Archive | September, 2011

Look at what you want, not at where you are

29 Sep

“Stop worrying where you’re going
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’re gone
Just keep moving on”
— Dot, Sunday in the Park With George

I’m leaving Berkeley a week from today, and I’m way less anxious about it than I thought I would be. The act of moving itself is stressful, but the idea of being in a new place no longer fills me with dread. I’m ready to go—not just to adjust to life in LA, but to deal with the feelings of loss that come from leaving a place I’ve lived for seven years. Ask me how I feel next Thursday, I guess. Right now I’m strangely calm.

Also, I turned 25 on Tuesday. The day passed without incident. It’s just another arbitrary designation of time passing. It means as much as you let it mean.

And I’m choosing an uncharacteristically zen approach to all of it: the move, the aging, the uncertainty about my future. It’s time to embrace this time in my life as a period of transition, to not think about the path to success as a straight line. I’m giving myself the freedom to meander a bit in the hopes that I’ll eventually end up where I want and need to be. It’s not easy, and it’s not instant: I can’t expect to stumble into my ideal self. The more I relinquish control and allow for failure, the less I worry about actually failing.

This goes against my standard approach. Cynicism has often been a comfort to me. On a practical level, you’re never disappointed when you (vaguely) hope for the best and (concretely) expect the worst. And I have, for a long time, maybe for always, outlined all my aspirations with the caveat that they were unlikely goals. But really, who can tell? It’s too soon to know where I’m going to end up, and as long as I’m moving in some direction, I can’t be too down on myself for not being there yet.

At the same time, I have to allow for the possibility of disappointment. It’s not a matter of assuming it will happen so much as knowing that it’s out there. I think I can temper my expectations with realism without killing my enthusiasm, and that’s the real key. Finding motivation when you’re a neurotic person can be tough—or rather, it’s easy to find reasons not to try. You imagine the negative outcomes, and when you picture everything that can go wrong, it’s hard to make the effort. Sometimes, it’s close to impossible.

I’m writing this here even though it’s very personal. Not in the sense that it embarrasses me, but that these are very much my feelings. I’m not sure anyone else will get anything out of it, which is OK, I guess. You don’t have to read it.

The reason I’m writing is because last night I found my old journal, the one I kept when I moved to Berkeley at 17. I’m glad I have a record of my thoughts then, even though I cringe at a lot of it. (Get it together, teenage me!) But regardless of my lingering anxieties and quirks (oh my God, the quirks), I can see how much I’ve grown. Like, ideally, I’d be totally fine right now, but maybe being less crazy than I was a few years ago is enough.

Because it’s hard to see the bigger picture. I’ve always had trouble living in the moment: I dwell on the past, or I obsess over the future. So I ask, when did I get this way? And when will I be better? But there’s so fucking much in the middle, and who’s to say how long “the middle” lasts?

Let that sink in. Remember your mindfulness training. Focus on every step. You move forward whether it’s conscious or not: you age and you change locations, and over time, you stop feeling like there’s nowhere you belong.

And in five years, maybe, you look back on this blog post. You laugh at what a tool you were at 25, then you smile because it’s been a long time since things felt so dire.

Cultural references for dummies

25 Sep

Sometimes I get lazy and tweet a reference to Game of Thrones. People love that shit. And I mean, it’s not always lazy—I often reference Game of Thrones because I love Game of Thrones, but the HBO series (and, to a lesser extent, the books it was adapted from) has become a shortcut to a knowing smile, an appreciative nod, or the kind of instant bonding that only occurs when you’ve both shed tears over Ned Stark. Sorry, spoilers.

I wish I could make a graph, because I’ve made some observations about reference humor on Twitter, and how the hell else am I supposed to express myself? This is why I should have paid attention in AP Stat. Anyway! More obscure references are hit-or-miss: they yield greater joy when people get them, but not everyone has seen Waiting for Guffman enough times to quote it from memory. (To those who haven’t, I just hate you, and I hate your ass-face.) Twitter is a fairly unique audience, though, in that these people tend to be more comedy-savvy—perhaps more pop culture-savvy in general. So you can reference that one scene in Valley of the Dolls, and someone will get it. Probably.

