You Are Here. So says this mall directory. It's really "you are here" scribbled a neon orange sticker that's been stuck on this backlit map for Eastdale Mall. And it is true, X marks the spot of this shady mall corridor with the shoe repair, one of three nail salons, and a travel agent, which used to be a comic shop or a collectable baseball card place. I don't need to be here. I mean, I've been coming to this mall since before I could walk. I know where all the stores are, that the flagship stores used to be Pizzitz's and Gaylord's before they were Dillards and Sears. I just don't know why I'm here today.
I woke up this morning feeling a bit lost, so I instinctively came to the mall, this shrine to commerce and capitalism full of shop windows glittering with potential and promises—and price tags carefully tucked out of sight. Mild dissatisfaction with life can be temporarily assuaged with plastic goods and fried foods. I consider walking into the travel agency and asking for a one-way ticket to Anywheresville.
I've been standing here, staring at this map, for probably fifteen minutes. I'm lost in a daydream about some adventure where I become a new Doctor Who companion and go off to do space battles. It starts where I'm standing and the Doctor runs up to me and tells me he needs my help. How's he know whether I can help him or not? How's he get any of these girls? What if it's all some weird coma dream, like all these companion types are in comas and having these fantasies and the Doctor is just their real ordinary doctor filtering through into their dreamscapes? I never really make it to actual space battles because I'm always sidetracked by these questions. The fantasy and the reality of being approached by a strange man in a shopping mall are vastly different. In reality, if you're invited to join some random dude in his van, you're probably gonna wind up on tomorrow night's news. But I grew up with fanciful tales of girls running off and having adventures, sometimes stealing away with a mysterious gentleman, and I fully expected this to happen to me. Forget Prince Charming, I'd rather have the Goblin King or a Time Lord. Wandering these corridors of consumerism, I've often hoped a stranger would swoop in and offer the chance to go somewhere and do something, without care that it might lead to danger or death. My picture on a milk carton was the least of my concerns.
This is where I am when the voice behind me says, "It's weird how we never really get to see our own skulls, innit?"
The reflection in the mall directory reveals a man. My initial instinct is to remain still and ignore him in the hopes that he'll move on. Nothing good can come of an interaction that begins with a comment about human skulls. Right? He sounds British, though. Is he British? Is he the Doctor?
He speaks again, "I mean, there's x-rays and stuff, but that's all imaging. But it's like the one thing that belongs to us that no one's trying to tell us how to change or make it better because no one can see the thing. If we could, there'd be all sorts of bone whiteners and skull etchings and shit. Sorry. Shit. Have I freaked you out a bit? I've freaked you out. Shit. Sorry. I'm not a murderer. Of course, that's what a murderer would say."
As he babbled on, I studied his reflection. He looks pale but fit; his tight black t-shirt accentuating his broad shoulders and muscular arms, skinny red plaid pants, and silver Doc Martens. His hair black and shaggy. Atop his head is a tiny bowler hat fascinator. What is this dude's deal? Do I turn around? Do I run?
Apparently, I speak. "I'm Sarah."
Well, now I've done it. Might as well turn around and face the...holy hell, he's pretty.
"I'm Geoff. With a G...ah, and an O, I suppose."
Geoff with a G is wearing full eye makeup and shiny, bubble gum-tinted lip gloss, details not accurately reflected in the mall directory. He's pretty but not in a campy way. This is a man who knows how to accentuate his features. Oh God, I haven't eliminated all my embarrassing Instagram selfies. If this turns bad, the media will choose the one from my 26th birthday where sipping wine from an oversized bottle through a novelty straw while wearing an old-fashioned soda jerk paper hat.
He says, "You look like you could do with a bit of something. Adventure? Travel? A Cinnabon?"
"Which are you offering?"
"How would you like to join a ragtag collective of vampire pirates pissing about on a boat?"
An otherworldly creature offering a grand adventure? Fuck marriage and babies — this is every little girl's dream. Wait. "You're a vampire? It's mid-morning, though. And I can see your reflection."
"Yeah, there's a lot of misinformation spread about vampires. Like, we're not all sparkly bats who can be brought down by garlic and daytime. Brian does haves a garlic allergy but that just means we don't use pesto on pasta night..."
Geoff continues on about light sensitivity and different strains of vampirism. Do I go to mall security or dash off to the ladies room? He could be on the level or completely mad. He might actually follow me into the washroom.
"...while some doctors reckon it's a blood disorder that could be treated if we were willing to sacrifice our bodies for science. Anyway, Bobby's put together a stellar pamphlet about vampire myths. He usually does the recruiting."
"Are you, what'd you say, on a recruiting mission?"
"Nah, I'm just here for a new pair of boots and some sunnies. But you were standing there, looking sad and lost and I thought you could do with some company."
It's a public place, I know all the exits, and I've got a penknife in my bag. What's the harm in taking a little stroll around the mall with this guy? "I could help you pick out some boots. Maybe you could tell me more about your...pirate boat?"
"Brill! Do they have bubble tea here?"
