December blues

It’s December. The month when I grit my teeth and mumble “keep it simple” like it’s a verbal fence uttered to prevent me getting kidnapped by elves. Everything about this month is designed to make me lose common sense and overspend.

Herein a list of the myriad ways I have already failed and it’s only the first week of this bonkers months.

Couldn’t handle getting the tree from the charity we normally support and bought one at Whole Foods for $30 instead. Carried it on public transit and annoyed a bunch of commuters.

The slave-free chocolate advent calendars I normally splurge for got ditched when the kids spotted some cheap versions at Walmart with cute penguins and oh hell fine.

In my bid to never enter a store during the month of December I purchase the family gifts a few months earlier. This isn’t too tough as I try to get the kids only a handful of gifts. And yet, gifts become an ever-expanding minefield as the holidays draw near. One single mom friend was telling me that her son on the spectrum is angry at her and at Santa because her son wants a Macbook and he won’t get one from Santa and why not? Why does Santa hate him? My youngest is convinced Santa will bring her a GoPro on a drone. She’s confused when I tell her Santa only makes simple wood toys and we can’t afford to get her that kind of tech. What are moms on a budget supposed to tell their kids when friends are getting tablets and tiaras for Christmas?

And what of many of us who don’t have friends and family nearby to celebrate time off from work with us? What about those of us who will get no income over the holidays because “work slows down” and we get paid only when it’s busy? The holidays is a time of crushing economic insecurity and when all of the ways you’re failing are thrown in your face in bas-relief.

Many of my friends suggested cheap places for me to get something that will satisfy the GoPro wishes and make dear little one’s Christmas dreams come true. I didn’t realize I was in a silent arms race with other parents. I’m honestly and truly trying to clear that kids’ room of unused toys and outgrown clothing. I thought the holidays was supposed to be about taking time off and sleeping late, neither of which I’ll get to do but maybe I don’t have to add to my burdens by buying more stuff either. Because you know what will happen? The GoPro will provide five seconds of excitement and then I’ll be the one who has to set it up, show her how to work it, help her through frustration, only to bog down my hard drive with fourteen hours of a cat stuffie sitting on a tree log, and later when it malfunctions I’ll be the one troubleshooting it as well. A kid in Grade 2 does not need a GoPro.

In addition to their gifts, and tree, and advent calendars full of chocolate, we do a family gift each year. One year it was our rescue cat. The following it was a new family computer. This year I finagled a free hotel stay on points and they’ll get to swim in a hotel pool and order room service. These kids are not deprived just because they’ll have only a few gifts under the tree!

In case you’re curious for actual gifts I bought: pajamas, swimsuits, pencil cases, and candy to put in the stockings.

We have the added complication of a child with a December birthday so I said throwing her party is her gift. The eldest loves manga and so after three years of begging me I finally bought her Copic markers for her birthday ($$$). I’m probably going to take her and a couple of friends to a manga convention. Again, these kids are not deprived. Globally-speaking they are the luckiest kids on the whole planet.

And yet. That pressure to make Christmas magic. That pressure like a silent call to all the moms of the Western World to morph into Santa elves and work in a secret basement that opens only on the first of December like a hellish Brigadoon. If we could skip sleep this month and spend the entire secret nighttime baking and fashioning electronic toys out of twigs we found in the garden we would do it. I hear the call and I am not immune to the siren song of stressed out merry making. Be cheerful and bright. Do it!

We have many parties this month and many exciting holiday obligations. I was delighted to sing with my choir at an annual Yule Duel where battling singers raise money for May’s Place. (Kick ’em a few bucks if you’re able.)

This is the kind of holiday event I love to get behind. We show up and sing and money gets raised along with spirits and no one had to cook or buy gifts.

I’m looking for more opportunities to show my kids that they are lucky and so we remember to enjoy what we already have. This can be taking part in charity fundraisers and Christmas hampers and gift exchanges, or it can mean spending the holiday break going through old stuff and purging. Finding lost toys along the way and learning to play with them again while dressed in our new pajamas.

