Wednesday, April 29, 2009

the empty bottle

Nothing else to do tonight, so I went to see some random bands playing at a random club near my house tonight.  This is one excellent reason to live in Wicker Park: proximity to several consistently good and cheap music venues that have acts lined up seven days of the week. The website listed 8:30 pm but bands didn't actually play until 9:30 pm, so I got there 45 minutes early, ordered a mediocre nut brown ale, and killed time by writing frantic notes to myself on scrap paper. Some excerpts: "The carbonation is too sharp and the hops is strong enough to make it more bitter than sweet, but the aftertaste is medicinal" and "On my mind tonight is, of course, Abraham Lincoln's unexpectedly high-pitched voice, which worked to his advantage against Stephen Douglas because it carried further and was therefore heard by more potential voters" and "Sitting at a bar alone skews my sense of what I can expect in my life." 

The bar was empty when I got there except for two men playing pool, two men talking to one another at the bar, and a black cat that paced the length of the bar and stopped near me to lap up water from a whiskey glass filled to the brim. I could not relax enough to write a proper journal entry, since I was too self-aware to focus on anything except the awkwardness and pretentiousness and loneliness of sitting alone at a bar writing to oneself about Abraham Lincoln's voice. I also texted friends frantically, seeking entertainment, failing at the extroversion I boasted of in my last post. Raj graciously responded with some comments about a YouTube clip of sharks eating seals in slow-motion. 

Soon the bar filled with clusters of patrons. Some were obviously in the bands; they dressed as you would expect amateur musicians to dress (hair short enough to be straightedge for work, but long enough to be tousled for play, and big belt buckles). Some were the bandmembers' lady friends; they wore dresses and boots. There were not many unaccompanied people. There was another loner down the bar also pretending to text message, whom I ignored because of his Ed Hardy-like t-shirt. There was a heavyset mid-thirty-something man in a Nirvana t-shirt and torn jeans who looked so desperately awkward that I had could not stop watching him: he fidgeted with his neck, then put his hands down at his sides, then shoved them into his pockets, then brought a pair of ridiculous oversized sunglasses out of his pockets and put them on his face, then adjusted them, then took them off and hung them off his front left pants pocket, then crossed his arms, then looked around him, then slowly traced his collarbone with one hand, then lolled his head around. He slouched, he shifted his weight from one foot to another. Nobody else saw this but me, because nobody else was paying attention. Watching him, I thought for a moment that it was the gimmick in Fight Club, and that standing before me was the imaginary embodiment of how I felt! 

A youngish man sat down at the barstool next to mine to order a drink. I looked briefly at him, smiled, and decided that he would be the one to fulfill my daily quotient of talking to strangers. I started the small talk (easy enough: "Are you in one of the bands? No? Uh...") and then he reciprocated awkwardly with his own small talk ("No - just here to hear music!").  We chatted and it turned out that we had both developed the same strategy for how to cope with weeknights in Chicago: bookmark the websites of the music venues, check them each day, listen to the MySpace pages of the bands, and select a club. He wore a corporate logo on a button-up shirt - these are the shirts that end up en masse at Goodwill - which provided entry into some new topics of small talk, and soon we were nattering on about construction industry newsletters (somebody must review the suppliers, I learned), the University of Iowa (there is a nice independent bookstore in Iowa City, but it is a party school, and probably not worth the visit, I learned), and rock-influenced pop (nothing to learn here). The conversation was halting and tedious, but it produced enough preliminary intimacy that we moved together to the stage and sat together for the next three bands. As usual, I asked questions and listened, and the stranger talked. But he was not a talkative one, so mostly we just occasionally smiled at each other and noted briefly how pretty good and how not so bad the musicians were.  He said he had studied "computers something" in college but would have preferred to have studied "how groups of humans interact." 

The first band was decent. I was turned off by the bassist's metal chain necklace and tricolor wristbands, and the rhythm guitarist's guitar-face. He was only strumming chords, for God's sake, no need to shit a brick. I am extremely judgmental, especially about vanity. The second band was older and at one point had eight musicians on stage, so they were better at rocking, but still only decent. Their bluesy guitarist was very nimble and their lead singer had an excellent blue-eyed soul voice, but the histrionic way he mimed the actions the lyrics were describing brought up unpleasant memories of my sixth grade drama class. The third band seemed lackadaisical, or I was just tired, and I left my new friend with a friendly pat on the shoulder and a "Maybe I'll see you at another one of these venues!"  Not bloody likely, my friend, but maybe!  He extended his hand awkwardly, and I prematurely grabbed for it, so that only three of his fingers were involved in the hand-pumping. 