Geoff and I set off in search of boots and bubble tea. He notes that we're both wearing the same brand of dark blue nail polish, Midnight in Minnetonka. We chat about ironic t-shirts and whether Slim Jeggings is a brand of clothing or a crotchety old blues singer. Geoff says he likes to call himself a Glampire, which is fitting because he does love make-up and glitter and hair products. He's no Ziggy Stardust but more like if Bowie were a Girl Scouts leader. His overall vibe is less Labyrinth and more Troop Beverly Hills. Is he the leader of vampire...pirates?
Stopping to admire the mannequins in the Hot Topic window, Geoff declares, "It's really a brilliant time to exist. Everyone's a freak now. I love it!"
"So, how long have you been a vampire pirate? Vampirate?"
"Vampirate! Love it. You're a clever bird, you know? Guys are gonna dig that. How long have I been a vamper? Not that long, comparatively. I was hooking up with this bird after one night in a speakeasy, it gets a bit kinky and she starts biting me. It's like she's feeding off me and I go 'Wot's this, luv?' and she goes, 'Oh, I'm a vampire, I thought you knew.' Well, I just thought she was really into Victorian gothic shit. After that, I started feeling a bit sick and the doc gave me some pills, gave me a lecture about bloodlust and whatnot. And I been this fabulous thing ever since. That was, what, 1932, I think."
"Wow. And you were a pirate? Were there many pirates in the 1930s?"
"Well, we're not real pirates. I mean, we're not raping and pillaging and chasing after trunks of jewels. We're more like sea hobos; instead of stowing away on trains, we just hang out on this ship. We do steal things but rarely. We will torrent some movies and telly and we're always nicking someone else's wifi. Of course, nobody's volunteering their blood for nothing. But we try not to do murders. We don't like to rape because we've got too much respect for women. You might be surprised how many birds are actually into the idea of becoming a vampire, though. I think maybe we've got to stop dressing like rock stars when we go carousing. It might be the pleather pants. Pleather makes women weak. Anyway, I was brought onto the ship in the '70s cos I happened to be hanging round the docks. I thought this bloke was looking for a good time, but it turned out he could sense I was like him, something about my aura or odor or, I dunno, Ambrose is an odd duck. He brought me to the ship, introduced me around and there's your fish. Am I going on too much? I always feel like I'm vomiting up my entire life story whenever I meet new people. I feel like I'm going on too much. Am I?"
"No, no. My thing is that I’m basically all questions and naturally, I'm curious about your whole situation and, well, there's just a lot to consider if I'm going to join you."
"...Did you not ask …earlier? Oh, God. You didn't mean it. I'm an idiot."
"I did! I did ask. No. Yes. Of course, you're welcome! Come with us! Spend your gap year with us. Spend the rest of your life, if you like. We could do with a bit of fresh blood, sorry. New energy? Company is what we need. We're all bloody sick of ourselves and our stories are stale. We're shit pirates and we're shit vampires. It's a wonder we haven't driven stakes into our own hearts, really."
"Are you sure? Do I need to talk to Bobby first? Sign a contract? Read a pamphlet?"
"Nah, I'm the cap'n. I can bring whoever I like and I like you. 'Course, I'm only captain cos we drew straws. Ambrose decided to retire to a castle, bit cliche if you ask me, and we had to pick a new leader. Teddy's got actual seniority, being the eldest. He even saw Billy Shakes live at the Globe! How wild is that? Clive and Owen are legit trained pirates from the olden days, so they handle all the boat stuff. Owen's got a wicked Powerpoint presentation teaching the how-tos of pillaging. Well, you'll see. Hm. I don't actually do any captain-y stuff. Maybe I'm more of a mascot. Are you hungry? Fancy a snack from the food court?"
In the words of The Clash — do I stay or do I go? Or are my new Converse hi-tops enough to ease today's discontent? If I don't go, I'll always wonder and regret the what-if. If I go, this dude might fashion my eyeballs into cufflinks. Or it will be a lovely time and I'll come back all the better for it. If I come back. It's a tired trope, the young girl dissatisfied with her life running away with enchanting strangers. Eventually she grows disenchanted and returns to normal life slightly wiser. It's not space battles with the Doctor. Well, I don't know what this is. Do I need to pack? I'm not impulsive enough to just pick up and take off! Do I need money? Sanitary products? Are there any ladies on the ship? Where will I sleep? I can't swim! Wait...vampires? Geoff is gonna have to answer a whole lot of questions over that Cinnabon.
I was supposed to change her life.
We first met three years ago, under the unflattering fluorescents of the neighbourhood Shoppers. She lingered in my aisle for what then seemed like eternity, studying every label of every product. It was late spring but her hair was mostly stuffed up into a lumpy toque, with two long strands attempting an escape behind her left ear. The toque was meant to disguise what she determined to be a bleaching mishap but could easily pass as an intentional style choice. That insecurity would be the cause of many late night drug store decisions. She stood directly in front of me, completely oblivious to my existence, as she considered the generic conditioners. She finally realized I was standing there all along and grabbed ahold of me as if she thought I was the answer to all of her problems.
