Author Archives: mina

True, Necessary, Kind, and the Internet

I had most of this post on my desktop for a couple of weeks. I guess I couldn’t decide whether it was necessary.

I sometimes lament that an outsider to our family—or a child in our family—would surmise that the character traits we value most are being smart and being funny. You know, as opposed to being nice, helpful, considerate, generous—all the qualities you’d want smart, funny people to have down solid, lest they become unbearable know-it-all jackasses.

Smart, funny people need to know when to can it, to leave the one-liner that is freakin’ brilliant unsaid, to let a meaningless—if glaring‐error go uncorrected.

In our house one way we sum this up is the phrase “True, necessary, kind.” This phrase has been credited to Socrates, though I am most familiar with it from Buddhist readings. Discerning “right speech,” in the Buddhist sense, requires asking three questions about the things you say: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

When my very smart near-teenager makes a joke that might be funny among friends, but is hurtful to a little sister, possibly none of these criteria are met. When she corrects that little sister, likely in a condescending way, she knows that just being right is not enough to make her words OK. “Hey,” I can ask her, “was that true, necessary, and kind?” She’ll know exactly what I mean.

So much activity online violates this precept, or at least stretches the definition of all three words. Was it necessary for me to post a photo of a Captain Crunch box on my Facebook wall today? Is linking to a blog post that expresses an idea you agree with, albeit with harsh words for people who don’t agree, kind? At what point does the online persona we each have cross the line from “selective sharing” to simply self-aggrandizing or otherwise misleading?

As both the holidays and the election season start gearing up, I’m questioning whether the various types of online media many of us engage with—Facebook, Google+, blogs, e-mail lists— are supporting “right speech” or making us as tone deaf as too-smart-for-their-own-good adolescents.

I can’t tell yet. Sure, Facebook is a time-waster, but it’s also become an important medium of connection between friends and family who wouldn’t be sharing the basic stuff of life otherwise. Isn’t that necessary? And kind? Isn’t networking necessary? Aren’t blogs a way that some people get to share what’s true?

The conventional wisdom of social media is that frequent posts that keep you in the eye of your readers are necessary—but necessary for what?

This December I’m aiming for a few more Silent Nights. Most things worth saying will keep.

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You Are What You’re Thankful For

If what I’m grateful for helps define who I am, who am I?

Clearly I am someone who loves sleep and food, first off. Not exactly the first thing I’d put on my resume. Let’s try that a different way: I am also someone who has learned to revel in the most basic aspects of being human. Much nicer.

If I love technology and social media, maybe I am not merely a yuppie asshat but also an introverted yet curious person who likes to learn.

So AM is (among other things, of course) a person who loves beauty and tries to push herself a little outside of her comfort zone, knowing that she has the resources to take care of herself. Tabby is a person who values loyalty and thoughtfulness, and she puts a high priority on her relationships.

I like this question: I’m going to be looking at those November Facebook posts, and all the other November gratitude announcements, differently now.

So, what are you thankful for?

Monday Mind Hack: Some Grudging Gratitude

I was slow finishing this post, so now my co-blogger has not only beat me to the punch but also come off as far more high-minded than I. Well, that’s only fair, as she is far more high-minded than I am.

Gratitude can be a great mood-altering substance: change your perspective and feel thankful for what you do have instead of dwelling on what you don’t. When you develop the habit, it’s easy to feel suddenly grateful for everyday things like a game of cards with your kids, a pizza, or a perfect peach. (OK, perfect peach is not an everyday thing, but you see what I mean.) You can go all “Double Rainbow, All the Way!” without the acid and the resultant letdown.

I don’t really have trouble feeling grateful. I often go to sleep at night feeling grateful for my bed, knowing that many people don’t cuddle under fluffy blankets on flannel sheets and a soft but supportive mattress. The good fortune involved in such a happy circumstance does not escape me, even after something like 15,000 nights of doing the same over the course of my life (I subtracted a few hundred nights for summers at Girl Scout Camp and the last year of my futon.)