How will we navigate the intense scheduling of December? The many chores and obligations that crop up and assault our every attempt to couch and drink tea? How will we fight back against the scope creep of holidays and birthdays?

I’m making a list. Checking it twice. Gonna cut two-thirds of those planned purchases because I am not made of time and money. Let the kids be mad at Santa. I don’t care if they cry on Christmas. We’ll make a little magic in a Grinch-like way. I will not succumb to the dying of the fairy light. Rage, rage against the rampant consumerism that is our modern plight.

Productivity tips

When I lived in Brooklyn we had a Volvo station wagon that was shared among four of us. Due to the public parking situation, I put a map of our local streets on the fridge and a small magnet representing the car next to a hook for the keys. The system was when you got home you’d hang up the key and move the magnet to show where the car was parked so the next person who needed to use it could easily find it.

This magnet solution was one of those obvious and easy fixes for a problem that I didn’t think twice about but everyone who came over would comment on its efficacy. So when I hear people marvel at my scheduling prowess I figured it might be time to share some of those tips, too.

It may be obvious or you may know all this stuff already but here goes:

When something pops up on my phone via a text or Facebook post or whatever that I want to explore further or that requires an action (such as paying something) I screenshot it. Twice a week I sit down at the computer and “clear” my screenshots. I go through and do all the stuff and read all the articles. It usually takes about an hour and ensures that nothing small falls through the cracks.

I screenshot on my desktop computer as well and those are set up to copy to a shared folder along with my phone screenshots so it’s like a visual to-do list when I sit down to clear everything.

Most of us use our digital calendars. Those with partners and coworkers are even adept at sharing these so we can schedule items around each other’s schedules. It’s a lot, isn’t it? I have no easy system for this but I do have a working to-do list that I “clear” every day.

Basically, instead of random lists in other applications, I make a schedule item for something that needs doing: “buy shoes,” for example. If I haven’t gotten to it by the end of the day that’s fine, I’ll kick that can to the next day. What happens is that eventually I’ll have three similar items that are now together and I’ll realize I can do them all when I go to an appointment near the shopping center this week. All items sorted and nothing forgotten. As a busy mother with home businesses and volunteer commitments out the yahoo this is an indispensable habit. I “clear” my to-do list every day. Moving items or if they’re done I leave it and move on. Some items include putting in a reminder for myself for a year from now to “call John Doe” because I know time will get away from us. So this is how I maintain long-distance friendships, despite moving all over the planet.

Small items that can be done on the spot and almost as quickly as making a note of it I will do right away. I notice the lamp needs dusting while I’m making a phone call? I do it right away. I see a door knob is getting loose while I’m preparing breakfast for the kids? I fix it while they’re getting ready. What I’ve learned is that this momentary irritation of getting sidetracked by a small task saves me far more time in the mental energy it will take to remind myself to do it later — or to be annoyed again by it later. Don’t have the supply I need to make the repair? Make a note in the digital calendar right away.

Wait for a sunny day to do errands. The value in being organized is that you’re not doing anything last minute which means I can wait a day or two for a clear forecast to go run my errands. And since I walk and take transit most of the time this is a necessary luxury. Why put my safety at risk driving in the rain to go buy socks when I can use it as an excuse to take a long walk on a beautiful day instead?

It’s okay to do things early. This is a message more for parents. I used to shove the kid into a Halloween costume and then rush through taking photos and rush to get out to events on time. I’ve learned that it’s okay to try on the costume a week or two ahead of time and spend a few fun-filled hours on the silliness of dressing up and taking photos. That’s also when you find out an outfit has issues that need to be addressed. This works for other special events with new clothing. It’s also okay to celebrate a special occasion on a day you have the time to enjoy it and not just because it’s the right date.

If you hate doing it then do it fast. And I recognize this one gets me in trouble sometimes and leads to errors. However, I’m in the camp that it’s better to do something quickly than to not get it done at all. This means that if something scares me I do it right away and I do it quickly. I don’t like to obsess over a potential thing and wait days to tackle it. I dive in before I have too much time to overthink it. Hence the reason I often write these posts in the thirty minutes before I have to go do the school run.