And then I put on my gloves, my blinking bike lights, my reflective pants-cinching slap anklet, and coasted home on a quiet residential street in six minutes. The night was not so bad, and totally unmemorable, so I thought I would write it all down here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

a new hobby

I am twenty-eight and consciously developing for the first time the social skills that most people learn much earlier in their lives. I decided early in my time in Chicago that I would force myself to be more extroverted during my one-year layover in the Midwest. I've written some about it on this blog. So far the only manifestation of this extroversion is that I try consciously to chat with strangers. It has become like a hobby or a new extracurricular interest. I am not necessarily flirting, but that is often a side effect, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Because this is new to me, it still feels like anthropological research. I have Googled "how to talk to people," and variants on that search, many times. Today I considered buying a Kindle to make acquiring self-help books easier.

Strangers I have spoken to recently, and the lessons I have learned from them:
  1. The cashier at Quimby's, a woman probably in her late 20s or early 30s, queer/hipster-looking, with short hair, thick glasses, and a green striped polo shirt. I asked her where I might find comic books by Adrian Tomine. She walked over with me to the comics section and said, "My hunch is you'll find it here because all the female authors are grouped in this section." And I said, "But a-ha [I said exactly this], he is a dude!" I tried not to be know-it-all about it, but my tone was just a bit wrong. The woman said, "Oh, shows you how much I know!" and was good-humored about it. Then I spotted Jimmy Corrigan, which I was also looking for, and I said, "Oh, never mind, I found something else I wanted!" The woman got confused and thought that I had found Adrian Tomine, and I said something about it being by a different author, and then we discovered together that we were standing directly in front of "Summer Blonde." We both fumbled around with words. I made a joke about the book having suddenly appeared that very second, and then noticed it was 9pm and the store was closed and I said she wasn't even supposed to be working anyway, and she chuckled graciously. Later on, I went to go pay for my purchases. I bought a finger zombie, a finger monster, three finger monkeys, two sushi-shaped pencil toppers, a book of temporary tattoos, a gag air freshener, and Jimmy Corrigan. The cashier had to type in "finger monkey" three separate times because there were no bar codes on the finger puppets and each had to be entered individually. It took her about ten minutes to ring me up, but she, the man behind me in line, and I were all nattering on about SKUs and the inefficient Quimby's inventory system in convivial high spirits, so nobody got impatient. I left feeling that I had successfully navigated a social situation and a flirtation, and wondered if I should go back to buy more finger zombies later in the week.

  2. Recently I was at Jewel, slowly deciding between buying the Jewel-brand nutmeg or the name brand nutmeg, both of which were astoundingly expensive for being tins of smelly powder. It must have been winter because I was wearing my puffy coat, the one with a little tied-yarn doll dangling off the zipper. A man standing nearby was also inspecting the spices, but he kept turning to stare at me and my chin. I didn't understand why - I had forgotten that the dangly was there - until he said, slowly, "Hey, where did you get that?" I realized what he was pointing to and said, "Oh! In New York, just at a booth." What I said didn't make much sense, but it was enough to start a brief chat. I said, "Are you familiar with these things?" He said, "Yeah, you see them all the time at comic conventions." I said, "Oh, are you a sci-fi kind of guy?" He said, "Well yeah, sci-fi, fantasy, you know." I said, "I went to ComicCon last year in New York! It's always nice to meet another geek!" Of course, our conversation didn't go quite as smoothly as this, because we were both geeks, but it was nonetheless pleasant, and the memory of how the conversation ended has been pleasantly obscured. It can't have ended not awkwardly. I remember being surprised because I could count the number of black comics nerds I saw at ComicCon on the fingers of one hand. And here I was, flirting with a black comics nerd in the spices aisle!