I just don’t like being told to be grateful. Consider: it always happens when you are in conflict, or when someone is telling you to STFU.

“Mom, my shoes are too small and I’m starting to lose circulation from my mid-calf on down.” “Just be grateful you have shoes!”

“Cleaning coffeeshop toilets feels like such a waste of my Master’s degree.” “Just be grateful you have a job.”

If you’re on Facebook, you know that November is the month when your friends begin listing the things they are grateful for in their status updates, kind of like February is the month when NPR starts featuring blues musicians. (Kidding! I love NPR—some of my best one-sided friendships are with NPR hosts.)

I would by no means suspend any pleasure of theirs, and I enjoy the little peek into the thoughts and feelings of my friends. (I admit, I am one who does not mind reading what people had for breakfast as their status updates; I am weirdly voyeuristic curious that way.)

Reading them every day for two weeks now has me edgy, in that pouty “don’t tell me what to do” way triggered by the “just be grateful you aren’t a shoeless hobo” superego in my head. But I know it’s good for me, so here goes, and now I’ll be all caught up.

1. Online friends: I talked to one of my first online friends to go “IRL” with me on the phone yesterday. She reminded me how accessible joy can be when you’re receptive and curious, which made it a lot easier to make the rest of this list.

2. My gas stove, which merrily spits fire if I get too wild in the kitchen, making me feel temporarily like a real restaurant chef.

3. Chocolate cookies from Rustica, which are truly better than you can imagine. You may think you have had a cookie just like this, but if you haven’t been to Rustica, you have not.

4. Peaches: obvious. Best. Food. Ever.

5. The musicians in my family, because letting my music education go was one of the hardest things I ever did, and now it’s all right back in my house again.

6. My southern roots, which I embrace by making grits dressing and banana cream pie and creamed greens and sweet tea and biscuits and gravy. And peaches, obviously.

7. Grad school, where I met my people. I don’t see many of my people anymore, but grad school was the first place where it seemed I might actually have a people. Had a best friend who just Got Me. And got a husband too.

8. Coffee. My other best friend.

9. Learning to knit, which makes me feel competent in a way that a PhD and 500+ published encyclopedia entries do not. Turning a heel on a sock makes me feel like a magician. Also, knitting means always having an excuse to fall out of a conversation.

10. Cocktails: my favorite part of having cocktails is when someone else makes it and hands it to me. We like to drink something we call Tuccis, after Stanley Tucci, and they bear a strong resemblance to the Parisian Cocktail.

11. MPR, my constant kitchen and car companion.

12. Computers, without which I could not have my job, could not stay home in my little hidey hole office, could not have those Facebook friends.

13. My light box, which keeps me marginally sane.

14. My bed, where in the encroaching cold of November I burrow down under several blankets and still try to steal body heat from my beloved, who is—thankfully—only mildly grumpy about that.

Monday Muppet Hack — Gonzo Love

I have multiple posts in the pipeline, but also deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Nothing is getting finished that isn’t followed up by a paycheck. (Well, except beers. There were a lot of beer bottles on the kitchen counter Sunday night. So far no one is paying me to drink beer.)

But this is good stuff, from the people at Wired, who are always full of good stuff:

Take on a new challenge and the excitement of tackling it will rub off on your relationship. “That exhilarating feeling may come from another source, but it’s still associated with your partner,” says Aron, who theorizes this happens because of brain chemistry. “When people fall in love, they get activation in the dopamine system,” he says. Novel or exciting pursuits also stimulate the brain to pump out more dopamine. Aron theorizes that even playing videogames together may draw a couple closer.

I love this advice, which I think is good advice for falling in love with your partner again as well as falling in love with your work or your life. As a workaholic I too easily fall into ruts, but I also love novelty and miss it greatly. I am the person who will order the pasta with peaches and salami, or the cardamom and black pepper ice cream (admit it, that sounds delicious). I love cover songs with weirdly inappropriate singers and shoes and purses that don’t match anything.