Deep clean after the party. Many people will do a quick tidying of their home before guests come over. I enjoy letting guests trash my place and then doing a deep clean of everything after the party. Let them wear shoes and spill wine — you’ll be mopping the floors after they leave anyway.

The goal with all of this is not to be minimalist if that doesn’t suit you. It’s not to adopt complicated systems or beautiful color-coded series of folders (that you’ll never use). The goal is to save you time and mental energy.

I suggest you use the extra time to drink a cup of tea and stare out a window.

For fellow creatives I’ll add that most successful writers with a large consistent output work for a few hours in the morning. I know the night owls hate to hear that, but it’s a reality. I think it has to do with needing to be sleepy and still in touch with our subconscious. A highly creative zone. For that reason I like to do my most imaginative writing in the morning before everyone else wakes up. Which doesn’t happen nearly often enough. I also like to write after going to the gym.

What are some of your tips?

Science reporting on flu

It’s that time of year when all good science-based critical thinkers share articles about flu vaccine and unintentionally dissuade fence-sitters from getting the jab.

When dealing with a species that remembers facts by going through the emotional centers of the brain first it’s no wonder that we often react on instinct more than fact. Science thinkers have spent years training their brains to work differently from the average person. Which is why, I think, they are sometimes bad at communicating with the average person.

Huge needles
Cold and clinical, devoid of feeling.
When people are pictured they look anxious.
Or otherwise in the throes of faking flu misery for the camera.

You get it. You’ve seen these images hundred of times at the start of flu season. Usually attached to a fact-based article with good intentions, or — and please don’t be one of these people — a fear-mongering article full of cherry-picked statistics designed to scare you away from vaccination.

As I tend to know a fair number of people who make a living communicating science facts to the public I’ve made it a small personal mission to ask them to share their flu facts with photos that feature HEALTHY people not sick people — the vaccine helps keep us healthy but you wouldn’t know it based on the photos attached to the average article or FAQ poster. And please don’t feature the needle because a lot of regular folks are scared of those and an article featuring a needle is guaranteed not to get as many shares.

Once in a while I get a true science nerd like the science journalist I asked to reconsider his photo policy last week who responded by asking if I have any evidence that the photo makes a difference. What an excellent question. Actually, no. There are heaps of sociological studies that investigate what increases vaccination rates among specific populations but nothing about how the science is reported.

So the evidence is my gut and personal experience. But you have to admit that when you look at this photo the CDC connected to their seasonal piece about flu vaccine you have a different emotional response than you do to the images above.

That smiling face makes a huge difference.

The push back from science types wondering why I would even bother to suggest this small but important change in their reporting frustrates me. They will bemoan the stupidity of the masses for getting the facts wrong but I think they’re missing the crucial emotional element in their effort. It’s a deeply human mechanism that their fear-mongering anti-vaxxers have no issue co-opting for their own goals. And I think this oversight is why the side with reality is losing ground in the fight to spread vaccine not bullshit.

[If you do know of studies that show the effect of imagery used — to either result — please let me know and I will link it in this piece. I’ve searched over the years and never found one.]

Reflections on 9/11 and all that

We just passed the 11th of September, a date where many native New Yorkers avoid social media because we don’t want to see images that can still trigger PTSD. Falling Man in particular will never be okay for me — even linking to that amazing piece of writing made my hands shaky.

Also on social media one finds the polarizing effect of the Concept of 9/11 writ large. You’ll find lefties and libertarians lamenting the way 9/11 was used to strip individual freedom and you’ll find right-wing types posting “never forget” patriotic memes.

The USA just keeps getting weirder and more polarized. It’s now in a state I call the Cold War Civil War. Every topic has two sides, no nuance, and lots of anger.

Listen, some posts on my website are intended for my children to know my thoughts even after I’m gone. A repository for mommy’s OPINIONS about all sorts of topics. Because I’m an opinionated person. So I suppose it’s time for me to set down my thoughts about a momentous historical event. Particularly since I lived through it. But I admit that I avoid the topic and any discussions of 9/11. People have strong individual attachments to the event and I don’t like to impose my own sadness on whatever they’re feeling.

However.

