Feb 27 • 16M

Coping mechanisms, sequences, etc

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Taali
Taali Talk (literally) is the audio version of Taali's popular weekly newsletter. Musings every Sunday from an NYC expat living, baking and singing in Amsterdam. Bonuses include quotes from my grandmothers, feminist theory and cheeky Jewish neuroses.
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Hi, my love.

It has been hard to start writing because I’ve been glued pretty much every minute to the news about Ukraine with a knot in my stomach. I just played Kyiv in July, and loved it so much I wrote an entire ttalk about it.

It was a beautiful, transformative experience. 

I know that many of the people from the audience that night subscribe now. If you’re reading this please know, my darlings: I am sending you every ounce of my love, support and strength. I cannot wait to hug you again and am praying for your safety.

My goal this week is to give you the same honesty I give you every week, and to not virtue signal or center myself in the context of this deadly and serious news.

A challenge for many of us. An aggravated sense of self importance, one that in the past I’ve admittedly fallen to. It is the best and the worst of us: The beautiful desire to help, and the arrogant, ridiculous idea that we are in any way qualified to do so.

I am not qualified to help or speak in any way here.

I can, however, share support and direct attention to some of the voices on the ground that I’ve been following (Terrell Jermaine Starr | The Kyiv Independent | Olga Tokariuk among others). I can also share a list of resources for how to help provided to me by Olga Bekenshtein, the promoter at my last show in Kyiv.

In the same spirit, I am focusing on my own little corner of the world here and channeling my energy into a bolognese.

I know that seems like a non sequitur, a truly ridiculous one at that.

(Stay with me here.)

Though I speak to you almost every week about them, cooking and baking are fairly new practices to me. New enough, in fact, that I used to righteously take pride in my inability to do either one.

This pride, in my defense, is a fairly common New Yorker attitude. I love this, that the city, with all of us on top of other, encourages communal living. I moved to Orchard Street when I was 19 years old and quickly settled into such a routine: I cooked zero things and ate at three delicious and delightfully inexpensive downtown restaurants.

This is not an exaggeration, and I maintained it daily for most of the following decade. For breakfast and lunch I knew every way that a bag of corn meal could be fashioned. And then on any given night there was a 99% chance you could find me at either Pho Grand, Great New York Noodletown or B&H. I barely shopped for groceries and my dinner never topped $8.

My spirits were high. I ate in those spaces so frequently that I celebrated milestones and heartbreaks in them. I held business meetings, dates, breakups from them, including this one below with my favorite artist reps from Ableton.

The waiters didn’t have to ask my order. I knew about their lives and their families. On my 25th birthday the bobis at Pho Grand made me a cake that inexplicably had tomatoes atop it.

God, I loved the life I led in that rent stabilized little rectangle between Orchard, Bowery, Bayard and 7th street. Food was predictable, life was predictable. In the absence of doing these things myself, I turned my attention to chaos and fixing other people’s messy lives.

(My number one absolute vice.)
(More than addictive substances, more than sugar.)
(I have struggled almost my whole life with an addiction to messy people.)

If you, too, are a people pleaser or fixer, then you know the best way to accomplish this goal is to have an impressively bad capacity to take care of yourself. This leaves you as vulnerable to circling narcissists as a bloody leg in a sea of sharks, and also gives you absolutely no tools to take care of yourself as they ravage your life!

(Success!)

No self care practice, no hobbies. None at all. Like my inability to cook, I wore my lack of hobbies as a massive badge of honor. If pressed on it, I had some throw away nonsense sentence about how my career as a musician (woof) essentially meant that my entire life (woof) was a hobby (woof).

But when I landed in Los Angeles in 2017 this began to shift.

For the first time I was focusing fully on my art, so I didn’t have a dangerous side hustle or full time job. There was no money to eat, let alone eat out. I was living on my own for the first time in my life in a new city with more or less no one, and I was falling apart.

