Sunday, July 29, 2007

Where Have All the Goth Kids Gone?

a report:

Flashback to December 1999.

Americans are shaking their bon-bons to Ricky Martin and stocking up on soup cans for Y2K. Regis Philbin's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" is a hit television show, and Britney Spears is a proud virgin. And on a stage in New York City, Azrael Abyss, he of the powdered-white face and poofed hair, is being buried alive. "I'm dead indeed la la la," he chirps, eyes atwinkle with tee-hee menace.

Azrael Abyss is no gothic soldier of the underworld; he is a comedic creation of Chris Kataan's on Saturday Night Live. In the late-90s "Goth Talk" sketch, Azrael Abyss and Circe Nightshade (Molly Shannon) discuss issues of darkness and gloom, only to be sidetracked by references to Azrael's un-goth gig at Cinnabon. The buried-alive segment was one of the final editions of "Goth Talk." Before the dawn of the new millennium, the sketch went off the air. It died. Period.

But what of the real-life subculture it was lampooning? What happened to "goth"? And before we answer that, what the hell is "goth"?

"The word Goth means a lot of things," says "Dru", senior at the University of Maine. Dru is a frequent contributor to "Alone In the Night | Vampire and Goth Appreciation!," a Facebook discussion group with more than 1,500 members. "In terms of architecture, it means grand cathedrals with tower spires and stained-glass windows. In the literary terminology, Goth defines a genre of stories that involve the degradation of a once grand past." As for the subculture spawned by these influences, Dru offers this: “I am not saying that there is a set Gothic mindset, but there are common similarities. The clothes and the music come after...”

While classic stories (Poe's, Hawthorne's) explore degradation of the past, the contemporary gothic subculture suffers degradation in its own right. "Mainstream" is a hard-to-quantify word, but it's safe to say it relates to beliefs generally accepted by a large swath of the population. The one link between heartlanders who enjoy Two and Half Men and hipsters who watch Flight of the Conchords is dismissal of the relevance of anything and everything goth.

And if there's not outright dismissal, then there's outright mocking: a recent Ikea advertisement for twin-cloth quilts read thusly: "Brightens up your grad's dorm. Unlike a creepy gothic roommate, who can be a bad influence."

In an age where interest groups of every stripe rail against offenses both real and imagined, the Ikea advertisement has survived unblemished, with little protest outside a smattering of blogs. Ikea doesn't mind offending the goth minority, while the mainstream population doesn't seem to care either way.

Does all this add up to a dwindling subculture, one losing its voice ever since Marilyn Manson jokes got stale? Where have all the goth kids gone?

"Look harder," Dru answers. "There are pockets of authentic Gothic people. There have been changes in the music and additions to fashion, but most people would consider these alterations Gothic."

So what happens if you "look harder"?

You find a modern-day goth community not all that different from the one by turns followed, appreciated, chided, and parodied back in the 1990s. In other words, just because a certain group of people is not on tv everyday, does not mean that group ceases to exist.

In Brisbane, Australia, a goth organization has more than three hundred members; they've had seventy-seven in-person meetings so far. Similar groups exist everywhere from Glasgow to Austin to Ottawa. Right now, somewhere in the world, two twentysomethings are debating the gothic credibility of the band Inkubus Sukkubus. Elsewhere, a teenager is rocking out his garage to The Mission U.K. These men and women are real. And alive. They're not Azrael or Circe.

"Mainstream society is a state of ruin," Dru says, responding to criticisms of goth culture. "Most people don't even care about their religion unless it's threatened...the government cares more about money than the people it governs. Gothic people, who usually live outside this sphere of corruption, have every right to criticize modern society."

And so they do, for whether you believe goth culture is a revelation or a farce, the movement nevertheless subsists, picking up followers from new generations along the way.