Then you see the “real patriots” jump down the throats of people like my friend above when they post what I consider a perfectly apt response to the way 9/11 is used by the dominant culture in America to foment more conflict. She got a huge lecture from relations and older Americans about how the country came together in the weeks following the attack and how real patriots simply wish lefties would be unified behind the president and the nation once again.

What a load of bollocks. We were never unified.

In the days after 9/11 New Yorkers (read: liberal elites) were terrified. One of the dominant things they were most scared about was how the horrible President Bush (fils) would use the attack as an excuse to wage war on brown people. How they’d use it to strip our individual liberties. And most lefties I know weep at how all of their worst fears came to pass.

New Yorkers were disgusted by the makeshift tables of swag set up down at Ground Zero for tourists to purchase Twin Tower pins and ‘never forget’ hats. They were even more appalled that this weird pilgrimage to the crater became sanctioned as a kind of patriots’ march to Mecca. People who hate New York and everything that city stands for will travel to NYC just to go do all the things 9/11. It’s super gross. Reminds me of what we know of how people behaved at public executions.

When I was in NYC this past summer with my girls my eldest did ask me why we were skirting the area and not going in with the crowds to go and visit the giant fountains. Not realizing the depth of my animus I did launch into a monologue about how it cost half a billion dollars to build a massive water-wasting hole in the ground during a time of climate crisis. How it costs $60 million a year to operate and don’t NYC public schools and mass transit need that attention more than a memorial for what was ultimately only a few people?

My fiscal anger used to only get set off when passing the Irish Hunger Memorial (measly millions to create and operate by comparison) because there are no longer starving people in the world the Americans can afford to build a hillock on a city block to honor the dead of long ago? What a tremendous waste of civic energy.

After listening to my 9/11 Memorial rant for a while my eldest wisely suggested that the City of New York should have built an international food court instead “because everyone loves food” and the symbolism of tourists from all over the world coming together in a place where people were murdered over ideological differences and breaking bread instead and celebrating the food of many cultures would be far better and more satisfying than operating a giant hole in the ground. I had to agree with her.

I do understand how the “real patriots” feel about 9/11 though. I felt the same way in the days immediately after the attack. I wanted revenge. I wanted to stay in my pit of anger because it was easier to feel that than to feel pain. Riding mass transit we saw fights break out with an explosive anger that New Yorkers don’t normally exhibit. I was in a rage. I had witnessed people get murdered by unknown brown people and if I’d been a bit more racist, a bit more testosterone fueled, and a bit less heartbroken, and a bit more drunk I expect I could have done something stupid like vandalizing a nearby business that represented the enemy in my mind. When they flashed images of middle easterners celebrating and told us that was because they were happy Americans had been hurt I was livid. Just like other “real” Americans. I was too emotional at the time to recognize that we were getting played.

It took a few days but eventually my seething anger settled and I was able to start mourning enough to recognize the government was using it as an excuse to wage war. The eternal war of the USA. Keeping citizens controlled through fear.

In fact, I’ll tell you the exact thing I said when I watched the second tower collapse in real time (oddly watched most of it standing in a replica of a 1960s TV lounge with my museum colleagues). “Well. We’re all Israeli now.” What I meant was we were now always in a state of conflict. F-15s buzzed overhead as though to punctuate the thought. Something I never expected to see in the skies over NYC.

In the days that followed I quickly realized the enemy was the fear and the way people were handing control to the government. The enemy was not fellow (brown) citizens or foreigners with evil intent.

Cliche and yet we don’t internalize it enough.

My friend on Facebook was also told earlier this week that she wasn’t old enough at the time of 9/11 to permit her to have a valid or accurate opinion on the matter. As someone who was plenty old enough I will reiterate that I am not here to tell you how to feel about the event. Some things are big enough that they have an impact on everyone and I am not here to tell you how to feel about it. I am here to tell you that once feeling has been burned in you need to take a beat and think about it. A lot of real patriots seem to forget that second step.