The other thing that makes this advice awesome is that it is offered alongside a picture of Gonzo and one of his chickens rockclimbing. I am not sure what species Gonzo is so we’re going to assume that when he’s rekindling the excitement in his avian relationship it is fully and consensually reciprocated. (Who am I to judge, apparently I love everything that isn’t supposed to go together.)

The whole article is Muppetized advice: If you don’t feel like rekindling your relationship, Hippie Janice is a cautionary example for tips on untangling your earbuds, and Sam the Eagle demonstrates eating spaghetti.

And if you don’t like Muppets, well, the grumpy old guys are there complaining too.

Thanks to the revived Camp Creek Blog (a homeschooling blog) for pointing this out.

“You Need More Art in Your Life”

I had a lovely moment of serendipity today. I don’t believe that “the universe provides” for those who ask — unless the universe seriously hates the Congo and has a mad crush on upper-middle-class Unitarians — but I do believe that having ears that hear and eyes that see happens more often when you know what you’re looking for.

Last night I had dinner with my husband while my girls were out trick-or-treating with other friends, and I took advantage of the time between my girl-tini and the arrival of the sushi platter to talk to him about the stuff I thought I might figure out by writing (sporadically) on this blog. In short: how did I wake up this side of 40 somewhere I didn’t plan to be, and how do I get somewhere else, somewhere I like a little better?

I don’t believe in trying to reclaim your younger self, but as I said to him over little scallop purses, there was a time when I paid more attention to making things and making them well, and learning things, and mastering them. When it didn’t seem the point of the day was to get to the end of it as quickly as possible, ideally — oh, the high standards! — with enough energy left to watch a sitcom before going to bed.

“You need more art in your life,” he said: art as in making, art as in beauty, art as in creating something for the sake of creation.

Today while I was cleaning up in the basement, I found stacks of old notebooks, mostly containing useless notes about ancient freelance projects. But in one of them I happened to find this. It’s so old I can almost share it without being too embarrassed, like a poem by a relative rather than something of my own. It’s a poem I wrote, no revisions, for no reason, 10+ years ago. It’s not great, but that’s the thing: I made it to make it. And it’s about doing things just to do them.

Housekeeping

These days
I sweep my floor like
my daughter does . . .
Not yet two, she gently
strokes the hardwood with a hairbrush
or maybe a comb.

Her purpose is not to whisk away
the dirt, the crumbs, the onion skins,
but to care for the floor,
lovingly,
like you might pet a cat,
like I might stroke her brown hair
while she sleeps,
imparting a tender blessing.

I can’t go back to being the person who wrote that poem: the person who was waking up from a terrible depression, or the person who was, consequently, falling in love with being a mom and discovering an earthy, messy joy in a way of life that had seemed, only a few years before, a lame consolation prize in the race to the top. I can’t be her anymore than I can be a teenager again, but I can remember some things that she knew.

Finding that poem reminded me that I know how to have art in my life. Everybody does; we’re born that way. Why I stopped, I don’t know. Stuff gets away from you. But starting again doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’d like to start playing Chopin again, or publish a book of essays, or audition for a play, but I can also just pick up a pen and a notebook, or a broom.

After dinner last night we went to pick up one of our girls, drank some wine with friends, and then drove home singing Elvis songs. The day had been insanely long, and almost 4 hours of it had been spent driving in construction and traffic. My most creative act of the day was making green cupcake frosting, most of which ended up in the trash anyway. I stretched out on the sofa to watch 30 Rock but I couldn’t get to the end; my eyes kept closing and then the storyline kept changing in nonsensical ways until my husband woke me up and told me to go to bed. It was a fine day, but no art. Not even a wakeful sitcom viewing.

There’s been precious little art in this day too, but I still have about 4 hours to go. What will it be: the salad? a little piano practice? another poem for the archives?

And you: do you have enough art in your life?

