Hephzibah Anderson’s “Chastened,” the account of her year without sex, has ground me down to a thick paste. I WILL GET BACK TO IT. I SWEAR.
Here’s a rule of thumb: books in which the author takes on new things for a year are engaging and fun. Books in which the author avoids things, especially fun things like sex, are books you can’t not put down.
But I haven’t forgotten about you. The NEW FALL SEASON has begun.
Reading books on electronic devices is no fun. Can’t see how far along you are, unless I activate that feature, and then that’s ALL I can pay attention to. Can’t do it in the sun. (YES, I know you can with a Kindle, but the last thing I need is another glowing rectangle to stare at.) Can’t smell the book smell.
Gonna power through “Chastened” on my iPad Kindle app, and then it’s back to actual physical books.
Hephzibah Anderson (which is a name that requires great concentration to type, no matter how many times you do it) is a month into her Year Without Sex. She’s dressing more modestly, and having more awkward dates. Welcome to our world, Hephzibah.
It’s too early in the book to see how the year is shaping up. I’ll get back to you.
But while we’re on the sex & love tip, the conversation turns- as it must- to the events in California over the last couple of weeks. As of this writing, August 13, 2010, Proposition 8 has been overturned and same-sex marriages can resume next Wednesday pending a stay from the defendants.
Good. Very good.
I honestly don’t know whether marriage is for me, since it’s never really been an option. I have a lot of thinking to do, which is good, because this isn’t over by a long shot.
But I do know this: somewhere in America, this very day, around 11,000 babies are being born. A few hundred of them will grow up to be gay men or lesbians (because that’s what’s programmed into them already).
Those kids will grow up in a world where their right to equal access to civil marriage will never be in question.
Those kids might never know they’re supposed to feel bad about themselves.
Some of those kids will abstain from sex until they are legally married.
Maybe just a few dozen.
Maybe just one.
But still, that’s one. That’s one more than when I was born.
If you’re Tony Perkins or Maggie Gallagher or Brian Brown or any of these busybody ghouls who’ve inserted yourself and your personal moral code into strangers’ lives and our state’s law: shouldn’t that make you happy?
So my iPad Kindle app tells me I’m around a tenth of the way through “Chastened,” and I’m still not quite sure about the terms of her Year Of Celibacy. Apparently, there is no penetration- makes sense- but I don’t know what is allowed. So far, we’re getting a lot of information about her ex-boyfriend, the guy to whom she surrendered her maidenhead or whatever hifalutin expression she uses. Not a ton of forward motion here yet, but when the action in a book is actually a lack of action, it’s hard to tell when the action starts.
I do know this: I miss actual physical books. My iPad is GREAT (especially now that I have Flipboard), but reading with it is clunk-a-roo. It’s summertime, and I want to do my reading in a deck chair in the sun, but the iPad is impossible to read in sunlight. I could get a Kindle, but my God the last thing I need is another rectangle to stare at.
Also I don’t want to get tanning butter on my iPad*.
I am, as I have mentioned many times, a Catholic, so my early information about sex came straight from the ostensibly celibate*. The more I learn about what really goes on with Catholic priests, the more I think this is like hiring a bulimic to be your dietician.
I use this metaphor a lot, because I think it makes sense. Sexual desire, like hunger, is a morally-neutral biological need. Those who aspire to the celibate priesthood, like young girls looking at Seventeen Magazine, start to judge themselves harshly for having a biological need, and so they push it down and try to wish it away. But it doesn’t go away, it just gets warped and twisted. Some eventually make peace with it, some don’t. But in the case of sex, some of those who don’t will then go on to teach children about it, to suggest that their own immature understanding of the subject is God’s Word, to plant seeds of fear, shame, guilt and confusion that continue to bloom for decades.
Which is maybe not the very best thing.
* The celibacy requirement, draped as all things Catholic are in deep and mystical piety, is really about money and land; in the 12th century, children of priests were starting to inherit too much church property, so along with mandatory celibacy came the decree that all sons of priests- even married ones- were illegitimate. (The daughters couldn’t inherit anyway, so- then as now- they mattered less.)
Alright. I had a hard time getting into this one, as patterns and yarn and purls and whatnot are not my thing. I had to force myself to pay attention (much like plucky Julia Roberts as plucky Elizabeth Gilbert pluckily trying to meditate in the commercial for the “Eat, Pray, Love” movie*).
And I’m glad I did. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about picking a project and sticking to it. About letting yourself off the hook for mistakes. About picking up, pulling some yarn out and starting again if you make a mistake or drift for a while and not judging yourself for it. It’s just yarn. It’s just words.
A few passages from "Sweater Quest" that resonated with me
1) “I am not a woman who enjoys process. I am a writer who does not enjoy writing.”
I feel you Adrienne Martini. I love writing, but I love avoiding writing even more. You know, obviously. But I promise to do better going forward.
2) “Devoting an entire vacation to playing golf strikes no one as odd. Try doing the same with sheep and yarn…Nobody tells golfers they are wasting their time. Nobody tells fishermen you can buy fish at the store and asks why anyone would bother doing it. At the end of the day, all debates exhausted, the only difference that I could divine seemed to be that golf was done mostly by men and knitting mostly by women, and that made one valid and the other vacuous.”