She took me home that day and almost immediately took me in the shower. She was eager and determined and desperate, so sure that I would undo all the years of heartbreak and poor decisions—and almost immediately disappointed. I could only promise so much and it was clear I fell short of her expectations. Despite our failed first attempt, she kept me around. But she sought instant gratification while I demand commitment and patience, and what I thought would be a daily occurrence became an occasional dalliance. Eventually she started ignoring me altogether, leaving me to witness her continuing streak of bad decisions and terrible habits. She barely touched me. Now, to get called for duty is a religious holiday. I am drained slowly.
I often recall our first meeting. She hemmed, she hawed, the fluorescents hummed. Back and forth she went between the orchid and vanilla passionfruit and the island coconut verbena. How much time she spent comparing smells and costs and product descriptions! Did she want bounce and shine or lustrous radiance? Did she want to restore her roots or protect her DIY dye job? All that investment into choosing one of us and all of my benefits, squandered. She wanted a miracle; she needed me. We never really got started but, three years on, she can't seem to let me go. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
When I took up residence in my spot on the ledge, I met my first mate. He was at half-life and intimated that he'd never had a companion in his time here. Our collaboration would be short-lived, but I estimated I wouldn't be too far behind him. Within weeks, he was gone while my shelf life continued to extend and my definition of eternity redefined. His replacement was a complete mismatch. We never had a chance of working together but were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder. Or shoulder to Head & Shoulders.
Occasionally a smaller, plucky sort takes residence next to me, his duty to protect the freshly coloured mane. He quickly finds we do not protect anything except the tub's ledge from muck beneath our bottoms. Lather. Rinse.
She could reach out to me so easily! If she would spare one minute. Sixty seconds more here and she'd save the three minutes she spends struggling against the tangles she's created. How much more smoothly her day would go if she'd just condition herself! Lather.
Living on the ledge, you see a lot of stuff. If you can call this living. I've been here for three years. I've seen colleagues come and go. Sometimes she brings in a perfect match for me but leaves me to watch him die a slow death. I once sat high upon a store shelf, surrounded by like-minded colleagues, all waiting to fulfill our duty. Now I stand with my back against the wall, surrounded by the residue of fallen comrades. The alchemy of moisture and dust have left a grey muck on my head and neck. It gathers around me. Mildew builds up behind me. The drain clogs before me. Lonely strings of hair stick to the tile above me. I was once part of a beautiful and fragile rainforest. I was supposed to unleash my herbal essences to tame and control and repair. Now she doesn’t even pick me up to rinse me off. Rinse! Rinse, goddammit!
This is a room of great vulnerability as clothes and inhibitions are shed. It's behind the bathroom door where you'll find deepest insecurities unveiled and darkest confessions revealed. I've been audience to one-sided arguments and witty retorts come too late, performances of half-remembered pop songs and acceptance speeches, and utterances of wishes and prayers and regrets. I've heard the secrets that lovers keep from each other and the sobs of the lovelorn. From the tub's back ledge, we see all the worst angles. We are privy to the most delicate, what even humans have not dared to see—the backs of knees, the undersides of bottoms, and all those hard-to-reach places. We see the spots and lumps that go unnoticed for years but can change someone’s life one innocent August afternoon.
I've looked on as she liberally applied shampoo to pixies and page boys, blunt cuts and bobs, and the unfortunate permanent, which, fortunately, wasn't. She's been brunette, blonde, ginger, black, and back to brunette again. Every change is an opportunity for us to reunite, to start that routine anew. Yet, here I stand, a bottle mostly full. Not that I’m alone in my neglect. I take solace from my view of a glass cabinet filled with lotions, creams, ointments, sprays, and capsules—a collection of whiteners and brighteners, all touting similar promises of life-changing results, some preceding my own arrival. The cabinet is a shrine to North American beauty standards of the new millennium. We look on as she pulls and pokes at herself instead of applying any of her products. She grimaces and grins at her reflection, inspecting every microscopic imperfection. She jabs her stubby fingernails into the red spots along her chin when a row of pimple creams and spot reducers are at arm’s length. Her morning routine consists of toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Is she saving us for some special occasion that never comes?
But, what would become of me otherwise? Had we stayed the course from the beginning, my end would've come along ago. And then what? My body is comprised of 20% post-consumer recyclables. Would I be refashioned into something more useful, more sustainable? Would I come back to her? Would I find new life in a landfill, giving more body and volume to seagulls' feathers? Would it matter? If the shower door slid the other way, I'd have been too busy to consider my own fate, just done and gone one day. Lather. Rinse. Repeat as needed.
Today, she looks quite different from our first meeting. Older, yes, but sullen and raw and bald. The toque fits loosely on her shorn scalp. She removes it and takes her usual position in front of the mirror. She doesn’t poke at the red spots on her chin or pull at the skin around her eyes. She simply stares into her tired reflection. She exits and returns with a cardboard box, into which she deposits the contents from the glass cabinet. All of the bottles and tubes of emollients, exfoliants, salves, and balms tumble and clatter against each other as they land in the box. She turns her attention to the tub, picking out the dull razors, the body scrubbers, and the tiny remnants of forgotten soaps. She stops and stares at me, or perhaps through me, just for a moment and her gaze softens.