Shoes I Have Known and Loved

My friend Kelly, who blogs about fashion, feminism, and other quasi-girly stuff at How I Learned to Wear a Dress, asked this question on her blog’s Facebook wall:

At what point did how shoes look (and how they looked with your outfit) supersede how they functioned?

Oh the memories.

I was, at one time, a devoted shoe hound. For one thing, no matter how hippy or busty you are, shoes fit fairly reliably compared to pants or a dress. If you’re a size 9, you buy a size 9, with few exceptions. There is no plus size section of the shoe department, and few women have shoes in multiple sizes waiting in their closets until they can get into them.

Shoes are also less of a commitment. Feeling a little puckish today? Lace up your combat boots—no need to go the whole nine yards and get the pegged jeans and shredded Clash t-shirt out of storage from your parents’ basement.

Besides, function is a relative term. When I was young all my shoes were functional — I went drunk rock climbing in the dark wearing crazy pointy-toed white ostrich-skin pumps without any trouble. My youthful feet could make any heel, any toe, any platform work.

It’s kind of like how no clothes are ugly or ill fitting when you’re 19 because you are just bursting with sexy, “Corinna’s going a-maying” nubile hotness regardless. (How else could American Apparel be so successful?) When I go to Ragstock or another shop staffed by young urban hipsters, the cashiers are flaunting it: “Look at me! I’m wearing an ironic Cosby sweater and corduroy pants the color of moldy mustard and I still look sexier than you could with a $1000 and a personal stylist!” At some unconscious level, they’re playing a game of fashion chicken that they can’t lose: see how many ways can I violate traditional aesthetics and still look freakin’ awesome?

And so I loved shoes from about ages 12 to 30, and then there was a dramatic decline, for familiar reasons:

1) My feet grew after pregnancy and most of my collection had to go.
2) I never wore anything or went anywhere that required cool shoes.
3) Years of going barefoot (and pregnancy) meant that my feet could no longer squeeze pointy-toed shoes even if I bought them new.

I am not too sad about this, just as I am not really missing 19. But I can still relish the memories, from the 4-inch wooden stilettos I wore to tour Niagara Falls with my parents and grandparents when I was 12 to the tall black cowboy boots I wore with tights and short jean cutoffs for much of grad school. Those were good—if, in the case of the stilettos, somewhat messed up—times.

Besides, shoe trends these days perplex me. Setting the functionality of high heels aside, is there a more boring shoe than the high-heeled pump? Putting a 5-inch heel, or toe platform, or shiny patent leather on it is like tacking up pictures of your cat and George Clooney in your office cubicle. Sure, it’s a little more interesting than the bare fabric walls, but you’re still in a cube. Zzzzzzzzzzz.

These are the shoes I have my eye on now: they’re like my old LL Bean lined duck boots (circa 1987) meets Converse high tops (circa 1985) meets my cowboy boots meets Sorel. Like all of those old shoes, they go with anything, but especially they’ll go with the snow.

Monday Mind Hack — Perspective

I try hard not to fall back on the old cliché “It could be worse” when trying to console someone or boost morale. “It could be worse” is almost always true, and yet it is so far from comforting it almost feels like scolding.

“Quit yer bitchin'” more like. Not helpful. “There’s a first-world problem,” someone says when you’ve lost one too many rounds with the technology in your life. Great: now I can feel frustrated, overwhelmed and ashamed of what a yuppie douchebag I’ve turned out to be. Thanks for that.

So when someone posted an article on Facebook with the one-word comment “perspective” I was hesitant to read it. Plus it’s called “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” which made me think that it was related to that whole “Tiger Mom” thing, and I’m sure we can agree no one needs to go there again.

But I didn’t want to leave my desk chair and go face the onerous task of grinding the morning coffee beans (“There’s a first-world problem”), so I read it anyway.

Wow. Perspective. Read It. Really.