By this logic, the stuff done mostly by gay kids- drama club, creative writing, pop-culture obsession- is considered both vacuous and inherently disordered. No wonder we get so weird and riddled with self-doubt.
3) “That’s what I like about [the] Mary Tudor [pattern]. The pattern is for just one size. That’s it.”
"But is that going to look good?"
"Probably not. But it’s about finishing it, not wearing it," I say.
Word. The possibility that this project might someday turn into a book, while exciting, is making me evaluate it as it goes, making me less enthusiastic about plowing forward with it when I’m not sure how the end result will read. Some things are just about doing, about finishing. Like the Marathon: I knew I wasn’t going to win, or even look good in the dri-tec t-shirt. I just did it, and I used to just do this, and I need to get back to it.
Reading “Sweater Quest: My Year Of Knitting Dangerously,” about which more later.
Traveling for auditions.
Shelling out $12 for in-flight internet, only to discover I don’t have much to do online, then Tweeting about it and telling myself, “That Tweet just cost $2.25.” And then doing it again on the return flight.
Thinking about the auditions I had, realizing I can’t affect the outcome with my thoughts, sighing wearily.
Staying at the Jane Hotel in a room whose surface area is smaller than that of my hammock, schlepping down the hall in flip-flops with my dop kit because you have to share a bathroom at the Jane Hotel.
Watching that Justin Bieber video that’s now the most-watched video in YouTube history, falling deeply in love with the dancer all the way to the right, Googling “Justin Bieber’s dancers,” figuring out his name is Nick Baga and he’s in a band called “The Futhamuckas,” watching their videos on YouTube, then saying, “Stop this, you are a 39-year-old man.” (But really, folks- brother is fly.)
Talking to Rob Tannenbaum for his upcoming oral-history book about MTV.
Having people over by the pool.
Reading the reply emails to the thank-you emails I sent out after recent auditions, parsing.
Rearranging my fridge to accommodate the beer brought over by people when they come to hang out by the pool.
Wondering when I’m going to hear about that audition.
In honor of “Sweater Quest: My Year Of Knitting Dangerously,” I put myself through my own endurance test last weekend by going to the Warped Tour twice.
There’s a selfish reason: my boyfriend’s Irish punk band The Mighty Regis is on the tour this summer, and not only do I genuinely like watching them, I love seeing people try them out and stick around. They’re taking off, and it’s a thrill to watch.
And then they get offstage and suddenly I’m a grown man at an emo festival, surrounded by thousands of people who were born in a year when I was legally able to purchase alcohol, and there is nothing to do but make observations. Here are some:
I’ve made a big mistake here, folks. I chose to read “Sweater Quest: My Year Of Knitting Dangerously” on the iPad right at the beginning of summer, now that I’m doing most of my work outside. You can’t read an iPad on a deck chair, my friends. Plus my sunglasses are polarized*, so when I have them on, I can’t see the screen unless I hold my head at a 45-degree angle like a confused Jack Russell Terrier. Books on iPad must be read indoors or at night or in the shade, and I long to be in the sun.
Also, I’m a little disappointed with the production of this iBook. It looks like they just scanned the print version and sliced it into e-pages, so the effect is like reading a long .pdf file. I guess that’s fine, but I can’t stop expecting the book to do something, like that guide to the elements everyone’s talking about**. Knit or something, book!
PS: So far, “knitting dangerously” means “holding the ball of yarn in the non-dominant hand.” Sorry I just ripped your mind in half.
Let’s cut to the present day for a moment. In finally telling the “Wanna Be A VJ” story*, one thing has hit me in the face over and over: it’s been a long time since I’ve said such a big, stupid YES. It’s been ages since I’ve scared myself, since I’ve risked embarrassment for potential growth. Sure, I write a lot and I spend a lot of time on stage, but I tend to stick to the things I know I can do well. I’ve gotten comfortable, which has put me in the odd position of getting a vicarious thrill from my own story; each time I’ve hit “create post” on one of these installments, I’ve thought: I should be more like that guy.
So in the spirit of this project, last night I adopted the philosophy of Danny Wallace’s “Yes Man” and tried standup for the first time. I’d been wanting to do it for ages, but it scares me like no other thing ever, so I put it off and off and off. But last night, Rob Delaney and I did our first variety show at Upright Citizens Brigade, and in between acts, I went up and gave it a whirl.
And it was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time.
Did I stack the deck? Oh, heavens yes. It’s very difficult to fail when Jen Kirkman comes right before you, and Greg Behrendt, Kate Micucci and Jimmy Pardo are after. It was a well-primed audience, and they won’t always be that way, but I think I can handle it. Thanks to all who came out.
There is no better feeling than a fear conquered. If there’s something you’ve been meaning to try but have been afraid to- and it is legal and ethical- say yes to it**. Put it on your calendar right this second and stick to it. You will buzz with satisfaction, I promise.
* Which there’s plenty more to, and I’ll get back to it presently.