"The clothes and the music hooked me," Dru says. "I finally found a niche."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

When A Neighbor's Dog Craps in Your Yard...

a column:

Confession: I watched a neighbor's dog take a crap in my yard. Neither the neighbor nor the mutt knew I was watching, but from behind the glass film of my front door, I saw it all: the neighbor slackening her wrist, loosening the leash, the black Labrador cocking its leg and conquering the grass. There was no pooper-scooper in sight. What a disgrace. What a goddamned disgrace.

I had two options: I could threaten the stinky canine with a futbol kick to its snout, or I could confront its owner with "This ain't no toilet" finger-pointing. I chose none of the above. Out the door I went to examine the evidence.

The evidence was crap.

"That's so not cool," I yelled, throwing my hands up in the air.
By this point, my neighbor was fifteen feet down the road, close enough to face me, but far enough to pretend she only heard my intonation and not my exact words. We checked each other up and down, Dirty-Harry style, except this moment was less cinematic, with dog crap rather than tumbleweeds and my shirtless, curls-of-proud-chest-hair physique in place of Eastwood's sweated-brow.

But, oh, how I stared at my neighbor. I stared at her until she padded down the sidewalk. Because of me, her canine's sloppy business would haunt her dreams. Forever. That was my noble victory: flogging the woman with a guilt trip.

The term "guilt trip" implies the arched eyebrows of a teenage girl in enormous sunglasses: "Mindy, it's no big deal," this girl would say, sighing into her sparkle-studded cell phone, "Don't worry about it, just don't do it again."

"No big deal" means that whatever the deal is, it's huge, and "Don't worry about it" means Mindy ought to start worrying, because she is severely screwed.

This girl talk represents a classic "guilt trip", and that fact alone make me feel, well, guilty for employing these girls' tactics to deal with the problematic people and pups in my own life. If anything, the "no big deal" girls use more linguistic aplomb than I managed with "That's not so cool!" Their words have hidden meanings, while mine only had a whiny bluntness when it came to animal excrement.

In my defense, I flash my verbal nunchucks when it comes to other matters. I've never thrown a punch outside a Taekwondo tournament, but I have used words to wear. people. down. slowly. and. painfully. When I say people, I mean my mom.

"Andy''s mom lets him drive and he's even younger than me," I said, fifteen years old and bratty in the passenger seat. "I just don't understand, that's all..."

My mother was driving me home from school, and I was pissed-off that my learner's permit had given me nothing more than parking-lot practice.

"It's okay, I guess I'll just never drive..."

My mom's forehead pulsed red. It. was. working. Tick-tick-tick.

"It's just, I don't understand."
"Fine!" The tires squealed as she slashed towards a side-road. She parked abruptly by the curb. "Drive!" she said.

I did the whole who-me? routine, and then I took the wheel. I was driving. All thanks to the annoying pow of my guilt-trip. In the words of Marshal Mathers, I said I'm sorry, mama.

The car episode was years ago; the dog episode was days ago. When it comes to guilt trips, have I grown up, or have I regressed? The truth is, I don't think I've matured all that much. For those of us closer in spirit to Woody Allen than Mike Tyson, we need to get creative if we want to nonviolently vent our frustrations.

When the dog-lady goes to sleep tonight, I want her to picture me squatting on her lawn, pants down at my ankles, fat smile on my face. At peace.


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Put a Pen in Your Lemonade

Writing on Writing:

An English professor at Emory once told me that starting a writing career is like starting a small business: you'll work your ass off and you won't make much money . "It takes five to ten years," he said, "and your ego will suffer." While my friends who chose law school will move on to big jobs and baby blue sportscars, I'll still be honing and hustling my stories. And driving a Kia.

If my writing's a business, right now it's a lemonade stand on the sidewalk. Family, friends, and kindly neighbors drink my juice, but outside that circle nobody's taken more than a sip. I gaze down the road, wondering if there's anybody beyond the neighborhood who's thirsty. I gaze until my eyes hurt. It's enough to drive a sane man loopy.

But metaphor only gets you so far. There comes a point when writing is just writing, with all its requisite possibilities, opportunities, rejections, and ridiculousness. The reality of your skills often means less than how those skills are perceived. George Orwell's "Animal Farm"? A publisher once denied it because, "It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A." Sorry, Bambi.