Thankfully I had the good sense to take some steps toward improving the situation.

Without getting into specifics, I found out that these needs actually stem from a deeper, somewhat treatable source. I found a group of humans with similar symptoms, and in that first year I met a woman much smarter than me who agreed to help me begin to value myself and, in the process, stop trying to fix everyone else’s problems.

She did not fuck around, though. In our very first conversation, she asked me what my hobbies were.

I told her my nonsense sentence about how my career as a musician (woof) essentially meant that my entire life (woof) was a hobby (woof).

Oh my love, if she didn’t skip one beat and say, “That sounds like a really well rehearsed way to say that you have no idea how to take care of yourself.”

A truly. Devastating. Read.

I stammered something back, I think I hung up on her. Who the fuck did she think she was, telling me to be healthy and nice to myself and stuff?!

I went out for a Los Angeles rage drive, then got back home and thought that, perhaps, I should listen to this kind woman and see if maybe I could actually learn to do one literal thing for myself.

I swallowed my pride. I called her back and let her read me for absolute filth. She was firm but generous, and gave me an assignment: Send her a list of 10 things I liked to do by myself.

It took me a week straight of deliberation. Truly. I had absolutely no idea what I liked to do by myself. After a week of tearing out my hair I reached out to her distraught and told her that the only thing I could think of was that I liked peaches.

“Well,” she said, “You’d better go get a lot of peaches.”

So I did. I found a friend with a Costco membership, and my tiny 300 square foot LA studio was all of a sudden a peach farm. While I gorged myself on their ripe orange flesh, I painstakingly worked on the other nine on my list.

Eventually I got there, and triumphantly texted it to her. She wrote back within minutes, with eight of the ten things crossed out in a red iPhone markup.

(They were things that involved other people, i.e. “driving with friends to the beach.”)
(Which didn’t count.)
(Dammit!)

“If you don’t know how to spend time with yourself,” she brilliantly contended, “how can you expect to be, let alone enjoy being by yourself?”

(I mean, couldn’t she have spared me with the absolute further devastation?!)
(Who the fuck did she think she was, continuing to push me to be nice to myself?!)

I got back to work. It took months, but eventually I could fill that list of ten.

I learned that I absolutely love puzzles.
That I don’t like driving to the beach by myself, but I do love a solo movie in a theater.
That I don’t like reading alone in my home, but do love reading alone in motion (i.e. in a train, tram, plane, etc.)

As soon as I unlocked this ability to be on my own, LA and the broader world opened. My relationship with José grew in leaps and bounds, my art blossomed and I was able to effectively rid my life of almost every single toxic person in it.

Man, I owe that woman so much. Every time I do one of my solo activities I salute her silently. I am endlessly grateful for these hobbies that keep me sane.

But nothing so far has been a better activity than the eleventh I’ve added to my list: Cooking/baking.

Baking came on to the scene during the pandemic. José and I were newly married, with an enormous amount of time on our hands and nowhere to go.

First we almost died.
During our 51 days of fever we deliriously ingested the entire canon of Walking Dead (the world is ending so why not watch zombies eat flesh) and The Great British Bake Off (the world is ending so why not watch gloriously polite British people be kind to each other and make delicacies.)

When we recovered our health and could, I don’t know, walk up a staircase and such (that! took! six! months!) I decided I would like to devote all of my attention to cake, like the nyunis I worshipped on Bake Off.

And that is how I learned that baking is tailor made for me. A delicious merging of (1) something I like to do on my own and (2) something that helps a good amount of my considerable pathologies.

a screenshot of a story from when we were still in washington heights, ebulliently discovering strawberry buttercream

For serious on those pathologies: It works wonders for my ADHD. Baking has clear, defined steps. It cannot be rushed, and is perfect for someone who has hyper-productive bursts of 15 minutes and then needs breaks to go do the other things that make her happy and/or pay her rent.