Now, after three years, I know her better than she knows herself. I know she'll never come back to me—at least not for the purpose found on my fading label, words penned by a copywriter thumbing through his thesaurus for another way to make hydroxypropyl methylcellulose sound sexy: Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I now realize that I bring her comfort. I am not merely a hair detangler, but a bottle of good intentions and the promise of a better hair day. A shinier outlook is just a dime-sized dollop away. I am her someday.
Smart phones are the new cigarettes. We’ve replaced one addiction with another, trading the experience of taking a drag and having an idle ponder for dragging our fingers across a screen in search of idle distraction.
Ten years ago, it was still rare to see someone texting in public. The only people photographing their food were actual photographers and tourists. Blogs went months without an update. We barely had statuses to update. Those were quaint times. Not as quaint as the previous years of typewriters and phonographs and word processors and one-hour film developing booths. Ten years ago, we were complaining about the abbreviation of “app” for “appetizer” at TGIFriday’s. Ten years ago, it was rare to find a hotel with an in-room ethernet hook-up for internet access. Now the wi-fi waters run (mostly) free and deep and everyone’s texting and tweeting and snapping pics of everything everywhere. Instant messaging is now more instant-y than ever and there’s no excuse for being AFK or opportunity to BRB.
Look, I love the glowing screens. I experience minor panic whenever I’m thrust into a situation without a television and/or internet access. Television was my nanny, my first love, and my connection to the outside world. My addiction predates smart phones, social media, Web 2.0, Mac OSX, and the birth of the average Tumblr user. But even I need a break sometimes. I know when it’s time to step away from the black mirror and join the rest of humanity in meatspace. Unfortunately, meatspace is now overrun with earbuds and little glowing rectangles. And once again, I find myself in a minority.
When I go out, it’s usually to get away from the devices. I stay away from the cafes filled with laptop workers and I leave the wi-fi connection off on my ipod. I pretend to smoke and let my mind wander, free from the compulsion to press a button to release a bit of information that it won’t retain. Are we retaining any of the information we consume from our constant connection? Can you recall which site had that headline that you skimmed before checking Twitter for reactions to that headline? Can you remember whose baby-smeared-with-food photo showed up in your News Feed?
We’ve been conditioned to check email and social networking sites with the possibility of a reward. “Has so-and-so responded to my text? Oh, who clicked ‘like’ on my pic? Have there been any new tweets in the last thirty seconds?” We satisfy that mental itch only to be sent scratching away mere moments later. My diminutive social network does not minimize my own urges to switch between the Facebook and Twitter tabs/apps. The rewards are minimal (or non-existent, if you’re in the mood to be hurtful), making my behaviour more inexplicable.
To cut oneself off from “social media,” to declare “email bankruptcy,” to disconnect from the internet entirely is a lovely fantasy. What must it be like to be without computers, mobile phones, televisions and toaster ovens, refrigerators and stereos? Oh, the sweet relief from electronic hums! Except toast is delicious and refrigerators are quite handy. You could purge yourself of all technology, but you’d be leading an inconvenient life in the modern world. Every generation, or sub-generation, now has to make the choice of being deemed irrelevant or adopt and adapt every new technological “upgrade” and social media “innovation.” It’s becoming impossible to say “No, thank you. I’ll sit this technology fad out and join in again later.” Mostly it’s impossible because technology won’t allow it. Which is why we went through five generations of iPhones in just five years.
Built-in cameras mean that everyone’s a photographer now. Take a photo, slap a filter on it, and post it on the Internet. Welcome to everyone’s holiday slideshow. It’s easy to dismiss the glut of candid photos and videos as noise until something big happens. We live in the era of Threat-Level Scary and crime procedurals, which fuels the need to capture every moment for the what-ifs. Every event has the potential for a breakout buzzy moment. Someone could jump on a stage and do something wacky. Something could erupt. History is being made somewhere. Concerned citizens become journalists and paparazzi. The rest of us become observers and commenters.
On the average day, the smart phone just contributes to man’s obliviousness to man. People are in the cinema right now, blithely texting away like they’re in their living room, unable (or unwilling) to notice how bright their little rectangles glow in a darkened room, unaware that their faces are illuminated by their ignorance.
Will the pendulum swing back to more natural pursuits? Will Pinterest links to DIY tutorials pique the general public’s interest in making and doing things for themselves? Will we ever yearn for the reward of hard work and manual labour? Isn’t the result of churning one’s own butter or mending one’s own trousers much more satisfying than the swiping of screens and pressing of buttons in pursuit of “information”? The possibility remains that we’ll kick this technological dependency in my lifetime, by choice or by force. Some entrepreneur will tire of his food truck and discover there’s money to be made in technology rehabilitation centres. In another ten years, I could be sat in some hospital playing with a grown-up busy box to break myself of my crippling addiction to refreshing the Facebook home page. Maybe then I’ll finally learn a skill that can be monetized in the real world.
Step away from your electronic device. Go look at the sunset. Watch the squirrels. Look at how the sun streams into your backyard at a particular time of day and illuminates a spider web that’s seemingly floating in midair. Have you noticed that before? How many times have you almost walked into that thing? Is that squirrel smoking a cigarette?
I need to talk about something very serious. It’s about a condition that I have been living with for many years. Nobody seems to know much about it or how to cure it. You see, I suffer from chronic creativity.
