The Shelf and Other Symbols of Bachelorhood

Recently, I bought a Kindle and now I’ve thought about it too much and loaded it with metaphorical significance.

First though, I need to tell you about The Shelf.  This is The Shelf.

As I mentioned in the last post, I lived at home with my parents for 3 years.  As with anyone caught in a state of purgatory, I developed symbols to keep hope alive.  Like Bruce Wayne climbing out of that jail-pit, I needed hope that I would have the 20s that all the seasons of Friends promised me I would have.  If network television was going to lie to me, then there really wasn’t any point in continuing on.

My symbol of bachelorhood and independence: The Shelf.  Ever since I can remember, I have been a collector.  When I was a kid it was comic books and there was nary a Wednesday afternoon that I didn’t ride my bike up to the store to grab my new issues.  When I entered my teens, I became intensely fascinated with classic rock and began seeking out Beatles and Who and Dylan CDs like they were the hottest bands on Total Request Live or something.  After my all of my CDs were stolen, the obsession turned to DVDs.  I wanted to have the best collection out of all my friends, even if they didn’t realize how good it was.  “What do you mean you don’t own the three-disc special edition of Close Encounters?” was my plea to often unappreciative and increasingly disinterested friends.

As such, by the time I graduated college, I had quite the impressive collection of favorites, cult hits, TV shows, nostalgia buys, classics, modern classics, and Muppets (because muppets are genre in and of themselves, obviously).  I knew I had them but that wasn’t enough: they needed to be displayed.  Hence, I dreamt (re: idly thought of sometimes) of The Shelf–a tribute to my collector victories and a physical symbol of my hobbies.  While with my folks, the DVDs and such were packed away in boxes, relegated to the back of the entertainment unit, or cluttered amidst old textbooks in my closet.  This was not the home they deserved.

When I moved out, my brother and his now-fiancee allowed me to use their Ikea shelf (which is probably called something multi-syllabic with an overabundance of umlauts).  Once I put everything on it, I stood back and admired at its glory.

The Shelf was born.

Finally, I could see it.  It was a small, trivial victory, but it was my victory.

That’s when it was pointed out to me.  The hard truth.  The grim reality.

“You know all of those titles are on Netflix, right?” 

This was my brother and roommate.  I looked over all the titles: LostBattlestar GalacticaTwin Peaks.  Hitchcock, Scorsese, Whedon.  Almost 90 percent of my Shelf was available, streaming, to anybody who is willing to pay $8 a month.

There are now two ways the rest of this essay can go: one I can start sound like A Very Old Person Indeed and opine about the digital age and use a lot of very descriptive words that compares the smell of books to, like, an olfactory orgasm or something.  Or I can take the route of The Future Is Now And I’m Tweeting From Mt. Kilimanjaro and talk about how great it is that pretty much all media can be condensed down to, like, 3 sleek devices.

But we all know it’s not that simple.  There’s a romanticism attached to Old Media–the look, the feel, and, yes, even the smell.  But anyone who has been stuck on an airplane with the same copy of the latest John Irving will tell you that it would be great if they could switch over to something trashier, even if only for a few minutes.  Anyone who has been listening to Top 40 radio stations their entire lives should probably welcome the fact that they can listen to obscure Pink Floyd B-sides with the touch of a button.

Ideally, technology goes hand in hand with democracy.  Is it cool that I have the entire series of a British cult series on DVD?  Yes (to me).  But how much cooler is it that someone in Denver, Colorado can stumble across it without having to face the judgement of sneering fetishists?  That’s a global-type of cool.

And then there’s the idea that simply having stuff is cool and fun and connects us.  Seriously, having stuff is important.  Some stuff you need, like a couch.  And some stuff you don’t, like most art.  But it’s still nice to see that someone also invested money into a framed vintage Vertigo poster.

So I have bought a real Kindle (the one on my iPhone doesn’t count).  And as a result have purchased physical books for (maybe) the last time.

Is it the end of an era?  No, that’s ridiculous.  It’s just progress.

It will mean that I’ll have to get better at decorating though.  I’m gonna need swatches, guys, lots and lots of swatches.

Or, y’know, a girlfriend.