Meanwhile, Paris Hilton's "Confessions of an Heiress" had no problem landing a publisher. Do a search for the sex-tape savant on the Simon & Schuster website and you'll find her name under "Author/Contributor." Oy.

I'm not George Orwell. I'm not Paris Hilton. In the waves of wannabees, could-be's, maybe's, and definitely's, I'm somewhere in the middle. Who knows? I've received my share of rejections, but I'm only twenty-two years old. It's not so easy to call it all a rite of passage if you haven't yet experienced, well, all of it. I'm still riding the wave.

And that wave is rocky. As easy as it is to ignore a chain letter about Virgin Mary imprints on cinnamon toast, it's even easier for a magazine like Cosmo to forget my submission ever happened. The glossy that publishes articles like "How to Sound Sexy in the Sack" was shockingly uninterested in a piece about TJ Maxx shopping trips with my mom. I didn't receive any word back, and I realized that treating a column like a chain letter, one to fire off indiscriminately, was not a good idea. It's all about fit. A story about my friendship with an Ethiopian Jew? Probably not a good fit for Cat Fancy, even if you'd allege that Sammy has feline features.

I'm learning how to better tend my lemonade stand, but I still alienate some customers. I thought I had a good one in American Jewish Life after they published a piece of mine, but they greeted my next submission with silence.

I gave the editor a one-week deadline to respond to my third query. This showed my no-nonsense professionalism, I thought, but my mom argued that it made me look like a "little shit." She was absolutely right. "We'll pass on this," he quickly told me.

And so it goes. I write new pieces, polish them, and send them to the right markets. And then? I wait. For Slate. For Radar. For The Stranger. For Memphis Downtowner. For Memphis Business Journal. And on and on. Maybe they'll get back to me tomorrow. Maybe it'll be next week. Maybe in a year or two, I'll land an agent. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But for now, this "little shit" has got to make some lemonade.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Small Talks and Rent-A-Cops

Note: I followed-up on this piece on 9/6/2007.

A reflection:

Not many people take a song called "Rent-A-Cop" seriously. The piano-pop ditty, penned by Ben Folds, imagines the day-in-a-life of a pervy security guard: "I whisper through my donut/ hey baby, baby, light that ass on fire."

Folds knows the set-up is silly, so he lets his rent-a-cop dream about teenage girls, cold beers, and donut-whispering. But when I listen to the song, I don't think about that cartoon of a character; I think about a real person, one I see every day I go to work. I think about Garett, whose silky black mane of hair is a freak of nature. Picture Elvis Presley's, if only he'd rejected jailhouse-rocking in favor of parking-lot security.

"It's me again!" Garett drawls, a heavy cloud of cologne rushing with him into the used bookstore. His lips protrude and adjust, staving off a stutter. "The hours keep flyin' by, don't they?" I can imagine him in third grade, the kind of kid who'd build a worm farm for the science fair just to swallow a couple of their bodies. He'd get a C on the project, and he wouldn't really know where he went wrong.

"The day's going fast, alright," I say, initialing his security clipboard.
Garrett and I love us some small talk. He says, "Hot out there!" and I say "That's right, it sure is." He says, "Ya'll got a lot of books!" and I say, "we sure do!" These conversations are beautiful.

But sometimes Garett likes to switch things up. "You know CiCi's Pizza?" he asked one night, pausing at the doorway. "This little girl, she played their gumball machine and almost won herself a free pizza!"

Whoa. Garret had tossed me a curve ball. This was not chatting up the weather or the flying-by of time, this was addressing a little girl's brush with immortality at CiCi's Pizza. I didn't know how to respond.

"Is that right?" was all I could muster, but Garrett was already dancing to his own tune: "Yeh-huh, she just hit the button a little bit too hard, but she was real close! A free pizza!" I surprised myself with the specificity of my answer: "A pizza for only a quarter!" Garett had reeled me in; I was speaking his language now. "Only a quarter," he chanted back, amazed, as if he'd just remembered spotting Big Foot at a Spencer's Gifts.