  3. The bouncer at Kingston Mines seemed like the kind of person to chat with everyone. I was on edge because I was trying to use my NYU ID to avoid the $12 cover charge. It was "college student" night, so I was wary of having to explain why my driver's license said I was 28 but I still had a university affiliation. I was prepared to say that I was an artist and had switched majors several times. Sociology, biochemistry, studio art. The bouncer said, "Are you Ashley?" which was totally incomprehensible, given that he was holding two pieces of identification that said [Bananarchist] on them. I was flustered, and I thought he was trying to trick me. But he said, "Oh, there's a crowd of New Yorkers here, and they said that their friend Ashley was coming." Then he inquired about where I lived. "Brooklyn," I said firmly, with a smile, to indicate friendliness but desire to cut off the conversation. He beamed and said he loved Brooklyn. Then he turned his attention to Harry, who always seems so nervous when called upon to show his identification. Harry flipped to his photo page and thrust it intently toward the bouncer, who then wanted to become Harry's best friend. "Where are you from? ["Germany."] Where in Germany? ["Regensburg."] Oh, one of my close friends lives in Duesseldorf! ["Regensburg is in Bavaria."] Oh, I follow FC Bayern-Muenchen! They're great! ["They're not doing so great right now."] Yeah, too bad, but blah blah blah blah blah blah blah..." He kept on talking, and finally I just grabbed Harry and said, "You have to pay now!" and tore him from the monologuer. It was the second time I'd seen Harry cornered by a North American chatter and the only time I saw a glimpse of how his interest in football might provide an entry point for his friendships with men. His comment that Bayern-Muenchen hadn't been doing so well recently was one of the least awkward things he's said in my presence! I didn't like the monologuer too much, but he was friendly, and he seemed to be genuinely smiling, and I didn't have to pay the $12 cover charge.

  4. Strangers I spoke to on April 25, 2009: (A) A woman walking down the street in a pack with other women, all of whom were wearing silver sparkly antennae and feather boas. RW and I were walking down the street eating Giant Cheetos; OL was a few steps behind. I noticed the antennae, and I asked the woman, "What's going on?" Savory orange powder exploded forth from my mouth when I asked this. She said, "A bachelorette party." I shrugged, smiled, and said, "I figured." We kept walking. RW asked me what the woman had said, and I said, "Oh, just a bachelorette party," casually and loudly enough for some partygoers to hear. I did this consciously, to signal to the partiers that I understood them and felt their behavior was with within social norms. (B) The cashier at Wendella Cruises, the company that organized the architectural boat tour we took on Saturday. She handed us our tickets, and I leaned toward the sound hole in the plexiglass divider and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, "Where should we sit to get the best view?" She said, "I don't really know; maybe the bow?" I asked again, "Where would you sit if you took the tour?" She responded without much interest, "Frankly, I prefer to sit down inside the boat." There were people in line behind us, so I just said, "Oh, then you and I must be very different people." I was practicing flirtation, but she was bored/disinterested/annoyed and it was best just to continue on my way. (C) As we were waiting for the tour to start, about 100 middle schoolers and their adult entourage moved to the head of the queue. I was exasperated and concerned that we would be stuck behind them, so I walked through the crowd and cut in front of all of them to get in line. As I passed through, I asked somebody where they were from, and somebody replied, "Traverse City." (D) When the waiter at Silver Cloud cleared away our dishes, he accidentally swept up two pieces of paper that RW and OL had folded into a tiny paper crane and a tiny paper penguin. I yelped and made a grab for the origamis, but it was too late and the waiter had already swept them into a dish filled with unfinished spinach dip. I said, "Oh no, our origami!" The waiter said, "Oh no! I didn't see it!" I pulled the crane and penguin out of the spinach dip, showed the waiter, and then told him he could keep them if he wanted to. (E) I asked a stranger on the street outside our second bar (Flat Iron) for a cigarette. My two friends kept walking, and his two friends kept walking in the other direction, but we stood in the middle of the sidewalk and looked at each other. He lit the cigarette for me, and then I thanked him and said that I was only "borrowing" the cigarette. He said, "Oh yeah? You can have my address if you want to send it back to me!" I said, "Ha ha ha!" and we both caught up with our friends and continued walking. I was so drunk, I only got three pulls on this cigarette before accidentally dropping it on my coat. (F) The waiter who served our drinks and French toast at Between, the third bar we went to on Saturday night, was obviously in love with the bar back with spectacles. On my way to the bathroom, I found our waiter wiping down glasses, and I said, "Hey! Are you gay?" He looked a little sheepish and said, "Yeah." I did not wait a beat before saying, "Okay, are you in love with that guy with the glasses?" He said, "Oh...yeah, I kind of am." I said, "I could tell! Everybody could tell!" He said, "Yeah, but he's like totally straight." I said, "Don't lose hope! He doesn't look very straight to me!" He said, "Aw, you're sweet."