Making references is also a lot less of a gamble online. Worst case scenario, no one stars your tweet (or “likes” your Facebook status, or reblogs your Tumblr post), which, you know, traumatic, but still preferable to in-person blank stares. Reference humor obviously works better on the internet, both because of the audience and thanks to the magic of Google. Comedian Pete Holmes actually has a hilarious bit about how Google has destroyed the sense of mystery in our lives—and he’s totally right. But the act of discreetly Googling something in the privacy of our homes gives us the ability to confirm and thus fully appreciate references. Yes, the “flames on the side of my face” line is from Clue!

But back to Game of Thrones. (Finally, right?) At this point, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve watched it or read the books: talking about Game of Thrones is speaking a common geek language that most everyone on the internet can at least “get.” You might not know all the character names—even if you did watch the show—and you might still be uncertain how to pronounce “Cersei,” but you have some sense of what’s going on. You read a joke about direwolves or winter coming, and you say, “Ohh, Game of Thrones!” And then we all feel a little bit closer, maybe. I don’t know. I feel closer to you.

Maybe these “cultural references for dummies” are cheap, and we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard of reference humor. But I think there’s room for both. I like the idea that there are some things almost all of us grew up with: Star Wars, The Beatles, The Simpsons. (By “all of us,” I mean the people I interact with most on the internet. I bet there are some weirdos out there who only speak Monkees.) Perhaps it does create a false sense of companionship, but what’s the harm in bonding over cultural touchstones?

One interesting side effect, however, is that references reveal how not-unique we are. I guess I’m referring less to the Star Wars talk, because duh, it’s Star Wars. But the ones we thought only a few others would get—the Home Movies quotes we pull out at three in the morning. Obviously you make the reference in the hopes that someone can relate, but isn’t there also delight to be had from relishing in the obscurity? While it’s part that obnoxious hipster notion of being there first, I think there’s a less cynical interpretation—the idea that you are part of a secret club. It’s supposed to be our reward for staying in and watching Daria instead of having a social life.

But I don’t know. There’s also safety in numbers, and I take comfort in the easy references. I mean, thank God you’re not going to grab my arm and ask, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And I’m glad we traffic in both the obscure and the mainstream, because it allows reference humor to be a way of bonding rather than a source of alienation. There are the obvious ones we fall back on, and the ones that engage a more limited audience. It’s also the fact that so many of the mainstream references are to things we’re all really into, things we sincerely believe are great. It’s the anti-snark.

Speaking of, can we talk about Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket in Drive? I don’t know if you’ve heard, but that movie is sharper than Valyrian steel.

The talking cure

17 Sep

I’m having a rough time—with leaving Berkeley, with adjusting to a new home, with not knowing exactly what I’m doing next. I know these are all normal things to feel anxiety about—as opposed to my fear that spiders might lay eggs in my face—but it’s still not a pleasant sensation. Over the past few (several) years, I’ve learned various techniques to deal with depression and anxiety. Some of them even work! The one thing I can’t stop doing, whether it works or not, is talking about it.

Thanks a lot, cognitive behavioral therapy. I mean, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing: talking it out is a lot healthier than repressing it into an ulcer. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive!) Experience indicates that the only way to get past my problems is to talk about them. But there’s a difference between sharing with a medical professional and airing all one’s dirty laundry on the internet. None of the strangers who read my blog or Twitter feed really need to know that I feel like sleeping all day. But that doesn’t stop me from telling them.

I know this isn’t just a “me” problem. I come from a generation of overshare: we’ve been given so many outlets to talk about ourselves, and we’ve been encouraged to let our feelings out. When I was in high school, I at least had the decency to camouflage it in vague LiveJournal posts with Dashboard Confessional lyrics, but now we all spell it out. Is “TMI” even a thing anymore? I’ve definitely been shut up while telling a boring story, but I can’t remember the last time someone didn’t want to know an embarrassing personal detail. Are you kidding? We live for that shit.