The author, Emily Rapp, writes movingly about parenting a terminally ill child:

Ronan won’t prosper or succeed in the way we have come to understand this term in our culture; he will never walk or say “Mama,” and I will never be a tiger mom. The mothers and fathers of terminally ill children are something else entirely. Our goals are simple and terrible: to help our children live with minimal discomfort and maximum dignity. We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal. We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.

Her point isn’t that those of us with healthy children should feel guilty for that unearned grace or foolish for having dreams for the future, but that parenting—living—is ultimately a “here and now” experience.

The truth is that healthy children and healthy parents die unexpectedly, as our family learned personally and painfully this summer when we lost 3 friends in a car accident. And there are less dramatic changes and surprises: a career ends abruptly, lifelong friends move away, a mental illness appears out of nowhere and settles in to stay. It now takes me two hands to count up the number of friends—mostly mothers 40 and under—diagnosed with breast cancer in the last two years. What Rapp writes about parenting is true for all the plans we make: “none of it is forever.”

Gratitude for not having any of those problems is great, but it’s still a short-term perspective. The long view, ironically, reveals that regardless of whether we’re healthy or sick, successful or at sea, today is really all there is. The only way we can be sure that we’ll achieve the desired consequences of our actions is to do them “for the humanity implicit in the act itself.”

If I set that as the standard for what I put on my agenda today, what stays? What goes? And what do I need to add to make this day worth doing, just for the sake of doing it? If I set that as the standard for how I perform the day’s necessary but ordinary tasks, would I do them differently?

The Clean Slate Club

AM’s post about moving to a new city and having to make a new social life really resonated with me, but not because I’m moving or looking for new friends. It’s because I’m envious.

I’m not a very social person, so it’s not the “building a social life” or the “putting myself out there” that got me feeling a little jealous. It was the part about “from scratch” and “new me, new city, new things, new people.”

I love my city with a completely unobjective partisan love, and I am thrilled to know and hang out with fantastic people I hope to keeping hanging with for a long time. It’s just, well, I miss “new.” It’s like this:

Remember leaving high school? (At least vaguely?) If you’re lucky you go off to college somewhere new, somewhere that you aren’t “Bob and Sue’s daughter” or “the girl from debate class” or “the one who threw that huge party junior year and the cops came and half the school got busted on the new alcohol policy and never really forgave you despite all the money you spent on liquor.”

Maybe you gain the Freshman 10, but I felt like I dropped the Freshman 50, walking around free on my college campus. I can still see myself standing in front of the theatre building on the bucolic Smith College campus when I had the sudden realization: “None of these people know who I am. Good lord, I could be anybody!”

Then you leave college for work, or grad school. Probably you have a series of jobs before you find one that you stick with for a while, or before the babies turn up at your door and tell you you’re not leaving for a couple of years. Each time it’s a chance to be brand new.

I managed to squeeze in quite a few fresh starts in my young life, transferring schools, skipping town, going online, leaving academia. Often these were hard goodbyes. Plus moving sucks. I hope to stay in this house forever, or at least until someone buries my ashes in the backyard. (Note to family: I’m hoping that won’t be for a while, so put away the shovels.)

Still, there’s a part of me that is always looking down the road for the next corner to turn. When I stay in one place too long I get Itchy. And Scratchy. (But not Poochie.) Living online seems to exacerbate this feeling: every word goes on your permanent record, every person you’ve ever known comes back to find you again. Except they know you as You 2.0 and you’re now at least OS X Snow Leopard and looking at upgrading to Lion.

So many sticky little threads holding you in place, fixing your identity: no wonder they call it the World Wide Web.

Much as the idea of a dramatic breakout appeals, however, it’s not in the cards. I’ve got the Real golden handcuffs: great kids, dreamy husband, a little slice of the Midwest that I’ve grown to love. How I’m going to achieve that great “Clean Slate” feeling I love is still a little bit beyond me: divorce, the Witness Protection Program, and high colonics are out, as are drug-induced amnesia and the convent.

