Monday, March 29, 2010

A Love Letter to the Radio

Charlotte moved away during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. We had a party for her, the details of which I remember very little about because she wasn’t the kind of close friend I would call to discuss urgent developments in the non-development of my preadolescent love life. Instead, she was the kind who’d make up 1/4 of the penmanship varieties on a note passed back and forth between a handful of my friends in life science. She was a peripheral giggler, a citizen of my lunch table, a nice girl whose departure warranted some kind of acknowledgement—but not the kind that would require me to ask my parents for cash.

I spent the all-request lunch hour just before her party frantically dialing 1-800-242-0100—digits I still know by heart from the number of times I tried to win tickets to see Bon Jovi or Green Day, or called the late night DJ from a sleepover to see if he’d put my friend on the air if she did a weird enough voice, or requested dedications or songs or shout-outs. We demanded a lot from our DJs.

They gave us a lot in return—like a song dedicated to Charlotte from the bunch of us, which I taped and gave to her.

I don’t get the technology blues when thinking about my childhood very often because, for the most part, every advance improved my life by leaps and bounds. It was unthinkable that I had ever lived like a barbarian with a Walkman once I got my Discman. God, rewinding? So eighties. I can skip to the beginning of the next track—oh, excuse me, you still call them songs?—with one button. And repeat? I can put this on automatic repeat? For hours? Yes, doing so will probably damage key neural synapses in such a way that my adulthood will include days of listening to a single two-minute song on a loop, but man, this Discman is the coolest.

Other things whose obsolescence doesn’t really cause an aching in my guts: vinyl, Gameboy, beepers, dial-up internet. But the radio, and the way it functioned as my cool older sister, that I miss. And now I’m going to write a sentence that will make me sound half “Get off my lawn!” and half “When I was your age…” but I’m just going to go with it: it makes me sad that the radio doesn’t mean to kids growing up now what it did to me then.

The burden of lameness that comes with being the oldest child of parents who count Asia’s eponymous album among their deadly serious all-time favorites is a hefty one. This, coupled with the fact that they didn’t let me watch MTV during my formative years, left me treading water in a sea of Jon Secada and Juice Newton and Huey Lewis and Rod Stewart and Jefferson Starship albums. I wouldn’t even have had a cooler musical island to swim for if it wasn’t for their love of listening to the radio in the car. They were channel hoppers, too. The Temptations cause as much nostalgia for my childhood as Tears for Fears.

When I turned ten or eleven and got my own stereo (and by “got my own stereo,” I of course mean “inherited my dad’s eight-track playing dinosaur that picked up about three stations”), DJs became my coolness sherpas. Elvis Duran on Z100 fed me the songs I’d have to know for school dances. X107 (an “alternative” station whose format change to exclusively country I still lament with such intensity it might as well have been a boyfriend who left me for another girl) gave me the first rock bands I ever listened to and loved. Luck is growing up in era when rock stations still existed, and they played bands with chicks in them. It’s not a stretch to say that X107 made me the kind of girl I am.

The internet makes musical Magellans. They’re explorers. But growing up on the radio, I swung my antennae around like a dowsing rod until music found me. There was something fated and intensely personal about the way a song faded in from static until it was clear, filling your room with a voice that hadn’t been there, that you didn’t know would be there just a second before, that might never be there again, that someone else had chosen for you to hear and so you were listening, responding to the DJ’s Hey, try this nudge.

It was just as likely for Boyz II Men to materialize as some weird folk recording on WFUV, both of which I would rush to tape record for later listening.

I think the thing that makes me sad when I think about fewer kids depending on the radio the way my friends and I did, as a lifeline, is the loss of a musical home base. And I know that I’m probably not even lamenting this for “the kids,” but for me. This is not to say that everything (or anything, at points) on the radio was good. Circa 1995, when I was thirteen and listening to every song I could tune in, I happened to love Del Amitri’s “Roll to Me.” This was a terrible song. Like, really horrible. But I liked it, and my friends all knew it, and the words were as familiar to our mouths as our own teeth for those couple of months when it was everywhere.

Now I (and everyone I know, and my younger brothers, and their friends) find music online and listen to it on headphones. I’ve become a creepy hoarder, stacking albums like old newspapers in the smelly basement of my personal taste. The experience of listening to music out loud and knowing that everyone has heard it—on the same station, at the same time—is all but gone.

I used to do this thing when I was feeling either very hopeful or very heartbroken, mostly about some guy, mostly who I’d never spoken to, where I’d turn on the radio and pick a number—say 3—and the third song that came on would have deep cosmic significance. Maybe that song would be Pearl Jam and I would take to heart the lyrics about not finding a better man. (To stare at. In pre-algebra.) It was just as possible that the song would be “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins and I try to wrest some meaning from the line about kicking off my Sunday shoes or life not passing me by.