Talking too much about our problems still seems preferable to not talking about them at all. As much as I cringe at the way the “it gets better” campaign was co-opted—most recently by The CW’s absurd H8R—I appreciate the fact that people are talking about and responding to bullying. There was a time when being picked on meant being picked on. You accepted it as a fact of life, and you didn’t tattle. Do people even say “tattle” anymore? Probably not. Either because the concept is outdated, or because there’s some new street slang I’m not aware of. I’ll just wait for one of my hipper friends to enlighten me.

But what do we expect when we talk about our issues? Bullying requires intervention, but what are you going to do about my anxiety? Maybe nothing. Maybe just listening helps. And, speaking for myself, I think it’s more about talking than it is about anyone responding. I don’t expect you to hug me while whispering platitudes in my ear, or to offer me a handful of Klonopin. I just feel better when I write. If I can take a genuine feeling of moroseness and transform it into a mildly entertaining tweet, at least I’ve produced something. And maybe I can smile a bit at how lame I’m being. Besides, wallowing is more fun when you drag someone else into it.

I guess my fear is that you might take my words as, at worst, a cry for help, and at best, fishing for compliments. When I say I spent the whole day feeling like I was walking through the Swamps of Sadness, I’m not asking you to make a therapy appointment on my behalf, or even to tell me I’m too nice a guy to feel that down. (Note: no one has ever said this.) And I will concede that there are people I turn to for pep talks and occasional adoration, but I tend to be more direct about that. When I put it all out there for a wider audience, I don’t have ulterior motives. Sometimes a self-deprecating joke is just a self-deprecating joke.

And what about when I’m being serious? You know, like right now. Why do I talk about my need to talk it out? It’s partly a form of (free) therapy, as I said, but I’d like to think there’s more to it than that. Sometimes I share because I want someone else to relate. If you know I feel shitty and I know you feel shitty, maybe we both feel a little less shitty. Or not—I don’t know your life. But I can’t be the only one comforted by the thrill of shared experience. I like the idea that someone can read what I write, or listen to what I say, and think, “Yeah, I totally get that.” Even if that thought is immediately followed by, “Good thing I’m not enough of a self-involved tool to blab about it on the internet.”

Which is all to say, I think I feel better after writing this, so I’ll stop. But I could go on. Believe me, I could go on.

You can go home again, I guess

12 Sep

I was so eager to move out of my parents’ house when I was 17. And not just because I was a teenager and consequently a little shit prone to butting heads with Mom and Dad on a regular basis. It was more about the symbolic act of movin’ out. (Cue the Billy Joel.) I somehow got the notion that moving into my own place meant magically transitioning to adulthood, which—now that I look back on it—doesn’t make any sense. Whatever. You should never argue with a crazy mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind.

My first semester at Berkeley was rough. It was my first time away from home. I was living in a crappy neighborhood. I guess I grew up in some ways, though that’s as much as a result of just being at college, which teaches you more practical life skills than employable abilities. I graduated in ’08, and I lingered—because where else was I going to go? I couldn’t afford to live elsewhere, and I couldn’t go home. These were both seared in my mind as absolutes. Even though I’d be saving money by returning to my parents’ house, as many of my friends opted to do, it was simply not an option.

What was I afraid would happen if I moved home? Because in my mind, it was as impossible as breathing underwater or sitting through a Sofia Coppola movie without taking a nap break. I think what it comes down to is the perception of failure—whether that means believing that I have failed, or believing that everyone else will think that I have failed. I don’t make this judgment when it comes to others, but I hold myself to different (sometimes unreasonable) standards. If I were to return home, the act of moving out would become retroactively meaningless. This whole time I thought I was moving forward, I was really moving in a circle.

Obviously I have changed my opinion, because I am in the process of (temporarily) moving back home. I don’t think of myself as a failure—though I don’t think of myself as particularly successful either. Realistically, I am on a good career trajectory, but a lot of where I end up will depend on luck, and the right opportunity coming along at the right time. Or maybe winning big in Vegas, if I get bored and decide to take up gambling. So what’s the big deal about living with my parents while I try to take the next step?