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Back in Town and Other Identity Crises

One of my favorite aspects of language is the difference between denotation and connotation.  Denotation is what a word means–the dictionary definition of a word.  Connotation is how a word feels–the emotion we as human beings have infused the word with, for whatever reason.  The most common example of this, the way your high school English teacher (ahem) may have put it goes as follows: “slim” and “scrawny” are synonyms and mean an absence of fat.  That’s the denotative definition.  No one can argue with that.  The connotation of those two words, though, therein lies the argument and therein is where things get complicated.  You call someone “slim” and you think athletic, slender, in-shape–Michael freaking Phelps.  You call someone “scrawny” you think bony, weak, Peter-Parker-pre-spider-bite.  “Slim” has the positive connotation, “scrawny” the negative.

With that in mind, definitely one of the most loaded phrases of adult life consists of three simple words: “Back in town.”  The denotation of “back in town” is quite simple: you have left, you have returned.  But the connotation of this phrase is very different.  To some (usually the person saying it) you’re saying that you’re coming back to a place where you’ve felt comfortable, you’ll be here for a short while, etc.  But to the person who lives said “town” the phrase’s connotation is one pure condescension.  

I’ve been at both ends of this spectrum.  Post-college, I came “back in town” and the phrase became moot because “back” quickly transmogrified into “staying.”  For three years of my prime post-college, pre-everyone-getting-married life, I lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, with my parents, in a sort of malaise that was rivaled only by the protagonists of Judd Apatow movies (but even those guys had their own apartments).  Thankfully, this was when the economy decided to implode in an engulfing haze of crestfallen stockbrokers and shattered middle class dreams, so almost all of my high school graduating class were subjected to the same fate.  Back we went: to our childhood homes, childhood bedrooms, childhood friends.  No connotation needed: it just sort of sucked.

(Please note: so I don’t come across as a complete tool, I would like add that we were all incredibly grateful that we had loving and supportive parents who didn’t tell us to hit the bricks and other less-than-pleasant euphemisms for “grow up”.  We were allowed to weather the worst of the storm in veritable safe havens.  Love you, Mom and Dad, and thanks!  Check’s in the mail, I swear!)

Now that I have left town and can conceivably go back to it, the phrase “back in town” has entered my lexicon in a new way.  These past few months, I’ve been lucky enough to go back to town and stay for a while.  And despite the inherent condescension of the phrase, it was great to be back.  I get that a lot of people in their college years and 20s have disdain for “their town”.  After all, it was the backdrop of high school heartache, the place where you lost friends, got rejected, beat up, ignored, and all the usual events that fuel some healthy bouts of teenage angst.  It’s easy to look back and transpose all those emotions that you felt at that time onto a geographic location.  After all: by leaving town and all those people, you hope that you leave a little of yourself behind too and the magical new place you go to is a new opportunity.  You can completely reinvent yourself. 

Except for the fact that you don’t. Neil Gaiman put it best in his novel The Graveyard Book when he said: “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

A very minor case in point: I stopped watching the TV show Buffy, The Vampire Slayer around season 5.  This was 2000-2001 so I was a high school freshman and despite the fact that I had been enthralled with seasons 1-4 of Buffy I saw the oncoming of the shoehorned-in-through-mystical-devices character Dawn (Buffy’s younger sister) as a jump-the-shark moment and bailed.  Cut to: first year of college.  I’m in San Francisco.  I have left “town” and now I’m in the proverbial big city.  But, following the premise laid out by Mr. Gaiman, wherever I went, I took myself with me.  So despite the fact that I was aware and planning for a Me 2.0 to emerge, I was never the “wild and crazy” kid in high school so I wasn’t going to be the “wild and crazy” kid in college.  Instead of the standard sex and drugs route, Me 2.0 decided he was going to fall into a different sort of trap: douchey pretensions.

I listened to Bright Eyes.  I read Spin Magazine.  I talked about buying a typewriter.  I watched “art house” David Lynch short films.  I was in college, dammit, and that meant something.