Still, every great journey begins with a single step, and I’ve started this one like so many others before me: with an inspirational refrigerator magnet. Check it out, it might inspire you too:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Think Different

My Facebook wall and Google+ stream are full of a common sentiment: R.I.P. Steve Jobs. (Twitter probably is too — when I last looked it was over capacity and couldn’t sign in.)

As a teen and young adult I was raised to love Steve Jobs like I was raised to love classic rock, Detroit, and vacations at the lake up north. As a grown person I may be able to see the warts that I missed as a kid, I may have developed some new tastes, but Apple was one of my family values from time my dad brought home the first Macintosh.

The death of Steve Jobs feels personal: a sign of decades of brilliant marketing, for sure, but true in lots of ways. I’ll be calling my dad tomorrow, for one thing. I think he’s had every Mac model (even the Newton! talk about being ahead of his time!) and used to ask for copies of MacWorld as Christmas gifts from us kids. I associate Apple with my dad like some people associate sports teams or cigars.

And on that score: the other reason I take the death of Steve Jobs personally is that I feel pretty sure he’s one of the accidental engineers of geek ascendency, the shift in pop culture mores that has made technology, science fiction, role-playing games, and assorted fantasy nerd lore cool for my 12-year-old daughter in a way that it never was when I was young. He may have a screen credit on “Toy Story,” but he also deserves credit for “The Big Bang Theory,” which wouldn’t be a phenomenon today if geeks like Jobs hadn’t been making science and computers exciting and necessary for the last 25 years. To grow up a nerd and then see your team rise up and take over is powerful stuff. It moves products, yes, but it also moves people.

People like Jobs are incredibly inspirational to me because, in small but important ways, I see myself in them. Not only because I was squarely in the geek squad as a kid, but because he came back after being written off or cast out, and because I have always tried to live like this:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. [Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005]

That approach never let me down either, until recently. Lately a plateau—maybe a rut—in my work and in other areas of my life have left me wondering whether my foolish optimism led me to a dead end, and whether a hard-nosed pragmatism would have served me better.

For better or worse, however, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I love my iMac, my Macbook, my iPods. When the money tide turns the iPad is top of my list. And I’ve been convinced that it’s not just OK, but essential, to Think Different.

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary” [Steve Jobs, Stanford commencement speech, 2005]

Musical Mind Hacks Monday — 4 Bands to Change Your Mood

Most everyone loves a little music therapy, and now we’re learning something about why. First, there’s something about the anticipation/fulfillment pattern of music. This article (Jonah Lehrer in his Wired column) cites evidence from classical music that dances around the tonic (the I chord) but doesn’t quite hit it, building anticipation for the final climax enjoyably. If you listen to rock or pop music you hear something very similar: guitarists leaning on the 7th, creating a near frenzy of desire for resolution.

I do love instrumental music, but when I really need music therapy I like to sing along and really belt it out. Maybe it’s like doing affirmations: you really need to say these things out loud and not just add them to the noise in your head. And check this out:

Scientists have researched what variables in a song inspire people to sing along in public, the Daily Record reports. Experts found that the impromptu urge to sing along to a song can be credited to four different elements.

These are a long and detailed musical phrase, multiple pitch changes in a song’s hook, the song being led by a male vocalist and the male vocal being in a higher key.

It’s not on my list of top mood lifters, but yeah, I’ll sing along to their catchiest song: Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” (But if you really need a mood lift immediately, go now and watch the Google doodle of “Don’t stop me now.”)

I have my own favorites, many of which fit the qualities researchers found, plus have some personal resonance and — if you ask me — empirical awesomeness that make them go-to songs for me when I need an attitude adjustment.

Stevie Wonder
OK, yes, he is not a band — technically. He’s just such a fantastic musician that he counts as a whole band and then some. And if you want songs with multiple pitch changes—that come out sounding like the most obvious, simple melodies no matter how complex—Stevie is your man. Stevie writes some great love songs: I won’t tell you about the mushy night when husband-to-be and I sat on the sofa and sang Stevie songs to each other, because that is just too much. Or that his brother sang “If It’s Magic” while his brother-in-law played the harp at our wedding: beautiful. Then there was the time we saw him live on New Year’s Eve in Detroit . . .