A few days after 9/11, I was trying to get back to normalcy and I went to a screening of Black Hawk Down with an Australian friend. Not realizing the depth of the trauma I’d suffered I was shocked to experience what turned out to be my very first panic attack after the movie. I went into the lobby with my friend after the film and after he’d left my chest went tight when I was left alone. A piece of paper on the floor of the movie theater lobby set off memories of papers and ash flying in the air and I started hyperventilating. Now, mind you, I was not even near the Twin Towers when they fell. I was all the way up in Queens watching from the relative safety of my workplace at the Museum of the Moving Image. But all of the war images in this movie set me off. Because my city felt like a war zone. And soon my entire nation would feel like one, too.

Clearly, it would be a while before I was okay with any of it. It appears it’s taken me nearly twenty years to even write this post. So for a lot of us, the events of 9/11 are woven into our psyche so deep it’s almost too difficult to process it.

One of my friends worked clean up at the site and called me because he’d collected an arm off a rooftop earlier in the day and needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t fall apart when talking about grisly stuff. I had the honor. I shared in his nightmare day. He wept and I held it together. I thought I was fine until I had that panic attack a few days later. A coworker was dating a cop at the time and she had a similar experience, he called her weeping and almost unable to explain what he’d witnessed at the crash site. Some of us stood in the hallway and watched her take the call. Her face passive as she repeated what he was saying to her. “You’re worried you’re breathing in bits of the people. I understand. It’s probably just cement, honey.”

Then, we spent the following decades witnessing people who don’t even live in NYC use our personal nightmare to wage perpetual war. We watched them spend millions of dollars to honor the dead and turn the entire nation into a war zone. Except worse because instead of empowering citizens like a real military family they treat them like children and keep them scared so they can be more easily controlled.

Having excellent episodic memory skills kinda sucks sometimes.

Weeks later, I was in Grand Central Terminal waiting for a subway. I stood on the platform, nearby one other young guy around my age. It was very late. Suddenly, a dozen soldiers (cops?) in full fatigues and assault rifles rushed the platform and told us to get down. The dude and I both hit the deck. His eyes met mine and his face became permanently imprinted into my memory by our shared moment of fear and vulnerability. It was yet another bomb scare but we didn’t know that at the time. We were waiting for an explosion.

We stayed on the ground, only our heads lifted, he with his arms over his head as though we were getting arrested, holding eye contact with me and keeping our wits about us until the soldiers helped us up and instructed us to clear the area. No trains running. We stumbled upstairs in a daze. The young man and I worked our way up through the station as silent wraiths, amazed by the complete emptiness of even the main concourse. Outside in the cold October pre-dawn our eyes were blinded by dozens of flashing lights from emergency vehicles surrounding the train station. The stranger at my side and I parted ways as we went searching for taxis to take us home. “See ya,” he said. And I still do. Forever. United by our lizard brain terror. I can only hope his fear didn’t make him grow up to vote Republican.

Fringe fest chamber opera

One of the great joys of being an artist is knowing other creators and seeing their new works on opening night.

I briefly worked with talented Roan Shankaruk who is leaving us shortly to study with Tracy Dahl at the University of Manitoba. But before jetting off, Roan created a chamber opera now showing at the Vancouver Fringe Festival entitled The Woman Who Borrowed Memories that I encourage you to attend.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, Dinah Ayre and Roan Shankaruk

Based on a short story by beloved Finnish writer Tove Jansson, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is akin to the campy thriller film Single White Female crossed with the music and mood of Riders to the Sea.

Riders to the Sea

It’s rare to see opera that passes The Bechdel Test as this one manages to do. This is essentially two women in an increasingly claustrophobic room discussing old times and old flames and old friends with a pervasive sense of menace. Even discussions about men, the unseen ex boyfriend Sebastian for instance, takes on a glint of potential violence.

Ultimately, Roan creates an exploration of gentle madness, the kind that keeps many women locked inside a prison of their own making. Her Wanda character, safe in her small apartment behind multiple locks, reminds me most of Miss Havisham. Havisham and Wanda are visions of horror written specifically to spook women. A future unfulfilled — passion tamped down or else merely borrowed. Or worse — stillborn. Wanda’s inertia threatens to drown anyone who falls into her vortex of anxiety and toxic nostalgia.