I honestly couldn’t say how long my douchey pretentiousness lasted and I could argue that it never really went away: I still love David Lynch and I listen to Bright Eyes.  Thankfully, I never bought a typewriter, because I’m not an idiot (attention, hipsters: marvel at my ability to use a backspace key!).  But, it wasn’t long until the high school freshman crept back up and suddenly I was buying on DVD and re-watching every single episode of Buffy and then Angel and then Firefly and then Dr. Horrible.

So, there came a point in college when I was back in town, with my older brother.  We did one of the few things you can do in my town which is go to the fairly impressive multiplex.  I have no idea what movie we were going to see, but I do remember that my brother and I were waiting for something and we stood off the side of what is essentially a large outdoor courtyard of sorts and we both looked around at all the young high schoolers that flocked around us.  We felt old, I think it’s fair to say.

As so often with people who feel old (but actually aren’t), the conversation turned to do-overs.  If you could go back and have a re-do of your high school years, would you?  To me, this is an incredibly and intensely fascinating question, mainly because of all the other questions it raises.

For example: if you go back, how much do you know?  Like, are you physically 16, but intellectually and psychologically the age you are right now?  Do hormones affect you like a 16-year-old experiencing them for the first time or are you as dulled to it as you are right now?  Are you able to tell people the future?  If you are, at that point, why wouldn’t you convince your parents to liquidate your everything they own and invest the cash in something that will pay dividends later?  Do you get to steal the ideas of all the music, movies, stories that you know are coming down the pipeline?  I mean, are you really going back just get a date with the head cheerleader?  That seems kind of stupid.

So, my answer to re-living a day is a resounding: “No thank you.”  Because first of all: just because you know the future, no one else does.  That seems really annoying.  Seriously, imagine knowing the ending to every movie for the next 5 years.  You would have no shared pop culture experiences.  You’d be that annoying guy who was into it before everyone else was and, hey, good for you, but nothing will ever surprise you.  And just because you know that the head cheerleader will end up pregnant by the time she’s 19, doesn’t mean she’ll change her actions because the weirdly world-weary 16-year-old warns her against the decisions she’s making.  That’s not how people work.

There’s a romanticism to going back or at least there’s a romantic aspect to thinking that you could change something about reliving one day.  I think there’s a futility to it all and there should be because you are who you are because of those choices.  Unless you’re dead or in prison, you’re choices were probably not that bad.  Sure, you may have wanted to date the head cheerleader, but then you would never know what it was like to pine from afar and you wouldn’t had the opportunity to meet anybody new and be surprised.

So that day that my brother and I stood in front of the multiplex and talked about do-overs, that’s all a part of it.  We were back in town and It was the ubiquitous presence of those mistakes or regrets that fueled us to leave town in the first place.  And it was our maturity and knocks we received elsewhere that allows to re-appreciate the town we came from.

It is denotation and connotation: what things actually mean and what things are perceived to mean.  The definition of a do-over is a chance to do things again and the general perception that you’d do things better and maybe you would, if you did things perfectly.  But chances are, you’d mess up about 13 other things, things you hadn’t thought of, and then you’d be right back where you started.  This might seem like a depressing thought, but it’s not because what I’m actually saying is: congratulations, you did things right the first time.

Now, stop worrying about it.

This essay was inspired by Prompt 343 from this book: Imagine that you could go back and live one day differently.  What day would you choose and what would you change?

Welcome to the Hive

Prompt 333: Write about the first concert you ever attended as well as how you feel about the musician’s music today.

“Good evening, SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA!”  Such was how lead singer of Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong, kicked things off.

I was 14.  A lot of momentous things happened when I was 14.  Most importantly: first year of high school.  I was a freshman and you couldn’t touch me, because despite the fact that I was the baby of the school and lived in constant fear of some upperclassman administering the ubiquitous high school urban legend known as a “swirlie” (look it up), I was now a high schooler–which meant I didn’t have to wear the dorky junior high school uniform (replete with polos and ill-fitting slacks) anymore.  I could wear whatever I wanted.  This was a huge deal because this was also the first year I got to go to Hot Topic BY MYSELF.  No mom trailing me around the store.  Just me and my post-punk sensibilities and a week’s worth of allowance and very intimidating alternative girls behind the counter.  (Please note: they were not intimidating because they were alternative.  They were intimidating because they were girls.)