As a child, I was constantly inventing worlds and imagining situations. My toy box was a spaceship. My tape recorder was a radio station. My light switch was a drive-thru intercom. I wrote songs and plays and stories. My toys were cast in fiberfill vaudeville and Barbie burlesques.
My mother could sense something different about me. The way I put my puzzles together upside down. The way I said “updown side” instead of upside down. The way I organized my crayons by personality traits instead of colour. She tried her best to protect me from the outside world (or was is outworld side?) and vice versa. We tried to harness and suppress my creative urges. We tried to channel them into socially acceptable and productive projects. We did all the creative tests. I went through creative therapy. I tried the creative aids. Nothing worked.
I was ridiculed in school for my inappropriate outbursts of creativity, but I just couldn’t control it. As you can imagine (DON’T! That’s how it starts!), creativity made it impossible to function in “normal” society. The Urges come on suddenly and without warning. In one minute I’m thinking about sandwiches or analyzing NewsRadio‘s wardrobe choices and the next I’m furiously scribbling on nearby scraps of paper or flesh.
Sadly, being creative does not necessarily signify great skill or talent. Like how being chatty doesn’t mean one is also eloquent and well-versed. Quality of output varies. Opinions of quality of output wildly varies. The production of ideas often outpaces the ability the process and capture ideas. These ideas can get lost and mangled. Chronic creativity is an unpredictable condition. No one knows when a flare up will occur; we can only hope to manage the attacks. I can go several weeks without incident. I once went five years without a single creative impulse.
Is it chemical imbalance? Is it contagious? Is it genetic? Is it genius? Is it a blocked nostril? I don’t know. But it’s a very serious and very real condition.
If you know someone who is afflicted with this condition, do be patient with them. Be kind about their creative output. Keep them well stocked in pens and paper. Give them gift cards to coffee shops and grocery stores. Hire them to create materials for your business or event. Pay them for said materials. Click “Like” on their silly projects on Facebook. Organize a marathon to raise money for creativity research.
Creativity is a lot of work. It isn’t enough to be talented at a thing. One must know about other things in the world, to possess an awareness of other fields and industries or a willingness to research and learn. And then one must be able to apply a creative filter to that knowledge and produce something worthy of public consumption. And, if one is creating of one’s own volition and not for a client, one must also be able to successfully promote and sell that something.
Versatility in creative trades is necessary. In our glorious modern world, writers must also be photographers, graphic designers must also possess web development and coding skills, actors must also sing and dance and do heavy lifting. Some creatives can switch gears elegantly and brilliantly. When I switch gears there’s grinding and scraping sounds and a bunch of unhappy people backed up behind me. The combination of creative skills can dilute the power and strength of a project or creative person, especially if those skills haven’t been mastered individually. I spread myself too thin, attempting too many feats. I haven’t mastered anything. I don’t have the patience for practicing ’til perfection. Instead, I flit around to other things with hope that I find something at which I am naturally brilliant. The trouble is that I’m interested in a variety of arts and crafts and I often fall prey to the notion of “Hell, I could do that.” Alas, hell, I could not do that. Or that. Or that, either, though I will convince myself I was kind of okay at that. I am not naturally brilliant at anything so far.
It seems impossible to commit to just one thing because of all the other things that are necessary in order to promote the first thing. You’ve written a book? Congratulations! Now make a website, start (and maintain) a blog, host a podcast, make a viral video, tweet, contact everyone in the media, host a party, develop all the skills that you would’ve originally developed had you not been an introverted misfit who turned to writing in the first place because it was the perfect creative outlet and all those other things are terrifying. To create a book, I write, I illustrate, I design, I package. To promote a book, I make videos, write press releases, build websites, create supplemental freebies. I exhaust every part of the Katharine. No skill left unused. Is it the work of genius? Do I have control issues? Or am I simply an impatient woman? The age of digital presence and hyper self-promotion feeds my creative impulses.
I’m a creative hyphenate. I’m a dabbler. I am a vessel. I am a tool. I wear a lot of hats.
But maybe I shouldn’t.
Right now I sit in a pile of my own mediocrity. Things made out of perceived necessity. Skills developed half-assedly and cobbled together from poorly written online tutorials. Great ideas destroyed by poor execution. I know just enough to be dangerous but not enough to be successful.
Eventually one has to settle down, pick a thing and obsess about it for a while. One has to stop tracking trends and following fads and simply work on one’s own style. One has to stop referring to herself as “one” because she inevitably says “Why are we so concerned with what Juan does?” That was funny once, self. (Ed: It never stops being funny, self.)
Can I commit to one creative outlet? Do I need a special adapter? Do you think I’d be brilliant at ventriloquism?
Moderation. Compromise. Reason. These words have evaporated from our modern vocabulary. I guess something had to go in order to make room for Lol and Dubstep and Gif.
Look, I’m always taking things to extremes. I always say I’m never going to do something ever again. I make sweeping generalizations about large groups of strangers based on a small sampling. I play every scenario out to its very worst case. I am forever ignoring logic and reason in pursuit of my selfish whims. So I get the instinct to be unreasonable, but I don’t really get it. Maybe it’s something in the high fructose corn syrup.