Roan succeeded in sending a chill up my spine with merely two women singing to each other in a small room. Brava.

On moths and butterflies

As we watched a moth banging against the bathroom window my youngest asked me to reflect on the difference between moths and butterflies two nights ago and I confessed that I had no idea.

Good ol’ internet tells me the difference is that butterflies rest with wings closed while moths rest with wings open. I admit that this is the last difference that would have come to my mind. I had focused on diurnal versus nocturnal behaviors and a moth’s tendency to fly based on the light of the stars. Moths apparently also make a “silky” cocoon while butterflies use a famously shiny chrysalis.

The kids always come up with the most delightful questions and I enjoy it when I get stumped. Like last year when the oldest asked me if butterflies pee. In fact, they do release a water when they’ve taken in too much moisture from nectar. Which I joked was a delicacy among faeries and used by witches in their love potions. “It’s terribly difficult to get a butterfly to pee. You have to have the patience of a witch.” Which has become a shorthand in our household. “I was so patient, Mom. I was like a witch waiting for a butterfly to pee.”

Guilt. The white kind.

We all step in it sometimes. Social faux pas after social faux pas. As a big talker — hello @bigmouthdiva — I step in it all the time. I get unfriended and unfollowed on social media quite often. As someone who cracks jokes and has big opinions and tries to put myself at ease with patter I do have a tendency to offend. But I think it’s okay. It’s better to step in a mess than avoid it altogether.

I’m not suggesting white people go into black spaces and take over, but didn’t I learn a ton about USA life by attending meetings of African-American organizations over the years? Did I go with an open heart and try to lend my ear and then signal boost the message I found there? Was a large chunk of my social identity not formed by the marginalized voices of America?

It was starting out with a bit of an advantage as I was an outsider as the French kid in a New York school and later a Yankee in a southern school. Already ostracized in some ways and literally told to “go back where you came from” on a regular basis I was free to move into any social groups I wanted to explore. I’d always be the freak. The group that was the most welcoming to a drama queen like me happened to be the LGBT+ community and from there I learned self acceptance in the face of all opposition. Self acceptance even in the face of hatred from ones own kin. Freaks must develop a spine of stainless steel.

That lesson, one I learned young and leaned on during dark times (a lesson of self love that keeps me grateful to the queer community in more ways than I can count) is also what allowed me to listen to the voices of other marginalized groups and to absorb those messages of acceptance in the face of racism.

But then there was white guilt among my own people. White guilt when they talk about being fearful of stepping on toes or offending or getting crushed by call-out culture. These are all perfectly legitimate fears and yet they’re bullshit. That guilt is really fear of being uncomfortable and it prevents most people with social capital from attempting to understand people they don’t know as well as their own community. Most often their own community is one comprised of folks that look and sound and earn like themselves.

Embrace your otherness. Visit communities where you do not fit in. Listen and learn and set aside your discomfort. Do not ask your black friend to guide you, go it alone and know what it’s like for marginalized groups when they’re expected to operate in the dominant culture. Feel it in your bones. Sink into your otherness. See what you can learn from communities that are not like your own.

So no matter how many people I offend I will continue to try with my whole heart. From the first time I worked as the only white person at an all African-American nonprofit when I was sixteen years old and then a TV show about a local subculture followed by even more places where I did not really fit in, until the near future where I am somehow helping to teach white kids about our local indigenous community (Me? Yeah, okay, sure.) I’ll keep putting myself out there. Because guilt is useless if it isn’t occasionally set aside in favor of healing action.

Sam Chardin Vancouver Mom Top 30 Blogger

Yours truly was honored to be a part of the Top 30 Mom Bloggers in Vancouver by vancouvermom.ca and given the opportunity to mingle with a group of motivated writer moms. If there’s one skill I’ve perfected it’s how to parallel park. Second to that is working a room and meeting new people at an awards event.

Rule #1 for attending an awards show: Only attend if you’re nominated or presenting. I learned the hard way attending awards show in Hollywood that unless I have a reason to be there I will hate it. Also, go with the goal of meeting three new interesting people.