** If your thing is this, well… it’s a little on the nose, but I support you.
Per the midnight phonecall by talent executive Amanda Schatz (who warned me right at the top of the call that I was not going to believe why she was calling, and I’ll be damned if she wasn’t right on the money), I reported to the MTV studios at a shade before 10am Wednesday morning. I was greeted by Caryn and brought into the green room where the other nine finalists were to assemble. We were a Benetton ad, a Real World cast, a spectrum of ages, colors and styles: charming, pixieish actress Kiele. Stonery red-head Ducci. Other Dave, clerk at the record store on St. Mark’s Place. Five other people who were much more fashionable than me whose names I don’t remember. And last, at the very stroke of 10, the messy-haired gamine in the denim jacket and the snakeskin pants, who turned out to be a young man by the name of Jesse.
Not one of us, not even Jesse was one second late.
They told me the top ten finalists would be notified by midnight on Tuesday, so I called in sick Tuesday as well.
Here are some things that went through my mind in that two-day period:
What am I doing?
If I get this job, will I actually live in the MTV Beach House over the summer?
If I actually make it to the top ten finalists, and this thing actually is televised, how long will it take before the people at my job find out this is why I called in sick?
Will there be some kind of chore wheel at the MTV Beach House?
When do I get to meet Kevin Seal?
Jesus, no: obviously the MTV Beach House will have a cleaning staff.
Carson Daly and I are almost definitely going to be boyfriends.
Seriously, what am I doing?
Is there some kind of yearbook or phone chain or newsletter that connects the VJ community, like there is for the SNL cast in my fantasy world?
On Tuesday evening, my roommates were both away on business, so I ordered a pizza*, got a bottle of wine**, rented Wim Wenders’ “Wings Of Desire***” and waited for the phone to ring.
And at 11:55pm, I pretty much gave up hope. I finished off the red, opened my IBM ThinkPad and tapped out this journal entry, which I will save forever:
"Tuesday, April 14, 1998
They didn’t call. And I’m disappointed, of course, but I got a look through a window at the life that I want yesterday- all those people working hard at something they love- and I have to get in there. Maybe not there there, but closer. Life is short, and I can’t spend another day doing something I don’t care about. It’s time for me to”
And then at exactly 12:01am, the phone rang.
* And remember, these were the days before the Domino’s PizzaTracker, so we’re talking about 30 minutes of uncertainty here.
** A varietal I knew at the time as “red.”
*** Because even when you’re waiting to hear the results of an open call to be an MTV VJ, it’s never the wrong time to be a pretentious jackass.
So I got down to 1515 Broadway at about 4:45am, registered (#168) and got in line. Despite the hour, the 167 people in front of me and the ones who trickled and then poured in after were very ON; people who show up for open calls never really know who they’re auditioning for, so they tend to perform for everyone. Luckily I remembered my Walkman.
The line snaked around the area behind the MTV studios and in front of the Minskoff Theater, back and forth like we were waiting for Space Mountain on Starved For Attention Day at Disneyland. One row ahead of me in the line was a heroin-slender giant with a denim jacket, Hanoi Rocks hair and snakeskin pants that managed to be skin-tight and falling down. I remember thinking to myself: that young lady could use a cheeseburger.
At a little after 8am, the auditions began and the line started to move. Fast. They brought people into the studio in groups of 12, and at around 9:30, the doors opened and let my group in. And it was like the mothership came to get me. Camera crews! PA’s running this way and that with clipboards and headsets! Carson Daly! Oh, sweet Jesus, I am home.
There were 12 audition stations dotting the circumference of the “Uptown Studio,” which would later become the home of TRL. I took my spot at station #8, the cameraman turned on his camera, a guy named Joe asked my name and why I was there, I read a cue card and was told to wait where I was. He called out to a gorgeous young woman named Caryn who came over and repeated the process- I’d tell you what I said if I had any recollection- and then she said, “Come with me.”
I took a seat outside the “Midtown Studio,” a smaller room down the hall. There were just a few of us here, going in one by one and staying for a longer time. An instant callback! We were given questionnaires to fill out as we waited; all I remember is being asked to complete the statement “In high school, I was voted most likely to ____” and writing in “introduce the latest Savage Garden video.” They called my name, and I went in and talked to Caryn, her boss Rod, and his boss Tony.
And then it was 20 minutes later and I was outside and I had no idea what had just happened. I remembered that we talked music, I told them what I do for a living and why I wanted a change, I took a Polaroid, I got their business cards and they told me they’d choose the 10 finalists by midnight on Tuesday, and then the rest would be televised, live, for the rest of the week.
It was a little after 10am by this time, and my office was just up the street; I could easily have gone in and had a regular workday.
I got on the subway, went home and wrote about it.
My best friend from high school was starting a new job that very day, at a magazine whose offices were in 1515 Broadway. That night, I checked my AOL account and there was an email from him: “Listen, Dave: I know you and this sounds like the kind of thing you think you should do, but DO NOT go and audition to be a VJ at MTV today. I passed the line on my way into the building and it’s full of children and weirdos. It’ll just end up being embarrassing for you. Trust me on this one.”
So here’s the deal: one single audition fundamentally changed just about every aspect of my life for the better, allowed me to do what I love for 12 years and counting, still gets mentioned to me every single day, and I almost skipped it.