It was load of horseshit.

That I still try to do with my iPod on shuffle, but it’s not the same because I’ve personally loaded it with every song possibility.

The radio, though—it’s mystical. Particularly for idiots like me with streak of sentimentality that can’t always be reined in.

Monday, March 08, 2010

ChatRoulessions

Chatroulette was about the last thing on the planet I thought I would try, let alone like, let alone love, let alone forfeit sleep to use. But when the prospect of trying it with a friend at a bar materialized, suddenly it seemed like fun. Who cares if strangers can see you if there are two of you? The idea of looking at dick after dick after ugly, marginally turgid dick is far less creepy when you've got a partner in voyeuristic crime.

I don't like speaking to strangers. I don't even like speaking to my friends on the phone, as anyone who has ever tried to call me can attest. Webcams, 1990's era chat windows, abbreviated chat speak, old men and their exposed netherregions. These are things I am pleased I can avoid. They are also crucial Chatroulette ingredients. And yet? I was totally sold.

My take on Chatroulette is that it is at once the best and worst of people, a confirmation that everyone is nosy and judgmental and mostly id, but that even the drunkest group of teenage boys requesting to see your tits is there because they love the idea of seeing a real person. If the internet is the Berlin Wall of social interaction, Chatroulette is David Hasselhoff singing at its demolition: stupid and cheesy, yes, but also optimistic about basic humanity and its desire for connection.

Prior to my Chatroulette experience, I've never had a quantitative assessment of my first impression. Your friends rarely remember what they thought of you the instant they met you and they probably wouldn't tell you anyway. The social contract dictates that strangers, even if they think you are ugly and stupid, will not yell "UGLY AND STUPID!" and walk away. Chatroulette, on the other hand, is an endless first impression with accompanying commentary. I have learned I am unappealing except to the kind of guy who likes 30 Rock, which is thankfully not that small a population. I am actually funny; I can see people laugh when I say things. As I feared, my facial features walk the line between masculine and feminine in such a way that neglecting my eyebrows and putting on ever so slightly drag queeny makeup (a bad idea born from fluorescent lighting in my kitchen and poor resolution on my webcam) gives the impression that I may not have been born a female.

Contrary to how brutal it sounds, and how much this would normally make me weep, it's somehow liberating because of the detatchment I feel by virtue of it being on the internet. That guy thinks I'm ugly? Eh, fuck 'im. Next. On the flip side, this guy is cute! But boring. Nexting you!

All told, I've spent probably twelve hours on Chatroulette in total. Here's what I've learned.

1. As I mentioned, half of the world seems to suspect I am a man. These people will want to see my boobs anyway, so it's kind of a wash in the self-esteem department.

2. One can emerge relatively unscathed if you operate like an unattractive high school girl. Avoid large packs of teenage guys and old men. The pretty girls will pretend they don't see you.

3. Everyone smokes weed. Everyone. Every single person.

4. The French deserve credit for not playing to type. All of the French people I've come across have been charming and kind and not at all rude (wearing pants).

5. Everyone lives in the same shitty apartment. We all decorate from Target. No one does the dishes.

6. It's good to have some schtick. My response to someone jerking off is always "Mine's bigger." I may instead steal the line I got from a (very cute) guy in Salt Lake City, who uses "Ten points for Gryffindor!"

7. There is an excellent art project out there to be done based on screencaps of people's faces just before they instantly disconnect you. Particularly teenage girls.

8. Chatroulette is clearly about judging books by their covers, but as with literature it's often edifying to read the books you'd reject. This is how you end up talking to a Texan ex-frat guy Ken doll with a large tribal rib piece who coaches football...about David Foster Wallace. When you get disconnected you will actually miss him.

9. You don't realize how infrequently you wave hello and goodbye until you're on a webcam, nor how pleasing a gesture it is.

10. Ditto for the middle finger.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Dancing Around the Issue

Because New York is a city where things like this happen, and because I cannot say no to things that give me access to any subculture that could've appeared on Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, and because Sunday night is the time of the week when both unexpected invitations and an abundance of sequins could be considered therapeutic, I found myself at a ballroom dance competition at the Roosevelt Hotel last weekend.

The hotel itself was a trip. I've rarely been in a place decorated with that much marble where I wasn't required to genuflect before sitting down. It was the kind of hotel where I secretly hoped someone would think I was a hooker while I waited in the lobby for my friend, then realized they wouldn't because I wasn't classy enough to be the kind of hooker their guests would call, which made me all the more excited to be there. I wanted to order a Manhattan. There were no waitresses and I don't even know what's in a Manhattan, I just wanted to order one.

It was the kind of setting that made me wish I was a girl who can pull off hats.