  5. The people who come through chambers no longer count as strangers, because I have seen them all every day for eight months, but I have enjoyed the process of building up small talk rapport with them. I forgot the UPS guy's name but he is very friendly to me and has a repaired cleft palate and has told me how much he loves fishing in Minnesota. Yesterday he came in in shorts, and I said, "Whoa, shorts!" He said, "Yeah, it's hot outside!" I said, "Summertime!" The bubbly woman from the mail room has changed her hairstyle three times, and each has been genuinely cuter than the last, so I give her a you-go-girl kind of comment when she comes in. This comes out of my mouth like marbles because my natural affect is sarcastic baritone, but I am trying, you know. I bought forty lollipops from the intern (whose school is trying to raise money one $.50 lollipop at a time for the $8,000 shortfall in their prom budget!) and have been pushing them on everybody who comes into the office. Just now, the mail room woman walked out with the whole sack of them, saying she'd distribute them to the mail room workers. Cavities for everyone in the Dirksen Building! Perhaps I will buy another forty lollipops because people seem to like you more when you push free lollipops upon them.
I like talking to strangers because it makes me feel likeable and attractive (though this is probably just a good kind of body dysmorphia in counterpoint to the bad kind of body dysmorphia I feel when I see photographs of my schlubbiness). Obviously I will never get to a point where non-nerdiness feels natural to me - I mean, I need to quantify my progress toward social adeptness by making lists such as these - but in one's life, one can only try one's best.

For example: RW and OL were here this weekend. The timing of their visit was perfect, since we are in synchronized states of romantic flux and all we wanted to do was gab for 48 hours straight about our hearts. It would have been nice if our extremely pregnant friend KC could have joined, but alas, travel restrictions. Anyway, more on this later. RW just forwarded me an email from a socially-challenged engineer acquaintance of hers. She had written something like, "It was so great to meet you, Will! Do you like this picture of Bob in the conference room?" And the engineer wrote back, "My name is William, not Will. The picture is of Bob in the library, not the conference room. Goodbye!"

Do you see? It is important to excise this kind of nerdity from one's personality. Flirt your way to freedom. I am going to write a book for Kindle about this.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

trojans blow goats

When Shaw moved out of the apartment, she left several pounds of ground goat in the freezer. She had received the ground goat as part of her community-supported agriculture plan, wherein one pays a princely sum for a weekly delivery of small handfuls of radishes, unready squashes, and local mystery meats. The ground goat has been in the freezer since October.

Olympia's lovely gf (she laughs at everything I say - she has excellent taste!) was visiting this weekend, so culinary efforts in the household were ramped up. Last night at 6:30 I got this message from Olympia: "We're gonna make goat meatballs with pasta!"

I biked home and shared a meal of ground goat pasta with Olympia and her gf. There's nothing too exotic about eating goat, I mean, lots of people everywhere do. I was just excited that the frozen goat brick was finally out of the refrigerator. The goat was tasty! It's just that Olympia kept referring to the food as "goat balls," as in, "Would you like some more goat balls?" and "I guess I can just eat goat balls for lunch tomorrow because there are plenty of leftover goat balls."

Goat balls! MMM!

In 1997, there was some controversy in my high school newspaper over whether to publish an image of a prank played against a nearby high school whose mascot was the Trojans. Some kids had broken into the marquee and rearranged the letters in an athletics announcement to read: "TROJANS BLOW GOATS." I admired the resourcefulness of the pranksters, because "TROJANS BLOW GOATS" takes a bit of creative anagramming to discover! Lesser pranksters would have settled for "TROJANS SUCK" or given up if the letters weren't there. (The controversy was whether it was obscene to publish the photo of the marquee. Free speech eventually triumphed.)

There's probably some way to tie these two stories into the teabagging protests that made the news last week, but I am lazy, and you can connect the dots yourself.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

luv hurtz

Harry left on Friday and took a little piece of my heart with him back to Bavaria. On Thursday night, after spending forty-five minutes slowly penning eight postcards, he pulled me aside and said, I have a gift for you. He reached into his backpack and brought out an oversized yellow t-shirt with a picture of a flaming winged heart shot through with arrows and a banner that read: LUV HURTZ. The message was the right one, he said, and also the English was appropriate for his level of understanding.

This was his gallows humor. The night before, I told him that we had problems in part due to our inability to speak the same language at the same level of fluency. We had a long and apocalyptic talk, during which I told him that not even love could conquer genuine problems of compatibility (nationality, sociability, communicative ability, ambition), at the end of which he said, "You have ruined my life."