The night of the SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA concert, I proudly sported one my recent Hot Topic purchases–a t-shirt emblazoned with The Clash’s London Calling album art.  We had come to Santa Barbara for the weekend.  It was summer and our family friends from Canada were staying with us.  My mom, her friend, my brother, my mom’s friend’s son Spencer (one of my best friends from my Canada days) and I crammed ourselves into my mom’s Ford Taurus and made the two hour journey, with only a handful of alphabet games and our Discman’s to keep us company–the bare necessities!  The clothes on our backs (and backpacks also on our backs) and extra double-a batteries JUST IN CASE!

As we walked up to the concert venue, I was struck by how perfect the whole thing was: it was one of those inimitable Southern California evenings, where the dusk sky was hued orange and the cool breeze off the Pacific provided a natural mellow.  Barry (my older brother), Spencer, and I had pretty amazing tickets: down in the pit, standing, so close to the stage.  For a first time concert-goer, it spoiled me.  As we walked past security, a burly older gentleman saw my Clash t-shirt and stopped me.

“Kid, you like The Clash?” his demeanor gruff, but tone pleasant.

“Yeah, I love them.”

“Wow,” he said.  “That’s awesome!”

Validation achieved!  The aging security guy approved my anachronistic taste in pop music!  I was, hands down, the coolest kid in the entire world!

Randomly, I ran into some kids from high school.  There was about 4 of them (if memory serves).  I was shocked to see them all the way in SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA.  They must have moms too!  Those moms must own cars!  Serendipity!

I knew the boys but I wasn’t close to any of them.  I stopped and said hi and then proceeded to completely blank on one boy’s name.  Ironically though because I forgot it then, I remember it now: Tim.  Tim was friends with James and I want to say Scott and the fourth boy’s identity is lost to the ravages of time.  I was a pretty solitary kid throughout my high school life.  I had my close friends and we stuck to ourselves.  This little self-imposed exile meant that I formed really close bonds with that group, but missed out on the collective experience.  Even back then, I remember realizing the power that pop culture allows teens: you think that you’re alone and this band/movie/TV show/book/comic series is something you and you alone enjoy, but really it’s the opposite.  You’re part of a community of fans and appreciators and that’s the type of stuff that brings people together.

The opening band was an Australian punk band called The Living End.  My brother had Napster’d some of their stuff because God forbid we weren’t aware of a semi-obscure Australian outfit.  What if Green Day quizzed us on them?  We would be ready!  We had the Internet!

I don’t know if The Living End are still around, but I remember their bassist was really impressive: he played an acoustic, stand-up bass and stood atop it, like a pogo stick and leapt around the stage.  It was Cirque Du Soleil but set to a lot distortion.

Green Day took the stage and the pit came alive with energy, dopamine surging through our collective consciousness like a rock’n’roll hive mind.  This was around the year 2000 so their latest album at the time was Warning–an album that still holds a special place in my heart and, to me, serves as marketed shift in Green Day’s discography (but that’s a different post for a different time).

When the music started, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t the slightest clue what to do.  Up until that point, music had never been a shared experience for me.  I listened to music in my room, on my headphones so as not to disturb my parents (so punk, I know), rocking out and air guitaring to my heart’s content.  I was never a dancer or singer.  Did I have to dance at the concert?  Other people were singing along.  Did I have to sing along?  I knew most of the lyrics, especially to my favorite songs, but I thought singing was the job of, y’know, the singer.

Thankfully, this was a rock concert so dancing was limited to something I could handle: jumping.  And not even real jumping.  You were swarmed by people so basically your job was to thrust your hands as high as you could into the night sky, make the “Rock On” symbol with your fingers (balled fist, index finger and pinky extended, sort of like what Spider-Man does to shoot his webs), and bounce on the balls of your feet to what was hopefully the rhythm of the song.  This was dancing I could handle.

Oh and you were supposed to scream.  A lot.

The screaming thing, for me, took some getting used to.  I was a self-conscious 14-year-old who spent most of his time watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer on The WB (it will never be the CW, let it be known).  Now I was surrounded by people!  Screaming, bouncy people!  And I was expected to do the same!  And some of them…were girls!