I’d moved to New York right out of college, with an entry level media planning gig at Saatchi & Saatchi and a total misunderstanding of how the advertising business works. The copywriting job I thought I’d easily transfer into was out of my reach without a portfolio, and the media job, though full of spreadsheets and charts and CPMs, got me taken out for dinner and drinks a lot. So I stayed put, doing a job I didn’t care about*, forcing my friends to see me in improv shows at night, and totally definitely meaning to reassess my situation someday. Someday.
And then on a Thursday in April 1998, I went to Billboard.com to check the charts (“All My Life” by K-Ci & JoJo was #1), and I saw the headline: “MTV TO HOLD OPEN CALL FOR NEW VJ’S.”
My first thought was: well, there’s a reason to call in sick.
Now, honestly, I figured my chances of getting on the air were slim. But I was 27 by then, surely older than the average person who has a full day to stand in line, and I thought: I’ll shake some hands, I’ll get some business cards, I’ll make some contacts, maybe I’ll get myself a Production Assistant job and start afresh. This will be just the kick in the ass I need.
But in order to make it happen, a guy like me needs to get in there early. I’m not young or hot or exciting, but I can hold one hell of a conversation. The trick is to get there while the casting people are still interested in having conversations, before the freaks and jerks have worn them down, i.e. within the first hour.
So on the night of Easter Sunday, the eve of the open call, I set my alarm for 4am.
And on 4am the day of the open call, my alarm went off.
And I rolled over and I hit the snooze bar. I looked at the big red numbers. 4:00. Where am I? 4:01. Who are you kidding? It’s unseemly for a guy your age to stand in a line with God knows who, to get passed over for a job on a network whose demo you’re not even in anymore. This is dumb. 4:02. But then, you never know, you might meet someone who needs a writer or a guy to make coffee, and it’s not like you’re dying to go in to the office today anyway. 4:03. Still, embarrassing. What if you run into someone you know? Get three more hours of sleep and then go to your job like a man. 4:04. But you’re 27, you’re single, you’re in New York where you can pretty much do anything you put your mind to, you don’t have to think about anyone other than yourself, and you’re not doing what you want to do, which is dumb. 4:05. Still: EMBARRASSING AND UNSEEMLY.
At 4:09, my alarm rang again, and I thought: Well, what the hell. I guess I’ll do this big stupid thing.
Now, in 2010, two things happen every single day. 1) Someone asks me about Jesse Camp (we’ll get there), and 2) I have this thought: if I’d liked my job maybe 1% more, or had had one more beer the night before, I would have gone back to sleep and missed the one meeting that changed my entire life.
This is why I’ve adopted a strict Doing Things policy, and why I recommend it.
* Though the job was soul-deadening to the max, Saatchi really did resemble my uninformed fantasies of big-city advertising agencies. Pinball machines and Pop-A-Shot for when you’re creatively blocked! Kegs in the atrium conference area on Fridays at 5! A track around the roof for lunchtime! It was like a TV version of a job. Except for the actual job part.
A few months ago, we shot the “DVD on TV” episode for “The Departed” up in Boston. We traveled all around the city, talking to some of the real people who inspired the film- the ones who weren’t in hiding, that is. One of our locations was a bar in Southie where some of Whitey Bulger’s gang used to hang out, and as the crew set up, I struck up a conversation with some regulars*. One of them was a guy about my age who razzed the bartender with the other-people-deprecating sense of humor I expect from a Bostonian; we hit it off fast.
After a good 20 minutes, he let on that he used to pitch for the Florida Marlins. Just one season, then there was an injury, and “[he] was partying so much back then,” he didn’t take physical therapy seriously, and that was pretty much that. The old guy at his right grimly nodded. So now he’s back in Boston, doing construction work here and there. It seemed like a sad story, but I’m an optimistic guy. “Maybe he’s happier now,” I thought, and then he finished his beer in one huge gulp. It was 11:30am. So maybe not.
Promising starts look sad from the sagging middle. Had this guy been more firmly onto the next stage in his life, just a tiny bit happier or more secure, his time with the Marlins would have been a great story. But in a bar before noon, it’s like one of those prom pictures they use in an anti-drunk-driving PSA.
This is my roundabout way of explaining why I don’t tell too many MTV stories.
I moved to LA right after my contract with MTV ended, I wasn’t quite sure what- if anything- I’d be able to do next, and talking about what I did last seemed pathetic. So when the subject came up I’d change it, to the point where when someone in a group of friends would ask me about it, someone else would furtively make the fingers-across-the-throat “cut it out” signal. Word traveled among my new friends that MTV was a sore subject. It wasn’t, but the result was that I didn’t have to talk about it, and I could live with that.
But now I feel like enough time has passed, enough good things have happened in those years, there’s enough exciting stuff on the horizon, I can unseal this part of my autobiography.
So it’s time to tell the story of Wanna Be A VJ, the biggest, dumbest YES I ever said in my life.
