illinoise” by Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan is brilliant. His genre defies description. “Illinoise” is rich and lush and orchestral and catchy. The more you listen to it the more insane and complex you realize it is. 5/4 time signature? 9/8? Are you crazy? Yes, yes he is.

Why it’s definitive: It was my first exposure to Sufjan and thus my first exposure to eccentric complexity done right. It inspires me to push boundaries and be as weird as I feel I am

“21” by Adele

I think this album is probably definitive for all of us. It’s not her first album but it is the one that swept the world and the Grammys. Inanity, vacuity, and formulaic songs often top the charts, but Adele changed our lives.

Why it’s definitive: Besides recognizing “21” as a gold standard for songwriting and vocal performance, I painstakingly taught it to myself as vocal practice and take songwriting cues from the classy piano riffs. I’ll never be Adele, but she’s my age, and her brilliance and talent inspire me.

“Beautiful Things” by Gungor

“Beautiful Things” is actually not my favorite Gungor album but it was my first one. It’s lovely and complex and heartbreakingly beautiful. Gungor broke the mold for “Christian” music, praise the Lord. There’s so much lame music out there, but Gungor’s creativity and skill teach us that if you’re going to glorify something with your music, your music better be glorifying.

Why it’s definitive: Gungor exemplified what I already believed: incredible musicianship and wild creativity is honoring and glorifying to God. Discovering this album convinced me not to settle for ordinary, in the music I listen to or the music I write.

“Begin to Hope” by Regina Spektor

Again, not my favorite album by this artist, but my first. “Begin to Hope” never gets old for me, and it’s a palatable introduction to Regina’s wonderful weirdness.

Why it’s definitive: “Begin to Hope” introduced me to Regina and her off-the-wall vocal techniques. She’s one of my main influences when I write music!

There are other albums I wanted to put up here but forced myself to keep it at seven. These are albums that really influenced me and still influence me. And they never, ever get old.


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