The good news about being part of a collective is that you’re part of a giant throng of people and nobody cares how dorky you look.  This music starts and your brain goes, “Hey!  I know this song!” and all of a sudden the lyrics to “Brain Stew” are spilling out your mouth.  It’s one of the glorious things about pop music: it conditions you to respond and then you just do.

Thankfully, Green Day fans were (generally) a group of people just like me: teenagers, little bit angsty, thinking we were all being rebellious by wearing a lot of black and looking sideways at the supposedly jerky jocks.  (Side note: funny thing when you graduate high school.  You look back and see that jocks?  Not actually jerks.  Yay, perspective!)

At one point Billie Joe solicited requests from the audience.  I was beyond my self-conscious screaming phobia and the words: “PLAY ‘WALKING CONTRADICTION’!” escaped from my mouth like a command from a teenage Zeus.  My friend Spencer took my cause and yelled, “‘WALKING CONTRADICTION’!”

Then, suddenly, a voice from behind: “YEAH!  HEY!  PLAY ‘WALKING CONTRADICTION.’”

I turned around.  It was just some kid.  Some other kid who really wanted to hear the song “Walking Contradiction”.  I was flabbergasted.  Somebody else wanted to hear this song?  Really?  A-W-E-S-O-M-E.

However, our grassroots cause of three “Walking Contradiction” fans was drowned out by a sea of other fans and it wasn’t played.  I didn’t care.  They ended up playing one of their earlier songs from way back in their “Kerplunk” days, an album that I hadn’t gotten yet, but purchased at a grungy CD store the next day while toiling the streets of SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA.

Finally, one last little tale that I feel is appropriate: A girl approached me.  Let me say that again, in all caps, italicized, on its own line, just so you can get how amazingly goddamn monumental this was.

A.  GIRL.  APPROACHED.  ME.

She was shorter than I and clearly judged my tall-for-my-age and stocky shoulders as a good person to whom an ask a favor.

“Hey,” she said, “can you give me a boost?”

I had no idea what she meant.  But nonetheless I literally and figuratively swept her off her feet, she sat atop my shoulders for the rest of the night and now we are married.

Except, yeah, no.  She asked for a boost and I, even in my complete ignorance as to what a “boost” was, obliged.

Now, if you’re asked to give a girl a boost, here is what she most, likely suspects: you squat down, she gets on your shoulders, and you hope and pray that the seemingly-pointless dead lifts you’ve done in Mr. Cota’s PE class actually had some effect and you stand back up here like a high school Hercules, demigod of lifting pretty punk girls!

This is not what I did.  The only “boosts” I had ever given were the type where you lace your fingers together, creating a make-shift foothold of sorts, and then you vault your lightweight friend over whatever wall or fence you’re trying to climb.  So, that’s what I did.  Like a genius.  I lifted her maybe a foot off the ground for maybe 5 seconds before she and I realized that this was incredibly awkward and weird.

“Thanks,” she said, politely and disappeared back into the crowd.

I looked at Spencer.  Our teenage-boy brains communicated telepathically.  Sure, I bungled the boost but:

A.  GIRL.  APPROACHED.  ME.  AND I TALKED TO HER.  AND I TOUCHED THE SOLE OF HER SHOE.

Victory!

Over the next five months, Green Day is set to release their 9th, 10th, and 11th albums.  I’m not gonna lie: I’ll buy them.  But let’s be real, I won’t go to their shows.  I still really like Green Day and think their conceptual “punk operas” have been really good and innovative and I like that the band is growing in interesting artistic ways.  But they have to market their music to high schoolers because that’s where the money is.  I get it.  If I went to show now, I’d be the guy flabbergasted by the kid wearing the Hot Topic Clash t-shirt.  And that’s what growing up is all about: perspective.  Seeing things in new ways, learning about new experiences and, ultimately, finding ways to connect with other people.

That’s what I took away from my first concert experience: old friends, new people, for 90 minutes all sharing in something that spoke to us for whatever reason.

And I’ll never forget it.  Mainly because

A.  GIRL.  APPROACHED.  ME.

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