* I also spent some time talking to a young couple at the bus stop outside. The guy was a charming nerd with an autistic-savant memory of the TRL chart: “I hated that Britney’s ‘You Drive Me Crazy’ couldn’t get to #1, because Backstreet’s ‘Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely’ was in the way.” His girlfriend was nine months pregnant and chain-smoking. I took some pictures with them, signed some stuff, said goodbye as they got on the bus. Nice kids. As they pulled away, the bouncer said: “Those two are here every day. That bus takes them to the methadone clinic.”
The Friday Forty said “YES- we would like to be in the First Annual Austin Sketchfest,” and lo, it has come to pass. This Saturday, May 29, 10pm, at the Art Authority. If you’re in the area, BE THERE. It should be a good time.
It is without question a good time for me to get the hell out of Los Angeles, eat my weight in BBQ and have a beer in my hand before noon for five days in a row. Show me what you got, ATX.
My parents were in town over the weekend, and YES, it was great. But the older I get, the more I miss them, to the point where I spend the time we do spend together being sad that we don’t have more time to spend together, and then I think about how much I’m missing in their lives, those wonderful small moments that you can only share when you’re right next to each other, and about my nieces and nephews, whose Christmas pageants and science fairs and lacrosse games I never get to see because I’m out here doing whatever it is I do and trying to become whatever it is I’m trying to become, and I wonder whether what I’m really doing is becoming a smaller and smaller part of my own family, and whether what I’m getting in return is just the chance to stay 22 forever, and then it’s time to see them off to the airport.
This is great. So, would you take a look at my blog-in-progress? Link to it or mention it? I'm four months into one of these doing-something-for-a-year projects: seeing every movie at my local multiplex. I'm a writer and I write about each one. It's at pavilionproject.blogspot.com. Check it out!
Have you guys ever been to Fullerton? If not, have you ever watched Fuel? Fullerton is like someone changed the channel to Fuel, then shook the television and all the people fell out. Baseball caps pulled down low, white socks pulled up high*. Sleeve tattoos and swing dance, regardless of what kind of music is playing. Bottle service. On a Tuesday**. Orange County, you are goofy.
Anyway, I’m super-famous in Fullerton, so I should spend more time there. Just before the show, a woman pulled me aside:
"I know you from somewhere. What’s your name?"
"Dave. Dave Holmes."
"How…how do I know you?"
"I was a VJ at MTV for a few years."
"I do a thing on FX? Or Reno 911, maybe?"
"WAIT. THAT’S IT."
"You’re a patient of Dr. Khachadoorian, the dentist on Orangethorpe!"
* What is the all-the-way-up white socks thing, by the way? It is a uniquely Orange County thing. Orange County and Long John Silver’s.
** I object to bottle service any night of the week, but Tuesday seems especially wrong, especially when your mixers of choice are Rockstar and Carb-Free Rockstar.
No, it didn’t get picked up, but none of the multi-camera pilots NBC commissioned did either. They experimented with a format they hadn’t tried in a while, and then they decided to go the other way. It’s disappointing.
But nobody died.
Over the last few days, I’ve gotten calls and emails from all over the globe. Friends and family have offered some wonderful words of support and encouragement. I appreciate them all tremendously, but honestly: everything’s fine. We’re all a little sad, because it would have been a dream job with a dream cast and superdream producers. But that’s the way it goes, and I still consider it a win. I’m not trying to be some noble stiff-upper-lip Friday Night Lights guy here- it’s the truth. Great experience. Do not feel bad for me or for any of the many, many other actors/writers/producers who didn’t get a visit from Santa. We’re all still lucky people.
And having been through this experience, I can say with confidence: if anything funny ever happens on network television, it is an accident.
A good friend of mine was feeling career-blocked last week, and he asked me for advice. I dusted off a pitch I’ve given a few times before:
Pretend you’re giving it all up and going back to school in a year. Act like you have one year to make it work before you give up and try something else. What haven’t you done? Where aren’t you being aggressive enough? Go do it and embarrass yourself with your pushiness- after all, you’ll be doing something else in a year anyway, so who cares what people think? Push until you feel uncomfortable, and then double it.
The trick is: when you do that, good things start happening right away, and you get yourself to a point where you can’t imagine giving up, one year from now or ever.
The moment I hit “send,” I realized I hadn’t taken my own advice in years. I haven’t taken risks, because I’m content. I haven’t pushed myself as a performer, because I’m making enough to live on. I’d been spending less and less time onstage because (I swear to God this is true, and if you live in Los Angeles, you understand) parking is a hassle. Seriously. And it’s fine, but fine’s not good enough.
I won’t lie to you, I put the majority of my eggs in this sitcom pilot basket. And, instead of our show, NBC decided to go with “Friends, But A Little Bit Older,” “Law & Order: Tokyo Drift” and “Friends, But The Couch Is, Like, It’s Not Hitting You Over The Head With Shabby Chic.” And we certainly wish them the best of luck.
But for a second there, when I got the news that we weren’t picked up, I honestly thought: “What am I going to DO?” There was a feeling, for just a moment, that my career was over. Because a job I didn’t even know about six months ago didn’t pan out.
That’s just dumb. I have not yet begun to fight.
What I’m saying is that I’m about to put my own plan into action. Join me if you feel like. Let’s get just really stupid aggressive, you want to?