If I break it down, there is nothing wrong with moving back home, especially since I refuse to let this become a permanent situation. (My parents are great, but we don’t really need to be subjected to each other all the time.) That doesn’t mean I’m not feeling some anxiety, which perhaps goes without saying. It’s one thing to reduce my decision to the pros and cons, and discover that yes, living with my parents until I find work in LA is the smartest course of action. But I’m still embarrassed when people confront me about it. “Are you going to live with your parents?” they ask. To which I’m forced to reply, somewhat sheepishly, “Yeah—for now, at least.” I don’t actually think anyone is judging me, but projecting my judgments onto them still makes me feel pretty awful.

I can tell people I’m moving home, but it has to be with that asterisk. Otherwise they might think I’m a bum, or that I think I’m a bum, which is maybe just as bad. Perhaps in the future I’ll just link them to this blog post: “Yeah, I am moving back in with my parents, and I do have some reservations. Read about them here!”

Even after reading this—or for me, writing it—I’m not sure my anxiety makes any more sense. I get that, in this economy (magic words!) temporarily living with one’s parents is a viable and often smart decision. I also know I can’t ever get past these feelings of apprehension, because symbolically, the act of moving back home is still problematic. I guess I just have to accept it as a thing I’m doing, and move forward accordingly. If I want to be an adult, I have to act like an adult—and that’s something I can do from anywhere. Of course, living under the same roof with my parents might mean I have to try that much harder.

Sometimes the TV is like a lover

6 Sep

“If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it.”

This seems like common sense to most, but whenever I hear it, I roll my eyes. (Or I think about rolling my eyes. I can’t always be bothered to make the effort.) That’s because it always comes as a comment on my TV reviews. No, I don’t particularly like Glee or True Blood or any number of other popular series that I continue to watch. Why should I write about them instead of about all the shows I do enjoy? And why am I writing reviews of these series when other, more loyal fans could probably provide a less hateful perspective?

It’s not just to piss people off, though I won’t deny there’s a pleasure in riling up the masses. In criticism, it’s important to get different points of view. If there weren’t any negative reviews, all reviews would be meaningless—you can heap praise on whatever you like, but if everyone likes everything, there’s really no point in talking about it, is there? “If you don’t like a show, don’t watch it” sounds sensible: it follows the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” line of thinking. But being a critic often means delving into entertainment that isn’t your first choice.

I was a TV fan before I was a TV critic, so I understand the passion with which livid commenters respond to my pieces. Do I think I should be fired for my takedown of Glee? No (I’ll admit I’m biased), but I can at least appreciate where the rage is coming from. We develop close relationships to the series we watch, and reading another person’s attack can feel very personal. I think there’s another dimension in a culture that has become hypersensitive to bullying, a legitimate problem we’ve turned into a meaningless buzz word. I have indeed been labeled a bully, because to some people, all criticism is damaging—pointing out a show’s faults is the same as picking on it. And if corporations are people, hey, maybe TV shows are, too.

I find this reaction ridiculous, and it bugs the shit out of me. But accusations of bullying aside, the anger over negative TV reviews speaks to the special relationship we have with “our stories.” It also reflects an unfortunate trend in TV journalism—the movement from analysis and response to “scoops” and “breaking news.” There are sites that break stories far more often than I do (which is never), but their reviews are so mild, I hesitate to call them that. It’s not that I reject all positive criticism—it’s more that these pieces are devoid of opinion entirely. They are fluff, designed to attract readers who know what they like and seek validation. Wasn’t last night’s True Blood amazing? Let’s OMG together.

The problem with “reviews” like these—well, there are several, but let’s narrow it down—is that they create an unrealistic standard by which legitimate TV journalism is judged. When one site blindly praises every episode of a series, another site’s complaints might come across as unfair or forced. It’s easy to dismiss the actual critic as a “hater,” another useless designation commenters love to throw around on the internet.

I guess what really bugs me is something I’ve mentioned before, this bizarre suggestion that the internet is a limited space. There is, in fact, infinite room for scathing reviews and fluff pieces, and everything in between. And yet, I still read comments that say “this is the kind of review that ruins television,” as though the mere utterance of a negative thought undermines someone else’s positivity. I assure you that my feelings about Glee have no bearing on its success—nor do my articles take up valuable space from those that would give it a weekly two thumbs up.