Every time Garett visits the bookstore, I patiently wait for him to flip our conversation sideways. He doesn’t disappoint. He warns me about two rowdy kids hurling eggs in the parking lot, and then assures me that he'll respond with force: "I might get me some eggs of my own and throw em," he says with a devil-may-care smirk. This is Garett: serving-and-protecting with an arsenal of omelette explosives.

Later he tells me he's getting a gun permit. "You got one?" he asks. People who listen to Ben Folds goof on rent-a-cops generally don't own firearms, so I shake my head no. "You want one?" he whispers.

Garett doesn't feel like he’s pushing our conversation past small talk, for he considers guns and CiCi's Pizza perfect small talk material. He probably doesn’t think he’s breaking any "rules." He and I just have different frames of reference, so it might be a little unfair of me to chuckle at his expense, even if he does fight crime with eggs.

The bookstore closes at 10pm. I lock up, vacuum the carpet, and clean out the register. A steady tap at the glass door startles me, and I look up and find Garett's just-checking-on-ya' grin. He tries the door, but it's already locked, so he walks away. Through the shadows I see the back of his silky black mane. He stares at the illuminate, empty parking lot. His job is done, but it looks like he’s in no hurry to go home.

It looks like he still has something to say.

Small Talks and Rent-A-Cops, Part II

Sunday, July 8, 2007

How MacBook Broke My Heart

A letter:

Dear Macbook,

On my 22nd birthday you gleamed white and sexy. I was drawn to your sheen, your sparkle. You wanted me to touch your hotkeys. (God, yes.)

Other men took passes at you, flirted with your screen. But what they really wanted was the iPod. Me? I wanted you. (Lord, have mercy.)

I took you home that day. My HPs and Gateways had fallen apart, but I knew you were a cut above: quick-witted, gorgeous, perfect. You'd be there for me when I'd graduate college, when I'd enter the first stage of my adult life. I knew I could depend on you.

The first time you got sick, I thought it was a fluke. "You need to restart your computer," you told me, "Hold the Power button for several seconds or press the Restart button." That's weird, I thought, but I followed your directions and didn't think much of it.

Why would I? You were strong and healthy. I loved how you so smoothly sorted my videos in iDVD; I loved how your widescreen made my pictures pop with life, with energy. When I showed my friends the wonder that was your remote control, they turned green with envy. So what if you crashed one time. That's not enough for me to worry.

But then it happened again.

And again.

Suddenly I wasn't quite so comfortable with your hotkeys. I started to use you more carefully. Had I done something wrong? Why was this happening to us?

I didn't want another man to touch you, but what choice did I have? I took you to the Mac Store, where you were groped and prodded by a goateed guy in black-rimmed glasses and a red t-shirt. He was known as a "Genius." "It's a software problem," he said. "Re-install Mac OS, that'll fix it." I wasn't quite sure if I believed him, but he seemed far too bored and matter-of-fact in his diagnosis to be lying. And who was I to question a "Genius?"

The remedy didn't work; you were still sick. The "Genius" was an idiot. I turned to the Mac phone hotline for help, and there they gave me a series of try-this try-that solutions in which to heal you.

But nothing worked. The sickness began to define you. You lost your sleekness, your sparkle, your sexy. Who had you become? Were you really the one I took home, back when I was bright-eyed and hopeful, on my 22nd birthday?

I went to a different Mac Store. "Sometimes the RAM gets dirty, so we cleaned the fluff off it," Genius #2 said. "It should work now."

When Genius #2 was wrong, that's when I turned against you. Before I had blamed the Mac Store and the phone hotline, and I still blamed them, but weren't you the real problem? You weren’t hot. You weren’t perfect. You were just a microchipped lemon, and you took me for a sucker. (Girl, you breakin’ my heart.)