Jasper Rees is a joy to read, not least due to his almost cartoony Britishness. Living in the UK is one of those things- like business school or mushrooms- that I’ve always wanted to try but am probably too old for now. You never know.
During My Year Of Everything, I’ve found myself drawn to books in which the author spends a year trying to do something (travel, be biblically correct), more than books in which the author spends a year trying to avoid something (shopping, everything). Positive choices are just more interesting. Case in point, my current book “A Devil To Play,” in which Jasper Rees tries to master the French Horn in a year. It’s made me pick up my guitar, and it’s made me wish I knew how to tune it.
And overall, this experience has made me say YES a lot more, if only to have something to write about. I’m 39 now, and NO is one of my favorite words; you have to work pretty hard to make me want to stop hanging out with my dog for even an hour. But YES isn’t going to get easier to say once I enter my 40s, so I’ve been practicing.
Which is my long way of telling you I went to a Burning Man party over the weekend.
I’ve been on the fence about Burning Man for years. Ben and I even bought tickets three years ago, as we were going to a wedding in Lake Tahoe around the same time, and we figured we’d swing through on our way home. We packed the car with our REI tents and a few jugs of water, and we got silent as we approached the fork in the road: to the left was the way to the Playa, to the right the road home.
Simultaneously, we blurted: “I DON’T WANT TO GO TO BURNING MAN OH THANK GOD I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO.” Went home, sold the tickets on Craig’s List in about 45 seconds, and that was that.
But again, I’m 39, so if I’m ever going to do it, now’s the time. Or, you know, now’s within the grace period.
A have a couple of friends who’ve gone for the past few years, and their camp was having a fundraiser in a warehouse in Culver City, because of course they were. They invited me, and I planned to meet them there. The directions were vague; in retrospect, it’s amazing I didn’t have to go to a grocery and buy an egg like Brandon and Emily Valentine on 90210. I wandered alone through the post-production-house district of The Culv until I heard the telltale techno.
Really, folks, the only thing more embarrassing than walking up to a stranger and asking him if his party is the Mystical Misfits Fundraiser is the look on his face when he says NO.
Back on the streets, I encountered a woman in a top hat and followed her to the right place. Paid $15, whereupon a gentleman embraced me. “I’m here to give hugs, man. And I have something just for you. Reach into my coat pocket.” It was, naturally, a poem by Rumi. It said “Please don’t tell my parents.” Just kidding. Something about love or whatever. “Well, thank you for this, sir. Can you point me toward the bar?”
Met up with my friends, one of whom (also Dave) is also a Burning Man novice. Here are some of our observations:
Your experience of Burning Man (and its attendant countdown and decompression parties) will depend heavily on your opinion of top hats. Do you enjoy them? Because you will see a great many. Big Slash-looking ones, long Cat In The Hat/Lollapalooza ones, little tiny ones worn at a jaunty angle and attached with an elastic strap. It may reflect the carnival aspect of the event, or everyone’s fashion sense may have been shaped by Dr. Teeth. Probably both.
Ravewear is right where we left it in 1994. Glow sticks? Goggles? Backpacks? You bet. Mennonite fashion has evolved more in the last 15 years than rave fashion.
The people were indeed extremely friendly, and their camp does indeed look like a marvel of engineering. The whole experience seems like it could be fun. But so does a cruise. And like a cruise, if you don’t like it, you’d basically have to be helicoptered out. We left at around 3, right when things started to get drugsy, and the 20 minute drive from Culver City seemed like a hassle. Could I really do it for a week, 11 hours into the desert?
The music. The thumpthumpthumping music. People, if you told me there was a power-pop camp, I’d be all over it. But the subliminal message I get from electronic music says: “Go home.”
So I’m still undecided. I’m leaning toward following the advice of 13th-century Persian poet and philosopher Rumi, who said: “Just have a party in your backyard, you dumb old homo.”
UPDATE: I use the terms “Burning Man fundraiser” and “rave” interchangeably here, and I suppose they may not technically be the same thing. But here’s the deal: if you’re surrounded by people in long muppet-fur coats, if you see more than one person giving a backrub, if someone is fire-dancing to music that was made on a laptop, you are at a rave. That’s my policy and I made it up ten minutes ago and I’m standing by it.
"A Devil To Play" chronicles author Jasper Rees’ year trying to learn the French Horn well enough to play a solo before the British Horn Society. Good stuff.
Ben and his band The Mighty Regis are about to embark on the Warped Tour, and he just found out he’s getting endorsed by Fender Guitars. He’s been giddily special-ordering guitars, and I’ve been jealous. I want a new guitar! You know, to join my other guitar, sitting forlorn and unplayed in the bedroom.
How I’ve longed to skip over the frustrating learning part and go right to sexily playing!
Learning an instrument is like learning a language, and for me, guitar is Space Japanese. I just can’t make my stupid stubby sausage fingers go where they’re supposed to. Frustrating to the max. I’ve stopped and started a half-dozen times in the last decade.
But you know what? I’m going to take some time out of my busy waiting-for-NBC-to-make-a-decision schedule and learn me some guitar. Enough excuses.