The pendulum swings too far and too fast these days. Maybe media saturation is to blame. We see so much in the course of a day that trends and memes can ignite and fizzle within the span of a week. We pretend that we can keep up so as not to look out of touch and foolish, when we should really step back and take a moment of reflection. Social media gives the false impression that strangers on the internet are anxious for your opinions. The perceived pressure to make split-second decisions encourages oversimplification of an issue. So we quickly choose our sides without all (or, sometimes, any) of the facts or careful consideration so that we can then share our knee-jerk opinion with the twitterblogoversesphere. Take away all the guns or give everyone a gun. Taxes for everyone or taxes for no one. This or that. For or against. Black or white. Red or blue. My way or no way.
I grew up in Alabama where college football reigned supreme. You were either an elephant or a tiger. Roll Tide or War Eagle. Red and white or blue and orange. Pick a team and stick with it, regardless of gender, education, or interest in sports. Most of the people I knew barely finished high school and had no aspirations to any sort of higher education, but they were relentless in their fandom. Nothing else mattered, especially during football season. God help you if your family roots for Alabama and you reckon that Auburn has a better team this season. I refused to pick a side because 1) I didn’t care and 2) I wasn’t going to care and didn’t see the value in blindly picking a sport team to “support.” In retrospect, I see that my social and family life might have fared a bit better if I’d rolled with the damned tide.
The 2000 presidential election taught us the concept of “red state” and “blue state,” these over-simplified concepts for political division (and the opposite of Canadian and British liberal and conservative parties) allowed political parties to become teams. You’re either on the red team or the blue team. Team Republican or Team Democrat. Turning politics into a team sport resulted in an uptick of conservatives and liberals trash talking each other. We’re no longer people who can overlook a few conflicts of opinion over government programs with friends. We forget the qualities we liked in our individual friends and acquaintances and now judge (and dislike) them based on political beliefs. The mudslinging in online news comments and Facebook posts would make Beelzebub blush. Each new election season brings new issues on which we are increasingly divisive. The moderates get lumped in with the actual extremists and the middle ground erodes.
We live in a time where we take things to their logical extremes and then some. We have extreme sports, extreme fitness programs, extreme weight loss, extreme eating, extreme couponing, extreme hoarding. We live in excess. Extreme excess. We commit to things 110%. Everything to the max! We demand the impossible of each other and ourselves. And we endanger ourselves every time we push too hard. Why do something when you can overdo it? Are we any happier when we push to make everything be a certain way?
The world is neither red or blue nor black or white. We live in blurred purple and gray world. And those purples and grays range in values and saturation. Sometimes there’s a nice ombre blend of purple and gray. Grays and purples come with information and facts and knowledge. The more you’re willing to learn and the more receptive you are to the perspectives of others, the blurrier the edges become. It’s tough to allow the possibility that the other side has reasonable ideas and good intentions, especially once you’ve jumped aboard your own team’s bandwagon. But maybe we could stop beating each other black and blue and embrace our own inner purple.
I’m one of those nostalgists suffering from Born-too-Late-ness. I missed out on so many seemingly great experiences of the mid-20th century—diners, train travel, and the drive-in cinema. Gone are the days when you could sneak your buddies and a four-course meal in your trunk to the drive-in and have a grand evening out. By the time my day rolled around, the local drive-in was abandoned (but possibly haunted by dead teenage motorcyclists) and the idea of just riding in my boyfriend’s trunk for funsies didn’t have the same appeal.
Fortunately, living the Future means that I can at least watch the drive-in movies from the comfort of my own driveway (which is haunted by raccoon motorcyclists). Go get your anthropomorphic popcorn, ’cause we’re gonna watch a bunch of beach party flicks!
For me, the beach party movies are a guilty pleasure, but let’s not fool ourselves. These are not good movies. These are low-budget, bubblegum, frothy make-out flicks. It’s possible that my own parents rounded a couple of bases during Beach Party. My mother probably got mad at her beau for making a crude comment about Annette’s bosoms during How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. And everyone knew, no matter how much of the middle you missed, you could always tell your parents that Frankie and Annette wound up together at the end. An American International picture is not rocket science. Maybe social science. Definitely Mystery Science (Theater 3000).
The series begins with Beach Party, when a bearded anthropologist “secretly studying the mating habits of Southern California teenagers” gets mixed up in all the “teen” antics. Naturally, hilarity ensues. We’re introduced to the perpetually on again-off again Frankie and Dee Dee (Annette), their surfing pals, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, and the villainous Eric von Zipper and his Ratz pack. We’re also introduced to the running gag of the Himalayan Mind Suspension technique, wherein Eric von Zipper inadvertently paralyzes himself by pressing his forefinger to his skull. And Les Baxter provides the musical score for all the smooching scenes and surfing montages.
In 1964, AIP released Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Pajama Party. Muscle Beach Party focuses on a rivalry between the surfers and a gang of bodybuilders. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by an Italian countess. Don Rickles lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, bodybuilders walk around in capes and mankinis, and everything works out in the end.