The next time I went to the Mac Store, Genius #3 told me he'd re-install your motherboard, your "brains." Intensive surgery. I signed some papers and said goodbye. Genius #2 watched the scene from afar and gave me a thumbs-up.

A few days later I got the call. Surgery had gone well. You had performed admirably in a four-hour series of tests. No crashes. You were ready to come back to me.

I signed more papers. You did look better, your screen shinier, your keyboard brighter. Days passed and you kept humming. I loved your new brains. (Baby, yes.) I was almost ready to forgive you. Almost. But then -

You're dead to me.


Thursday, July 5, 2007

You Kill Me, or Do You Really?: A Dispatch from Death's Door

A column:

This was it: the pitch-black stillness of the desert, tent whining in the wind, coyotes howling from the mountains. I was going to die.

My girlfriend and I lay on the cold, hard mats of the tent, a brittle couple's squabble leaving us drying our tears in the darkness, cocooned by the snores and rustles of fifty sleeping college students. We were on a ten-day group trip to Israel, and this was our one night on the heels of Mt. Masada, in the sands of the Bedouin desert.

It was well past midnight when a small purple light blinked over my face. A shadowy figure loomed with a flipped-open cell phone, but my eyes were drawn to his rifle, holstered and gleaming at his side. "Vut bus are you?" he huffed, voice clear and piercing through the tent's silence. My girlfriend looked at me to answer, but I froze. Literally. I could not move. "Why do you want to know?" she demanded.

This shadowy figure was a terrorist, and he had opened his phone to capture our terrified voices and broadcast them on Al Jazeera. I knew this to be the case, knew it to the core of my being. We would say our bus was "577" and then he would shoot us dead while everyone around us slept. He had planned it perfectly, waiting to enter our camp under the blanket of night, when our Israeli security guards had disappeared into another tent to guzzle beer and party, completely unaware of the hyper-real moment of this stranger, his rifle, his cell phone, and his questions.

"Vut bus are you?" he repeated in the same monotone. I waited for the cliche life-flashing -before-my-eyes images, but they didn't come. All that came was the overwhelming feeling of a life suspended in the air, like particles, like a pulse. Thump, thump, thump. "We're Bus 577, why do you want to know?" she said, her voice quaking. The shadowy figure grunted an "Okay" and rustled away from us, his purple light dying when his phone clapped shut.

As it turns out, he was an Israeli security guard after all, one we did not recognize, one who was looking for his group, Bus 588.

So I wasn't going to die. Oops.

"Too much FoxNews, man," my friend Chris told me, after I'd come back to the states and recounted the story. "You were paranoid."

Maybe he was right. Why had I been so quick and so sure in concluding that my life was in danger? Was it because of how the desert, the cold, the darkness, and the gun had synchronized at the perfect time, scaring the wits out of me? Or was that moment exacerbated by a knowledge far more typical, the knowledge that, well, any breath might be my last.

I don't mean to sound like a furrowed-brow teenager with black eyeliner, for this is no doomsday message. The fact is, we don't know. The next time we brake for a red light, the car behind us could smash into our bumper, sending us flailing into the busy intersection. We don't know. The little kid in the subway, walking a little too close to the edge of the railroad tracks? We don't know. This not-knowing is always there, hanging over us like a faint mist.

And so we laugh at death. And you know what? That's not such a bad solution. In a world with war, genocide, disease, and a million little disasters, we need a way in which to twist its reality into a joke we can swallow. That's why the "Hostel" films, notorious for their centerpiece scenes of torture bloodbaths, can collectively gross more than $60 million in theaters. That's why the biggest question throughout the eight-year run of The Sopranos was: who's going to die this week?

The truth is, we want to flirt with death as long as it's safely behind a glass wall. We want to tap the glass and smile, feeling its fangs inches away but not close enough to bite us. Watching other people die fictitiously, rather than making us feel more vulnerable, makes us feel stronger and maybe even invincible. We're not on screen, dodging gunfire or sharpened knives. We're plopped onto our sofas. Suddenly that whole not-knowing? It doesn’t seem so scary.