Tip #2: Dress for the camera not the room.
You better believe my many years with movie stars taught me how to test an outfit by photographing it; with flash and all. Polaroid used to be particularly useful for this purpose as it was unflattering and revealed any material that might be translucent with a flash pop. For the room I was overdressed but for the camera I was spot on. That’s a polka-dot pun, my sweeties.

Tip #3 Make friends with the photographer
This isn’t merely self serving. Angela Hubbard Photography was working her dang butt off and I want to always acknowledge and celebrate the hard work of those who are running around with equipment making us look fabulous. She said, “I never have my photo taken!” and that’s precisely why we’re posing together, honey.


Tip #4 You’re there to celebrate your achievement so don’t hide.
Now, I have been caught mid-sneeze in a group photo and that’s always a sad moment, but the one thing I can control is not to hide away. Flaunt. There is room for all of us to show it off.

Tip #5 Take photos with the banner.
Years from now you will have forgotten what this event was for in your albums full of red-carpet events. Attending so many cool events I had to learn to take a picture of myself in front of the event poster in order to keep track.

Tip #6 Wear comfortable shoes.
Because life is too short to be uncomfortable.

Singing tips

Some of us are born with a nice singing voice, but regardless of natural ability there are things we can do that will improve our ability. Whether you’re singing on a stage or around a campfire, don’t be shy about practicing and leveling up.

Firstly, whether you’re new or not you should always rehearse with scales. Warming up is important but the reason why singers doing scales is a cliche is that you’re looking to push into the edges of your ability. Just as an athlete works out their muscles to exhaustion so they can get stronger, you want to sing to just beyond your comfort in your high and low notes. This will expand your range and strengthen your ability. Don’t expect your very high and very low notes to sound good when you’re practicing. You’re not looking for beauty here, only expansion.

While you’re practicing, move around sometimes. It’s important to keep moving and flowing while you’re singing. This helps solidify your technique and will force you to stop thinking about what you sound like. When I was stuck in my head I had a coach make me do rolls across the stage while we were working on an aria. You don’t have to get that wacky with it but squats and even some dancing can be helpful to release areas of tension.

Visualizing helps me and I find this one particularly helpful:


The power line is the breathing on the vowel, which never stops releasing a steady stream of air. The birds are the consonants of the word, which blocks the vowel but does not stop the flow of air or sound. The exception to this is a staccato sound but most of the time we’re expected to create a bel canto sustained and smooth tone. The power line is the air always creating a tone, the birds don’t stop the sound, they merely touch down on the power line of constant sound, they don’t stop it completely.

It’s also important to learn your own range and voice type. Once you know yours then a lot of your song choices will fall into place. Note that your voice type is probably not the one you’re attracted to listening to most of the time. It’s almost a perverse truism that we prefer to listen to the voices of people who do not sound like ourselves. For example, my partner kills at karaoke but had a tendency to choose higher-pitched pieces suitable for a tenor. I had to tell him he’s actually a baritone and should be choosing to croon along to Tom Jones.

I’m trash at karaoke despite having a large set of pipes. Reason being that most pop music for women is written for the alto / mezzo voice and not my high-pitched insanity. Try not to beat yourself up if that’s also the case for you.

So you can be good at one type of music and suck in another. I’m terrific on Verdi and terrible at pop music. Which can also be a bit of a gut punch when you’re dying on the karaoke stage.

You good?

New Yorkers use the question “you good?” for a far greater variety of situations than most. One way I’ve seen it employed as a form of allyship is when riding public transit.

Picture a young woman getting hassled by someone on a bus and a big fella sitting nearby takes off his headphones and gives her a head bob and a quick, “You good?” If she doesn’t answer, he comes over to sit next to her.

I’ve employed it myself. Seeing a couple in a the middle of a drunken fight. I’ll follow them for a while until there is a break in the shouting and I can make eye contact with the woman. “You good?” She might wave me off. Or she might give me the pleading look that says, stay with me. Stay here. Stay as a witness.

I know a lot of people dislike taking public transit because they prefer the safety of their car but I have found transit is the best place to be a good ally. It helps if you have this question at your disposal.