And for serious on that whole something I do on my own. Now an expert in my own personal space, I don’t play well with others when there is flour involved.

As such, it came up in a recent trip home that to the outside viewer, watching me bake a pie seems incredibly stressful.

This is fair/another devastating read, and there are a couple of reasons for why this could be.

The first reason is that I live my life more or less as a frazzled cartoon character. My ADHD manifests in pretty much every single DSM diagnosable check mark, but one of its more hilarious outward presentations is that I am a bumbling clumsy muppet. Though my final baked presentations are beauteous and delicious, while I bake I am dropping things, spilling and burning my fingers on the top of the oven.

The second is that if someone says even a word to me I lose my focus. And I do not handle this well.

(Because, dammit, I haven’t fixed everything about myself yet okay?!)

In any event, none of these reasons really matter, because my truth remains my truth: No matter how it looks to the outside eye, baking is the truest self care I’ve found yet.

But that does mean that I should be smart and considerate and not involve other people in that self care.

(Turns out that doing something for myself, means, quite literally… being … by myself!)

And I am grateful, grateful, grateful, for these new by myself practices. They sure did save me this week. Because baking doesn’t just merge something I like to do on my own and something that can take up a good amount of my pathologies. It also diverts the raging Moby Dick sized chaos that constitutes my Jewish neuroses.

Left to their own devices, these neuroses are overpowering. It doesn’t matter that my parents (!) put me into therapy (!) when I was 5, my brain can still eat itself alive with the best of them. So in the past this over indulgent brain, when it didn’t have pie crust to attend to, set its cross hairs on me.

It focused on comparison, on insecurity.
Told me that there wasn’t a point in creating, even though my soul couldn’t bear to not create.
Told me that an office job where I was continuously disrespected was the “safe” choice.

No longer. My new kitchen hobbies allow me to turn this hyper critique somewhere useful. With baking, a hobby that hurts no one and makes everyone happy, there is no risk and only reward in meticulously perfecting a butter crust.

So yesterday, as my hyperactive brain scanned the news about Kyiv, I got to work on bolognese.

I don’t think it was a conscious choice, as I only just figured out this massive a-ha moment this morning while typing. But trust me, my love, yesterday I was absolutely set on my husband having a full nona pasta evening.

And though it is not a baked good, bolognese fits the pattern of things that help me scratch this itch: It has involved steps, cannot be achieved unless many, many hours are spent patiently allowing it to come to fruition, and also is very delicious.

So I agonized over that meat sauce.
I panicked that our kitchen’s stove simmer wasn’t low enough.
I felt I could hear every individual over bubble of that sauce, and there were just too many of them.
I googled, read all 1,001 of the NYTimes reviews, called Dylan for moral support.

And I’m glad I did, because it stopped me from going with my first and completely incorrect instinct: Writing some sort of righteous soapbox about the state of the world. The bolognese kept me right sized and got me to call Dylan. Even with all this work I can’t yet ask for help for my regular life. It has to come in the form of meat sauce for now.

(Thanks, bolognese!)

This week I also made a salty chocolate chess pie.

Chess pie is a Southern thing, I think, but it is also a Petee’s Pie delicacy, and as we all know I exclusively bake my pies out of Queen Petee’s cookbook. Her salty chocolate chess is a thing of beauty, one of just three in her cookbook that I can make almost exactly to how it tastes bought from her shop.

I am very proud of it. And this week I was feeling like a flex. So I pulled it out.

The salty chocolate chess is a rich, luxurious deep dark chocolate dream. The key, beyond the generous portion of sea salt, is the warm molasses-y brown sugar hug you get with every bite.

It is simply a masterpiece. And the brown sugar really the fuck matters.

I learned that fact this week, at the exact same moment that I learned the infuriating fact that Holland just doesn’t do brown sugar.