I should have said something to the shadowy figure with the rifle. I chickened out, and for it I was rightfully and eloquently called a "pussy." Fair enough. But next time I'll be brave. I'll stand tall.

Or I'll just wish I was at the movies.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Are you Hot or Not?: The Price of a Free Date

A column:

In 2002, I was a high school junior, and like an angsty Rodney Dangerfield, I didn't feel like I got enough respect from the ladies. So I posted a photograph of myself, gelled-hair and tuxedoed, on I was ready to be judged. I wanted to be judged. Anybody with a modem could decide the "notness" or "hotness" of my 130-pound frame. Bring it on, I thought. Bring it on.
It didn't take long for my hot-or-not numbers to do some funny things. I got eights and nines but I also got a few ones. Who out there was giving me a one out of ten? A four would mean I exude the sexual energy of a chair, but a one? Someone out there must prefer humping the leg of an Ottoman to gazing into my monstrosity of a face.

But still I couldn't turn away from the website. After all, it was a free, safe place to look at pretty girls without feeling like a pervert. That it also had an online dating feature only appealed to me until I realized it cost money. Come on, I wasn't desperate enough to pay for a chance to meet women. It was 2002, and paying for online dating would bring me in line with the sweaty dudes who surf the web for Russian mail-order brides. I was not looking for my Irinia or Svetlana. I could find a girlfriend in the real world without paying a penny.

And I found just that, a cute brunette with a button nose. We dated, we laughed, we cried, we lasted a month. (The reason she broke it off? Something to do with "experience." She was a girl who drank coffee, and I was a guy who ate chocolate chip cookies.) I wanted a rebound-girl and I wanted her fast. As it turns out, I had some credit on my PayPal account from a long-ago eBay transaction, just enough credit to cover a month of's dating service. If I used it, I wouldn't really be buying anything, would I?

I remained an outsider to the pay-to-date system even as I worked my love jones from within the belly of the beast, swapping flirty messages with two attractive-looking girls. One, a lithe-bodied redhead, I agreed to meet in a public park. Part of me feared that she in fact was a trenchcoated man named Felix, but I could handle that risk as long as we met in the noon-day sun. Fortunately, I found she was no Felix ; unfortunately, she had pale wisps of hair sprouting from her cheeks. She had cheek hair. Who has cheek hair? We sat on a bench and struggled through thirty minutes of awkward conversation ("Finding Nemo" figured prominently) with as little eye contact as possible. And then we were over.

For the second girl I had higher hopes, until I discovered she was fourteen years old and wanted to meet me by an Auntie Ann's Pretzels at the shopping mall food court. Let's call this girl "Illegal." In Illegal's planned scenario, she would be nibbling on pretzels with her mom when I would approach the two of them as if I just happened to be in the "neighborhood." I would then pretend to be a long-lost friend of Illegal's who had met her at an "Italian food festival" in midtown. Wink, wink.

I declined her advances and avoided an appearance on "To Catch a Predator."

When my PayPal account ran dry, so did my dating run. And I was fine with that, for I had never really become "one of those people" who used for dates. Fine, I used the website, but I didn't want to think I paid for that privilege. I was just playing around, that's all.

But in reality, I was doing precisely the same thing for precisely the same reasons as the site's monthly subscribers: I wanted to meet new girls. I enjoyed the perks other members enjoyed, but I never wanted to be considered part of their club.

And that's what's funny about anything that's "complimentary" or "free," or in the case of my experience with, anything that appears to be "free": we're given a chance to enjoy a guilty pleasure without being defined by it. Or so we think.

The hipster guy who reads "Pitchfork" might never buy a ticket for "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," but he may very well watch it on his friend's computer if he's stoned. I would never buy season two of Dawson's Creek on DVD, but I did download it, hunkered in the low light of a quiet room, waiting to see if Katie Holmes would take her clothes off.

In the end, many of us, no matter what we're paying or not paying, will have the exact same experiences. There's no place for my previously felt superiority, because really, I am just another member of the club.

I will now go hump a chair.