All you need is three chords and the truth, right? How’s about one chord and Wikipedia?
There’s just no real structure to “Sundays In America.” Just as Shea’s itinerary takes her around the country in a scattershot manner (Northampton to Fort Lauderdale to Vegas, for example), the narrative doesn’t move forward. There’s no geographical context to her religious experiences- we never really learn how these churches reflect or contrast to their regions.
The story ends when she leaves each church and doesn’t pick up again until she enters the next, so we don’t get to see how these various experiences are enriching her own spiritual life.
Worst of all, she doesn’t engage with the churchgoers or staff outside of the church service itself, so it’s a little like reviewing movies by watching their trailers.
Because I feel like a terrible, miserable crank panning this book, I will say this: there are a few churches Shea makes me want to visit (there’s a John Coltrane church in San Francisco!), but overall it was like one long Mass without even the possibility of church giggles.
I know I said I was going to share some of the more thought-provoking elements of “Sundays In America,” but I’m not sure there are any.
That sounds harsh, and I feel bad pooh-poohing a book about religion. But she raises a lot of the same points I’ve already gone into here (exclusion in the name of religion, churchgoing out of obligation, etc) and then doesn’t do anything with them. Like: “Oh, it’s a shame that some people just pray by reciting words when they could be deepening their experience by meditating more freely. Anyway, goodbye!” Delve, Suzanne Strempek Shea!
This book is what Christian reformer Martin Luther would call “kind of a snoozeburger.” I cast it from my sight!
Sarah Vowell’s “Radio On” was a great read from another planet. The year she spent listening to the radio was 1995, which might as well be the Roaring ’20s. Rush Limbaugh was ascendant, Glenn Beck still a cokehead morning zoo jock. Kurt Cobain was dead for only a few months, “alternative radio” and Lollapalooza were in full swing, our one-hit wonders came from art schools. Radio was still one of the only ways to reach a large group of strangers; there is a quick mention of a WBEZ show having an AOL account, but no evidence anyone knew what was to come. At times, the book reads like a newspaper from September 10, 2001.
Of course Sarah Vowell had a radio show in college. And from her reminiscence, it seems she took her responsibility as seriously as you’d think. Bartok between the Velvet Underground and the Shangri-Las. Homewoman wanted to educate. Remember when people wanted to educate? When you might have 300 listeners, but you wanted them to feel something? Now everyone has an equal chance at millions of readers, and we’re showing them Lindsay Lohan with cocaine on her feet. Hard Harry would be appalled.
"Radio On" comes from a time when everything was possibility, a few years before we gave up. Go pick it up. I’ll be mixing the new media in with Vowell’s old by playing a selection of the songs Vowell mentions in the book, in a "Radio On" playlist on MOG.com.
The way you wrote about some of 2001’s clunkers made me think, “Oh dear God, the Twilight franchise must be killing this man.” Is it? Are your nieces and nephews struck with Twilight fever?
Several of my nieces love the book, fewer like the movies. I’m actually loving the movies because they are perfect for Rifftrax. It’s as if Margaret Dumont has risen from the grave.
Finally, would you take on another one-year project?
I actually pitched another year-long experience to my publisher, but we couldn’t see eye to eye on the price tag. I intended to survey the way Americans vacation, by taking twelve different popular American vacation experiences - a week in the Winnebago, the all-inclusive, the lake cottage, the cruise ship, and on. They didn’t want to pay much more than beans, and I didn’t want to go broke. Perhaps I’ll revisit it some day.
So yes I might, if I could assure that I don’t go broke doing it. Diving deep into a subject like this has its benefits and allows one to decode all the bullshit surrounding the given subject and perhaps get to its heart. That is, if one is honest and not just trying to sell books.
Many thanks to Kevin Murphy for taking my questions! “A Year At The Movies” gets the My Year Of Everything Seal Of Approval*, and is available on Amazon.
* I’m focus-grouping some designs for the My Year Of Everything Seal Of Approval. Right now “Julia Child asking Colin Beaven what he uses instead of toilet paper” is doing well.
In “A Year At The Movies,” Kevin Murphy seeks out unusual movie-theater experiences: bars with movie nights, a screen made of snow at the Montreal Ice Hotel, a trucker drive-in called the Giant Travel Center, to name a few. Read the book and see if you don’t want to start booking some flights. Or you could stay home and let Murphy, Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett bring an unusual movie-theater experience to you with their Rifftrax series. Murphy’s got your inner movie geek covered, is what I’m saying.
You had me wanting to have a beer and watch a movie at the Giant Travel Center. Which of your unusual theater experiences (the Ice Hotel, the tiny theater in Australia, etc.) would you do again?
Yeah, I left a large piece of my heart at the Empire Theater in Rartotonga. I was there on 9/11, about as far as home as I could imagine, and the people and the theater were a real comfort. I loved The Sun Pictures in Broome Western Australia, and I’d like to revisit with out the extreme case of jet-lag that I call Interdimensional Rocket-lag.
With “Rifftrax,” you are reinvigorating the moviegoing experience by injecting an element of live theater. How is the Fathom Events experiment coming? Did you see the Glenn Beck Christmas show? (If not, you should. It may be our new Rocky Horror.)