In fairness, they have a sugar that is … brown. It is caster sugar, and if you ask a Dutch person they will blink like a cartoon and kindly gesture you toward it. You can Google all you want, but once you put a fingertip of that Dutch comparison to your tongue you will find it lacking in comparison.

There is absolutely no recourse when it comes to brown sugar in this country, and no sense in arguing with my good natured extremely tall neighbors about it.

“Maybe I’m wrong,” I thought. “Maybe this won’t matter. Maybe my extremely tall neighbors are right.”

Alas.

The chess pie, arguably, was my largest failure this week if not this year. Brown caster sugar is truly not brown sugar, despite my tall neighbors’ insistence. The result of 250 grams of just plain ass sugar instead of brown sugar is an incredibly sweet (albeit perfect in texture) pie. You lose all of the molasses and end up with a saccharine/somewhat presentable chocolate cloud.

I am grateful, though. I needed to focus all of my energy on that saccharine failure.

Because the big news this week is that as of the Shabbat evening when that failure pie was consumed, the album is now fully mixed. My focus on the pie kept me from agonizing too much over timing.

And now we move on to the next step.

Sequencing.

(A break, for a second, to explain in case you haven’t spent your whole silly life in studios and therefore aren’t sure what a sequence is.)

Sequencing is choosing the order of the songs that ultimately make up the final album.

It is a wild and weird and exciting and disorienting process.

It is an especially wild and weird and exciting and disorienting process when you are deciding how best to tell the story of the worst two years of your life.

Because that is what sequencing is, in the end. Deciding how to tell the story. I’ve written, sang, co-produced, recorded the songs, all vignettes of different moments, meditations on different themes. But the choice of how I order them is how you will experience the story eventually.

And I don’t take that process lightly.

It shifts and it fades and it doesn’t seem to be in any way in my control.

For reasons outside of my control, for example, the mix process has been spread over months instead of the usual week or two that it takes. Done in stops and starts and whenever it could be fit in, with a 9 hour time difference in the way. So I’ve been living with half rough tracks, half mixes up until this past Friday. A mixed track is a completely different universe than a rough track, so any attempt at sequencing thus far has been futile.

Miracle of miracles. By the time the Shabbat candles were dwindling to the candlesticks on Friday night, I had 11 mixed songs and 2 mixed interludes.

(And an overly sweet pie.)

Time to get to work.

3 years on this album, my love. I know its songs. I figured it wouldn’t be so hard and that I could get it done in one sitting. A listen on the perfect chair with Coney and my Valentine’s roses would do the trick, right?

josé captures cutie moments now

Sadly I was very incorrect. I muppet yelled a bit and really almost lost it until I realized that I couldn’t sequence this album while sitting down.

Because the album was written and created in motion.

Dreaming of the sky, or in the sky.
Dreaming of the water, or in the water.
Dreaming of the road, or on the road.

So I got into motion. I went for a long walk through this beautiful cobblestoned city.

I had many aha moments on this walk. I shouted many times. If you live in the city you may have seen a deranged lady in a nice coat yelling every so often.

(sorry?)
(or you’re welcome?)

I walked, I listened to the music, and most importantly I listened to myself. When a song didn’t feel right, I shifted it. When I wanted to stop, I stopped. When I wanted to yell, I yelled. And when I wanted to sit down, I sat down.

I was nearly done with the album’s sequence as I got to Museumplein, a legendary square here in this beauteous city. I sat down to revel in it.

Amsterdam’s Museumplein

But the final listen happened here, in a little cul de sac that I’m not familiar with. I don’t know why I picked this place, but this is where the songs all finally made sense.

Among my super tall neighbors.
My sweet, non brown sugar having humans.

The album is so close.

It just needs to be mastered now. (Holy shit!)

Once it is sequenced and mastered, the next step will be the process of it getting to your ears.

And that’s where I really, really let go of control.

But after all this, it’s the final bit of control relinquishing that I am most excited about.

Sending you all my love.

More next week.
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