Then there’s Bikini Beach. Oh, Bikini Beach. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by a British pop star “Potato Bug” (Avalon in a dual role). The surfers are also into drag racing, some stuffy millionaire wants to turn the beach into a retirement community. Don Rickles (as a new character) lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, Eric von Zipper and his gang get into a scuffle, and—after a lengthy car chase and a bunch of art slinging—everything works out in the end. Wait, did I mention the monkey?
Pajama Party departs from the standard beach party formula by replacing Frankie with a Martian called Go Go (played by Tommy Kirk). Annette plays Connie, neglected girlfriend of Big Lunk (Deadhead in the previous films). Buster Keaton plays an Indian, Martian Don Rickles lobs a few Martian insults, Eric von Zipper gets a sidecar for his motorcycle, Elsa Lanchester offers advice…there’s subplots, swimming pools, lingerie and longjohns, and everything works out in the end. I guess. If you’re running a marathon of these flicks, Pajama Party is the one you miss most of because of bathroom and snack breaks.
With Beach Blanket Bingo we’re back on track. Frankie and Dee Dee blah blah. Deadhead (now Bonehead) falls for a mermaid, Don Rickles insults everybody, the surfers take up skydiving, Dee Dee argues for gender equality in daredevil stunts, Eric von Zipper falls for (and kidnaps) the visiting singing sensation, Paul Lynde is a smarmy publicity agent, and—after yet another massive brawl between the surfers and the bikers‚—everything works out. It’s getting tougher to pass these kids off as kids. Can’t adults be allowed to blow off everything for a weekend and go surfing with a hundred other adults? Is there a meetup group for that?
We saw how Annette fared without Frankie in Pajama Party. How does Frankie hold up without Annette in Ski Party? Without an established relationship to muck up, Frankie’s left to engage in wackiest of all schemes to land the girl. In Ski Party, Frankie and Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman are a couple of love-starved college guys. The guys join the school’s ski club and tag along on their skiing trip. But wait! These boys don’t know how to ski! Of course the only solution is to cross dress as British exchange students and join the ladies on the bunny slopes! Cue the manipulation, hilarious misunderstandings and co-ed pillow fights. Lesley Gore sings on a bus and James Brown shows up at the ski resort when his bus runs out of gas or something. Eventually everyone winds up at a beach house and everything works out.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is the last beach party movie featuring Frankie and Annette as our heroes. Frankie’s off in the tropics, under the thin guise of naval reserve duty. He’s frolicking with exotic island babes but gets concerned that Dee Dee might get cozy with some other fella (and withhold sex from that guy). Naturally, the solution is to have a witch doctor (Buster Keaton) conjure up a vapid bikini chick to distract the boys from Dee Dee. Dwayne Hickman tackles the role of Frankie’s rival, while all the other guys (otherwise known as Frankie’s pals in all the other movies) stay away from the fully-clothed-for-the-entire-picture Dee Dee. Mickey Rooney calls everyone chicky-baby, Uncle Leo and Dobie Gillis get into a fist fight, Eric von Zipper tries to change his image, a motorcycle race is full of hijinks, everyone sings a bunch of forgettable songs, Frankie returns, and it’s happily ever after for everyone except Dobie Gillis.
The trouble with the beach party films is that none of them are particularly memorable. You can walk away with the basic formula, but the details vanish. These movies weren’t built for careful repeated viewings. The AIP flicks were quick cash grabs aimed at teens looking for something to do on a Saturday night. A beach party movie is good for casual, passive viewing, requiring minimal investment but also offering minimal reward (especially if your date is a real Dee Dee). Since the days of drive-ins are well behind us, the most we can demand of an AIP production is light entertainment during a bout of the flu.
If you’re tuning in a beach party movie to see an accurate depiction of teen life in the 1960s, you’re out of luck. These things were written by middle-aged men with little, if any, insight into the average teenage mind. They steer clear of any political or social upheaval and unrest. Everyone’s just out to have a good time. The only concerns are whether Dee Dee will ever get Frankie to settle down and marry her and whether Frankie will ever convince Dee Dee to just put out already. Those questions are answered in the 1987 nostalgia trip Back to the Beach, which features Frankie and Annette and ignores most of AIP beach party canon.
TCM-worthy fun fact: Eric von Zipper was played by Harvey Lembeck, father of Helaine Lembeck who played Sweathogs foe Judy Borden on Welcome Back, Kotter. One of the stars ofWelcome Back, Kotter was, as we know, superstar John Travolta, who went on to play Danny Zuko, another leader of a motorcycle gang, the T-Birds, in the 1978 musical Grease.
American International continued to produce films marketed to teen viewers well into the 1970s. They put out a number of monster horror movies, a series of movies based on the stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman, spy spoofs, car racing sagas, kung fu, and blaxploitation films.
When I was 12 years old, I discovered an LP of Inside Shelley Berman in my mother’s small record collection. Nestled between The Sound of Music movie soundtrack and Helen Reddy was this comedy gem. While my mother was at work, I transferred the record onto audio cassette by holding my white Centurion boombox up to the stereo speakers. I managed to fit the entire album onto one side of the cassette. I listened to the album on my generic Walkman during my commute to school every day for several months. I didn’t know anything about Shelley Berman. For the longest time, all I knew was this one record. This was all pre-Internet. Berman didn’t have prominent television presence at the time and the local record stores couldn’t be bothered to stock pre-Yankovic comedy albums. Those were dark times, friends.