You know what seems common sense to me? “Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.” I can criticize your show, and yes, you can criticize my review! The key is not denying anyone the right to criticize. It’s hard when the focus of the criticism is something near and dear to you. Because yes, when I hear people shit on a series I love, it feels a little like someone attacking a lover. (Particularly if they’re talking about Breaking Bad, featuring my boyfriend Jesse Pinkman.) So while I understand the source of your anger at my reviews, I resent the implication that I am somehow “speaking out of turn.”

I’d end this post with a pithy, “If you don’t like my blog, don’t read it,” but I don’t even want to joke about you not reading my blog.

How I learned to stop worrying and love human interaction

1 Sep

The title of this post is kind of a lie, since I haven’t exactly overcome all of my social anxieties. It’s a process, and as my sweaty palms and nervous stomach aches can attest, I am still not always comfortable surrounded by people. But I’ve made great strides, and at the risk of being presumptuous, I thought I’d share some of my tips and mental reminders for meeting new people. Advice from Tony Robbins might be more practical, but you’re probably closer to my height. Besides, feeling awkward is an issue I face daily: I’m kind of an expert.

1. You are not the only person with social anxiety. Being an anxious person (clinically or otherwise) can feel very isolating—perhaps more in the past than now, in an age of constant antidepressant commercials and tweets about, you know, social anxiety. But it’s still easy to get so lost in your own head that you assume everyone else is a fully functioning human, and you are the nutty outlier. Lots of people’s brains work differently than the “average” person—we might all be kooky in different ways, but we’re very seldom “normal.” So take comfort in that. The person you’re chatting with is maybe questioning all of his life choices, too.

2. Practice makes perfect, or close enough. If you feel like you’re shitty at small talk and other forms of conversation, you might be kind of right. But don’t be such a defeatist about it. The easiest way to feel more comfortable talking to strangers and new friends is by doing it: like anal sex, it feels weird at first but the more you do it, the more relaxed you/your sphincter will become. (Yes, Mom, that is the most obscene analogy I could think of.) Every time I go out and interact with people face-to-face, I feel like I get better at it. I’m not a pro, but I don’t totally suck.

3. Worrying about being interesting is boring. Let’s get this out of the way first—some people are a little bit dull. You know who you are. But I’d say most of us have something unique or insightful or at least amusing to share. Trying too hard to excite people is bound to backfire—nobody likes a show-off, except at bar trivia night. It’s a lot easier to keep the attention of those around you by acting natural and not pushing too hard. To keep the anal analogies going, that’s how you get conversation hemorrhoids.

4. Get comfortable with personal space. If we hang out, I’ll probably want to hug and maybe kiss you a little, but not everyone feels the same way. It’s often hard to gauge what people are looking for, which leads to awkwardness and hurt feelings. (Have you ever been denied a hug? It’s worse than genocide.) Be intuitive—see how the person interacts with others. Don’t overstep your bounds by getting too handsy, but don’t be weirdly detached either. While you obviously don’t have to hug people if you’re not down with that, standing with your arms crossed is sort of a bummer.

5. Sex is the icing on the cake, and the cake doesn’t really need icing. I think the most stressful part of social interaction is trying to figure out which person you’re going home with, when the answer is very often “no one.” I’m not saying you should hold back on flirting, because maybe you’re really sexy and good at it, but for me, removing that from the equation makes things a whole lot easier. You can build a better rapport when you’re not trying to get into someone’s pants. And then maybe said person will think you’re charming and attentive: he or she would love to be pants-free for you. Just don’t count on it.

6. Remember how fucking awesome you are. Look at you. You are one smooth, stylish motherfucker. It doesn’t matter if you are suave by everyone’s standards—it matters that you feel like you are. This is the most obvious tip to feeling comfortable in social situations, and it’s also the one I have the most trouble with, because I spend a good amount of time fixated on my flaws. Maybe they’re real, maybe they’re not. The point is, feeling good about yourself makes others feel better about you. If you think you’re cool, people will pick up on that. And I think you’re cool, friend—I love when you do you.

And before I go, a few don’ts: don’t think that alcohol makes you more likable, don’t try to be an asshole to impress people, and don’t pass judgment on everyone else because you imagine they’re passing judgment on you. That’s shitty. No one likes a shit.