Then he repeated this in German: "Du hast mein Leben ruiniert." He seemed to find this amusing, and said, "Wir haben unser Leben ruiniert." ("We have ruined our lives.") He paused, and said, "Actually, this is a very good phrase for learning German grammar. 'Wir werden unser Leben ruinieren haben.' This is very complicated, future . . . maybe future perfect tense." ("We will have ruined our lives.") And then he conjugated the future perfect form of this sentence for all of the different pronouns. ("Ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, usw.")

And that is all. Harry is gone. I can't really continue renewing my heartaching feelings for someone so impossibly distant. So that is that. Wir werden unser Leben ruinieren haben. Luv hurtz.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

we all float down here

A recent conversation that went from normal to crazy:

Stern: The weather is so nice in New York! I'm walking through Prospect Park. The dogwood trees are in bloom!
Me: Oh really? How warm is it?
Stern: Very! I'm wearing a t-shirt.
Me: What else are you wearing?
Stern: A big shirt, big baggy pants, floppy shoes, a squeaky nose, and my red hair is so curly! You know, we really don't dress like clowns often enough! I'm going to surprise [girlfriend] at the airport on Friday wearing this outfit! And I'll be crying, because I'll be a sad clown!

Monday, April 13, 2009


Oh I am having a whale of a weird romance. It is week two, and I am of two minds about it. It's hard to explain while still being discreet. Today I met Bavarian Boyfriend for a long lunch break. He suggested seeing a free classical music concert at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a lovely forty-five minutes of soporific chamber music underneath an oceanic Tiffany glass dome whose predominant color is a calming sea-green. It was nice that he had suggested the event and nice that he wanted to meet me for lunch and nice that he talked a little bit about his experience playing the cello. But then at the end of the concert, I learned that he claps by pressing his palms directly together with equal force rather than by clapping the right one against the left at an angle like most adults do. This was most horrifying!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

godwin's law

Bavarian Boyfriend is in town for two weeks. For purposes of respecting his heightened expectations of privacy, I will not say too much here, just this: in the weeks before he came, I practiced not making Nazi references. I didn't want to inadvertently offend him/suggest that he was in some way responsible for the murders of thirteen million people. This was much harder to do than you'd think, because Nazis are really in the American idiom! Or at least for me, "little Hitler" is among the top 100 phrases I use in my daily vocabulary.

Two nights ago, BB and I were waiting for the midnight train from Buffalo to Chicago. The train was an hour late because there was a light sprinkling of snow that of course had devastated Amtrak's infrastructure. BB and I killed time by arguing about the law. He was surprised that he had to show his passport to order a beer in a bar, and that he couldn't drink a beer in public or in the rental car as I drove. He is from Bavaria, after all, where beer is a form of religion. In our four-day tour of upstate New York and Ontario, we had to employ several different surreptitious strategies for drinking his beer of choice (Natty Ice - GACK), including drinking out of coffee cups and soup containers, underneath our jackets, behind our hands. All of this is fine for a twenty-something's American R.E.P. but somewhat undignified for a thirty-something's German R.E.P. So BB kept saying how American regulations were stupid and excessive and made jokes about having to show his identity card in order to drink beer, hold hands, go swimming, etc.

I tried to explain how I thought that American regulations on drinking were heavy-handed relative to other countries but had come to seem reasonable to me in light of 1) the cultural history of prohibition, 2) my expectations for not seeing drinking in public and the negative associations I have been socialized to have for people who do drink in public, 3) what I had been taught about drinking and driving, and 4) the possibility of finding responsible ways of circumventing the law if a drink in public must really be had. I told him it was less productive to say "this law is stupid" than to say "this law seems stupid to me because it comes from a cultural context different than mine." I was also very proud of myself for using free speech laws - how I could find swastikas offensive and threatening but still preferred an American society where one could wear one's swastika earrings to a swastika party to a German society that regulated expression more tightly - to illustrate this point.

BB didn't buy any of my cultural relativism and continued to insist that the laws were stupid. Granted, he is very concerned about the power of the state. Some things he said about the destruction of human dignity at international borders (and an unrelated statement he made about the fine dramaturgy - his word - of our tour of Cascadilla, Taughannock, and Niagara Falls) made my heart explode for him. It was indeed very undignified when a border guard demanded to know if we were "dating," which BB didn't understand and I didn't know how to answer. The little passive-aggressive ways BB resisted border control's interrogations were both funny and touching.

But the point of my story, however, is not that I was so moved by BB's convictions that my heart softened for him and I changed my opinions to accommodate him. The point of this story is that after about twenty minutes of arguing like this, I called him a Nazi.