Inside Shelley Berman was aspirational listening for me. I’m not sure I wanted to be Shelley Berman as much as I wanted to be worthy of sitting in his audience. Berman exudes a sophistication lacking in your Adam Sandler or Louis C.K. You listen to a Shelley Berman record, you want to be wearing your best cocktail attire. Inside Shelley Berman is the comedy record I imagine the Drapers would play while entertaining their suburban pals. Grey suits and their wives having a giggle over observations about air travel and department store customer service. A couple of the guys would elbow and wink at Don about The Morning After, “Hope I don’t have to make that phone call to you in the morning, har-har-har.”
This record will not blow your mind with outrageous ideas. While I’m sure Shelley Berman is no stranger to outrageous ideas, his stage persona in this album does not indulge in them.Inside Shelley Berman is polite, gentle comedy. This is comedy that can be enjoyed in mixed company, should anyone still concern themselves with comedy etiquette in mixed company. If you want to be shocked by comedy, get a time machine and a Lenny Bruce album. If you like neuroses couched in light observational humour, Berman’s your man. Through a mix of telephone bits and monologues, Berman taps into the average anxieties and frustrations of modern life. Although some of the specifics are dated, the general concepts remain as relevant today as they were in 1959. Technology may be evolving rapidly but human behaviour plods along.
Because this is a live recording of a performance, comedy students can study the audience response to Berman as well as the material itself. This is a well-behaved, mild-mannered audience. There is no hooting. There is no wild applause. There is genuine, honest laughter. Sometimes only chuckles. Occasionally a cough. In the first two minutes, you can hear the audience shuffling in their seats, unsure whether the actual comedy has begun. That it takes so long to illicit a laugh from the audience would surely unsettle an entertainment executive today.
Twenty years ago, most of the material on this record went over my head. From the Airline bit: “…if anybody can forget an Erskine Caldwell novel. Frankly, I don’t know why that man is seeking success, he can have so much fun sitting around thinking.” I didn’t know who Erskine Caldwell was then but I enjoyed the idea. Revisiting Inside Shelley Berman 20 years later, I find that I understand more of the jokes and references. The album may actually be better now than it was when I first heard it. We’re a long way from rotary dial phones and cassette tapes, but buttermilk and neuroses remain the same.
It seems like only yesterday you were on the town with your best gal pals, giggling about boys and wearing inappropriate clothes. Now they’ve bagged their boys and traded miniskirts for minivans. And while you toil away at work, saving up for your lifelong dream holiday to Côte d’Azur, your girls are saving for college and family vacations to Central Florida.
Socializing was so much easier when all of our friends were single and embarking on a life without parental supervision. We were all on the same level with mostly similar goals—find a rewarding job, fall in love, start a family. But as soon as someone in the core group makes the decision to not have children, they are slowly ostracized from the circle. When friends begin to pair off and procreate, their focus and goals change. Their topics of conversation shift from Mr. Spock to Dr. Spock, Bergman to Barney, and world politics to whirled peas. A simple night out with parents involves babysitter wrangling or they want to bring the kids to your dinner party. Even if the kids are at home in body, they’ll certainly remain in spirit as your parent friends prattle on about academic achievements, the latest health epidemic in school, or a hilarious anecdote involving the child and inappropriate expulsion of bodily fluid. When the conversation moves away from their children, they want to know when we’ll be joining the ranks of parenthood.
Finding new, childfree friends can be a challenge. Breeders have numerous opportunities to meet other breeders—sporting events, recitals, PTA meetings, playgrounds, child-friendly dining establishments, the mall and so forth. Anywhere children go, just look for the corner full of exhausted parents keeping wary watch over their bouncing bundles. If your interests extend beyond diapers and daycare, social opportunities shrink drastically.
The problem we face is finding a group of friends with similar intellectual interests as well as similar views on procreation. Singles- or couples-only groups do not preclude the existence of children in the members’ lives. Trying to meet other childfree people through work or family opens up giant cans of worms if co-workers or family members don’t share or understand your lifestyle. So, the internet seems like a great place to start in the search for new social opportunities. Through dedicated forums and online meetup groups, you have the ability to converse with childfree people around the world or in your own neighbourhood. Social groups like No Kidding have chapters in different cities and set up regular meetings and outings.
If you’re not quite ready to break bread with babyless buddies but still need to feel less like a social outcast, you can dust off your old avatars and join a childfree discussion forum. There are also several blogs dedicated to the pros and cons of procreation and being childfree. Forums and blogs allow us to vent about the more annoying encounters with parents and their spawn while confirming our choices to stay childfree.
Making connections with other childfree people, even if it’s only virtual, can ease some of the pain and awkwardness of being the only childfree person or couple in your circle of friends. Finding new friends doesn’t mean giving up the old friends. Even with dramatic differences in lifestyle, try to remember the best qualities of your parental pals and try to forgive them for choosing Magic Kingdom over Monte Carlo.