Love songs aside, though, Stevie is the ultimate “movin’ in the positive” (“Master Blaster”) music. Before all that hearts and flowers stuff, I remember the summer after I graduated from college: I spent the first day crying and crying (and listening to David Bowie, “Changes”) because I felt so lost. Then I picked up the Musiquarium compilation albums and spent the next three months listening to “Boogie on Reggae Woman” nonstop, and I was healed. It’s a sing along, it’s a dance along, it’s irresistible:

Though the very best Stevie sing along could be this one, “As.” Songs in the Key of Life should be handed to every depression patient. Or maybe just to everybody.

Dixie Chicks
They aren’t men, but they do sing in that easy pop tenor range. The Dixie Chicks were part of an experiment for me, years ago, to try things that other people might be critical of. My brainstorm: listen to country music. I didn’t really like the sound of Natalie Maines’ voice at first, but I couldn’t deny that singing along to “Goodbye Earl” and “Sin Wagon” was a lot of fun. When they came out with Taking the Long Way in 2006 I was primed to love it: they had already won me over with their bluegrass—rather than contemporary country pop— sound, and this album was their middle finger to everyone who had gone after them, burning records and sending death threats, after they dared criticize the president during a concert. (Wow, that incident sounds even weirder 10 years later.) Taking the Long Way is a whole album that responds to “Shut Up and Sing” with “I’ll sing, but no one tells me to shut up,” and that first song, “The Long Way Around,” is pretty much the theme song for any kid who grew up in a small town that always fit too tight.

After that album I went back and got Home, their first really big album. All the songs sound different and more defiant after their fall from country music grace, especially “Truth No. 2” (written by the amazing Patty Griffin). Singing along with the Chicks on that one always makes me want to go storm the Bastille, or at least keep plugging along a few more days.

Sly and the Family Stone

Sly is so funky—and at times so dangerous—that it’s easy to miss the fact that half his hits are self-help: “Everybody is a Star,” “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” “You Can Make It If You Try.” I usually prefer to listen to albums rather than greatest hits compilations, especially for music in the heyday of long-play albums, but in this case the greatest hits album is like mainlining positivity. When I put this album on now I see myself in our old one-bedroom apartment, pregnant and trying to get a dissertation written before having the baby, following a spectacularly disastrous oral exam. Could I really make it if I tried? Singing these songs over and over again, I started to think I could. Maybe the greatest of them all, fit for nearly ever occasion: “Stand.”

I can’t resist linking to the Pee Wee Herman medley, which is so worth a click through. (Embedding is disabled on the video.)

U2
Like many children of the 80s, I found the soundtrack of my life on U2 albums, from War to the upcoming 20th anniversary commemoration of Achtung, Baby. I doodled lyrics from “40” during class in high school. When the movie Rattle and Hum came out I thought my teenage self might die from love of each individual member of the band. I sat in my bedroom and repeatedly listened to “One” and “With or Without You” while I pined for the boy who later became my husband. Lately I’ve had All That You Can’t Leave Behind in the kitchen CD player, which has a nice long stretch of songs that help me persist through a persistent funk: “Beautiful Day,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Elevation,” and “Walk On.” All of it says: keep going, drop your baggage, look around and enjoy this day, and if things suck now it won’t last. Nothing new, perhaps, but when you sing it out to the chickpeas and rice while making dinner it’s mighty uplifting stuff.

(Forgive the Tomb Raider video, please! In fact, forgive all the videos. If I could post audio only I would.)

When I was younger, my list of music therapy songs might have been more of the “Where Will I Find Love?” variety, but this list is squarely in “Love your life and don’t look back” category.

What are your go-to songs for turning your mood or your day around? Send us a guest blog post (mina dot 40questions at gmail dot com) or send a link to your own blog—or just put ’em in the comments.