the mantras

those of you who know me well (and perhaps a few of you observant readers who don’t) are aware of the fact that i have some control issues.  i could put it a nicer way, i suppose.  i fear change.  i’m set in my ways.  i like things just so.  but truthfully, i’m a control freak.

my control freakiness comes out quite a bit at sxsw, when i’m in the presence of a hundred people i love that i never get to see at any other time.  i want to spend as much time with everyone as i can, so i get really concerned about the logistics of things.  how are all twelve of us going to get a table at this restaurant?  where are michael and cameron going now?  aren’t we waiting for leonard?  why is andrew going there instead of coming along with us?  i never actually get angry at anyone, but sometimes i get so stressed out that i’m unable to have a good time.

and i think i do appear angry to people who don’t know me.  cinnamon told me that last year i was all freaked out about something, and ryan leaned over to her and said, “she’s not mad at anyone.  she just gets like this sometimes.”  and while it’s nice to have someone explain me when it’s necessary, it shouldn’t be necessary at all.

this year at sxsw i decided that i was going to stop freaking out.  the freaking out was interfering with my good time and making me look like an angry person.  sxsw is my favorite time of year; shouldn’t i be happy spending time with whoever’s around instead of worrying about who’s not around?  and ultimately, why am i so worried about what other people do?  i should just do whatever’s best for me and welcome anyone who wants to come along.  anyone who doesn’t want to come along i’ll probably run into later.  right?

so i carried this mindset with me through most of sxsw without incident.  and it worked!  i felt happier, more relaxed, and better able to enjoy myself in any given moment.  it worked, i should say, until tuesday.  a group of nine of us were trying to go to the avenue cafe for lunch.  andrew had called ahead and reserved us a table, so we were all set.  on our way there, three people in our group decided that they’d rather go to a vietnamese place, so they broke off and started walking the other way.  i felt myself beginning to stress out.  but they were supposed to come with us.  we’re not all going to go have vietnamese.  we reserved a table for nine, and now we’re six.  is the restaurant going to be mad?  how will we find the others later?

at that moment i was walking with cinnamon, who had seen me freak out before and knew that not freaking out was my goal for this year.  so i took a deep breath and started chanting.  “i don’t care what other people do,” i said.  “i don’t care what other people do.  i don’t care what other people do.  i don’t care what other people do.  i don’t care what other people do.”  instantly i was calm.  even cinnamon could tell that this had helped me.  because i didn’t care what other people did.  the three of them would go have vietnamese food and be fine, and the six of us would go to the avenue and be fine.  we would all meet up later, and it wouldn’t matter if we’d eaten lunch together or not.

i know that mantras come from hinduism or buddhism, neither of which i know much about.  and i don’t usually put much stock in any religion.  but damned if repeating that phrase over and over again didn’t make things okay.  i think it worked because the rhythm of it calmed me down, and the content reminded me of what my overall goal was.

i can think of one other time when a mantra helped me.  after a particularly difficult breakup in 2003, jess and i went to marfa for a long weekend.  i was really upset about the fact that this guy and i weren’t together anymore, upset enough that in my worst moments i wasn’t sure that it was worth it to go on.  what scared me about this was that apparently my personal well-being had become dependent upon whether or not i was with this guy.  and i didn’t want to be that person.  i wanted to be a person who was devastated by a breakup, but knew they would eventually be all right; whose self-esteem didn’t have anything to do with their relationship with someone else.

during this time i kept thinking about people who suddenly find themselves in possession of a large amount of money, through the lottery or an inheritance or whatever.  most financial advisers tell those people that, to make their money last a long time, they should put it in the bank and live off the interest rather than spending the initial sum.  “don’t spend the principal,” they say.

so i applied that phrase to my own situation.  if i could become emotionally invested in another person without sacrificing major parts of myself, then i wouldn’t ever find myself at the end of a relationship feeling like i didn’t want to go on.  i would not spend the principal.

so when jess and i were in marfa trying to look at art and sneak into hotel rooms and check for aliens, my heart was breaking and the only thing that made me feel better was to repeat to myself over and over and over, “don’t spend the principal.  don’t spend the principal.  don’t spend the principal.”  again, it was both the rhythm and the content of the phrase that i found helpful.

i don’t know if i always believe in “don’t spend the principal,” and i definitely don’t think that “i don’t care what other people do” applies in every situation, but i do know that repeating those phrases over and over again has helped keep me sane.

next year’s mantra?  “there’s no need to shout.”


every year at sxsw, a combination of loud parties, constant talking, and lack of sleep sends my voice lower and lower in pitch until the last day (tuesday) when i sound like kathleen turner. this year i must have done a lot more partying and talking because i reached kathleen turner on monday, joan rivers on tuesday, and wednesday i could barely talk at all. on my panel monday (some photos), i had to introduce myself as “alison headley, and i’m losing my voice.”

“wow,” carrie said when we met in the green room before the panel, “you’re like peter brady.”

but the panel went well otherwise. i got to speak up about whether or not you can take something back after it’s already been published on your site and put in a digital archive, and i talked about the separation of design from content. and i name-checked sleater-kinney! there’ll be a podcast up eventually, so i’ll let you know when that is. download it and hear my voice crack!

i am very upset about the fact that, when i left the panel room, i forgot to take my place card with me. i really wanted it.
(update: hugh forrest saw this post and emailed me with an offer to mail me my place card. yay!)

(we’ll talk more about sxsw later.)

at sxsw now

today at a vietnamese restaurant, other people were talking to each other, and i was writing this:

why don’t i do anything?
when do these people do all the things they do?
how do they have less time than me but more things that they do?
what do i do all day if i don’t actually have anything to show for it?