Rifftrax Live has been terrific, and I love doing it the way we do it for a couple of reasons. First, by beaming it to five hundred theaters we can get our show to small towns and small theaters where it would be really difficult to bring the actual stage show. Because we shoot it live and in a small theater it preserves the intimacy of a stage performance and we feel a connection. It’s like live TV, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, only better because people are seeing it in crowds all over the map. Second, we don’t have to charge an arm and a leg for it, it’s just a little more expensive than a regular movie, and I’ve gotten a lot of thank-you notes just for this. It’s funny, it’s an old technology made new - think of the Radio Age, which was almost all live programming, and the first closed-circuit boxing events. And yet it fits with the New Media, because our audience is pretty well wired, yet many are not, and we can embrace them all.
You wrote about your difficulty in setting up your phone to buy movie tickets, which was still a pretty new thing in 2001. Now we can actually WATCH movies on our cell phones. Do you do this, or do you have a screen-size minimum?
When I’m on a plane, I’ll occasionally use my iPod touch to see a movie, although it’s better suited to TV series. I watched the second and third seasons of ”Mad Men” while commuting between Minneapolis and San Diego for Rifftrax. I’m inclined to amplify what David Lynch said, that people are cheating themselves by watching movies on their phones. However, this is how movies started, over a hundred years ago, through a kinetoscope, looking at little movies made by amateurs. Having movies in your hand that you can pull down from thin air is radical, and a whole generation will be creating stuff custom-tailored to the small format. This is what McLuhan meant when he said “The medium is the message.” (I just happen to have Marshall McLuhan here with me. He tells me I know nothing of his work.)
Another major advancement since 2001 is the increasing badness of Bad Travolta. Watching “Swordfish” (more than once), could you even have imagined “Old Dogs?”
Ah, the smell of ham, the cab-forward face. The more an actor tries to convince me with his alleged versatility, surprising role choices and perceived range, the more I realize that the best actors are unformed clay shaped by story, photography and direction.
Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” was kind of the perfect book to read right now. I’ve pulled myself out of my hiatus funk, I’m within a week of starting rehearsals for “The Strip,” I’m keeping myself busier and feeling better. And then I pick up this book and read this quote from Yeats on page 66: “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” Word, William Butler Yeats. Word.
The book is an account of the yearful of things Rubin did to grow and therefore get happier, and it turns out I’ve been doing most of them myself as part of my own project. I’m already thinking like a published My Year Of author!
Here are a few. Do them yourself, and be hap-hap-happy like me and Gretchen Rubin:
Write down a list of resolutions. Not goals, though those are important, too. Rubin defines “goals” as one-time accomplishments, “resolutions” as daily guidelines. For me, the marathon was a goal, but it was part of a larger resolution to push myself harder physically. I can’t keep doing marathons every day (like my doppelganger did), but I can keep getting healthier. Write down a list of things you want to do every day, and post it somewhere you can’t miss it. I’ll put mine up on Gretchen’s site later today. Don’t steal mine, because that’s just wrong. (Screen name: Myyearofeverything.)
Do some goofy thing you love, because you’re probably not the only one who loves this goofy thing. Rubin comes out of the closet as a lover of children’s fiction, and finds that a bunch of her hifalutin big-city friends love it too, so she starts a children’s fiction book club. I like running and beer, and wondered how they’d mix- then my friend Dave Park got some folks together for “hashing” last Sunday. Good times! Other people who love what you love are sometimes just like you, so go find them. (Not recommended if you love comic books or porn.)
Ask yourself what the younger version of yourself loved, and seek that thing out again. This is weird, because I JUST had this revelation: 14-year-old Dave would have gone bananas if he could have listened to British radio stations right in his own room. So I’ve started reading the BBC.co.uk “Chart Blog,” and listening to the stream of Radio One. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t wake up the enthusiastic teen within.
It’s easy to shit on everything, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. Every now and then, UCB does a show called “The Dirtiest Sketch In Town.” People submit filthy sketches, and they put up a few and the audience picks a winner. Great, that’s fine, but isn’t that kind of easy? Wouldn’t it be harder to do the opposite? Wouldn’t it be more challenging to ask people to write a really nice sketch, a sketch that is heartwarming? Doesn’t the very thought of that make you ask yourself a lot of questions? And when you hear “dirty sketches,” isn’t the only question “How much fake semen will I have to look at?” That’s what Rob Delaney and I wanted to know a year or so ago, so we put up a show called “The Nicest Sketch In The Whole World.” And it was great. We did the sequel last weekend (Delaney was rocking SXSW, so I co-hosted with the wonderful Judith Shelton.) It was DELIGHTFUL. We’ll be doing it again before the end of the year. Get to work.
Do something every day. I try to do this every day, and I’m not always successful, but I feel best when I am. Gretchen gets involved in a “novel writing month,” in which she writes 1,667 words every single day and emerges with a 50,000-word book. I may have to take that on. But find yourself some activity, something where growth or product can be measured, and just do it. Don’t judge it, don’t rate it, just DO it. To be is to do, so get out there and be as much as you can.