The competition was in the ballroom, obviously, and we had seats at a table right on the edge of the dance floor. There were moments when couples rhumba-ed so close members of our party were hit by flying ruffles. The dancing was unreal, particularly the professional routines at the end which trod the (heretofore invisible to me) line between gymnastics and soap opera, but I was way more interested in the way the female dancers looked. Bizarre bedazzled gowns and all their strange cut-outs aside, these women were bronzed far past medium rare and into well done. Their hair was shellacked to their scalps with glitter hairspray and exploded into a ramen bowl of faux curls in the back. Stripes of rouge approximated eye black more than a healthy glow. I suspect there were even some teeth coated in Vaseline. I have no idea how to even begin describing the eyeshadow, except to ask if you’ve ever swirled a couple of colors of Play-Doh together and then rolled it out.

The more couples that danced, the more curious their uniformly eccentric style seemed. If you’re going to dance a waltz I can understand wearing either a regular formal dress or, if we’re gonna be authentic, something redolent of the period when the dance originated. But where did the feathered, gathered, sequined, open-backed, ruffled, fluorescent pink rayon floor-length gown come from? Why did they have to be so made up? Why the tan? I understand that even competitive, really athletic ballroom dancing is descended from something genteel and formal and black tie mandatory, but glitter? In your hair? That is fake?

Even though the dancers were actually lovely, they didn’t look beautiful. This is the thing I liked the best about it: I was watching a bunch of whirling grotesques who looked like they felt beautiful, and they danced beautifully. Even better: even though I’d worn my one pair of heels and a dress and fancy tights and (relatively) reasonably applied cosmetics, I was the outlier if you measured me against the standard of the room. I don’t dress up often and always feel kind of like a failure when I do. To show up to a room where the target I proverbially miss wasn’t even on the same field as the one these women were shooting for was a thrill.

Not to belabor a cultural phenomenon so overripe you have to make banana bread out of it, but this is kind of the same reason I’m a Snooki defender. It’s easy to make fun of the way she dresses and the way she looks, but what’s the point when she has achieved hot-as-fuck-itude on her scale and has more fun than most people I know as a direct result?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being beautiful because I’ve been feeling generally un-; this has nothing to do with anything besides the tidal nature of my confidence. Sometimes it’s way high up on the beach, but that means occasionally it’s also low enough to walk out on a sand spit. I’ve been wading in one of those moods where my peripheral involvement in Fashion Week and the requisite hundred accusations that I am ruining a photograph and need to move actually sting. And getting Kennedied (the verb for someone telling me I remind them of the old VJ, which happens with disturbing frequency) isn’t funny, it’s depressing. No, not even depressing, really (if anyone leaves me any confidence-bolstering comments I’ll die of embarrassment, so maybe I shouldn’t be putting this on the internet, but also, MY BLOG, MY RULES). To have attention called to your appearance frequently with a comment so neutered is purgatorial.

Confidence and the way stuff goes with guys is so tangled together for me it’s like pulling one necklace out of a jewelry box and having a snarl of ten emerge. It was my last Kennedying that made me decide to hang up my dating hat, at least for a little while, even though it was one of the best bar interactions I’ve ever had.

My roommate Jes and I decided several beers at our favorite bar were in order after a particularly brutal Monday a few weeks ago. She had come straight from work; I was wearing a crappy sweatshirt and my hair in its customary pile on top of my head. We were watching ice dancing. I didn’t even notice when the dude sat down next to me. I don’t know when we started talking. Somewhere between spinning Slavic couples I was Kennedied, yes, but so good-naturedly I didn’t mind. It was one of those moments where you end up talking to a stranger with such familiarity they feel like a room you could navigate in the dark. We made fun of each other for two hours—interrupted only to make fun of other people—and when I suggested we introduce ourselves he insisted it was cooler if we didn’t. I knew he and his friends were in town from Cincinnati for a few days, so he christened himself Cincinnati A. He knew Jes and I were roommates, so I was Roommate A.

Cincinnati and I bullshitted until his friends got bored with us somewhere around 3:00 in the morning and they left. In some Lost-style sideways reality, I probably should’ve married that guy. But in this right here right now, it wasn’t anything more significant than an unexpected gain toward nothing in particular. I prefer this to my endless fixation on the shit I’m missing. Two hours of stranger banter so perfect it’s like David Mamet co-wrote that episode of my life is way more valuable than a repeat with some guys whose names AND numbers I know.

To spread the metaphorical butter super thin, I think I’m forfeiting the goal of Fashion Week beautiful in pursuit of ballroom dancing beautiful. But not in terms of beauty, in terms of life. At least for now. Feeling less than lovely? Declare a romance moratorium, treat bar conversation like chess instead of flirtation, feel victorious when I win it. Writing projects are pointless? Get an acoustic guitar, remember more chords than I thought I did, feel victorious when Taylor Swift covers sound recognizable.

Perform them for the dogs.

Revel in copious tail-wagging.
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